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Week 26: 3 March 2012

Manick Govinda

Arts producer and Manifesto Club Campaigner

Free Movement, Free Expression...

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing [one’s] own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances…there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others.”

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848 (courtesy of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them by Philippe Legrain, 2007)

No man and no nation is an island and this is especially so in the 21st Century where, as much as nations try to protect themselves from outside cultural influence and the global movement of capital, labour and people, we are interconnected.  An isolated nation cannot survive for long – culture and society is, and should always be on the move.

As free citizens in a new nation, the possibilities of re-imagining civil society and making it real is, to coin a phrase “like a dream come true”.  But let’s not forget the nightmares – life is messy and we don’t live in Utopia, why should a new nation be any different?

Freedom must be at the core of a free society, and this means that government cannot be granted control over our civic and private life. A new nation must learn from past mistakes. The UK’s state bureaucracy has created a deadening de-humanising system of licensing freedom.  In other words, we are permitted certain freedoms as long as we perform to the state’s regulations.  This cannot be allowed to happen in a new nation, and I propose three fundamental areas where a state should have no involvement in meddling with: free movement, free expression and free association.

“Where would I be today if America closed its doors to immigrants?”
Ayn Rand

Unfettered open borders and free movement is fundamental, even if we do not approve of who these new arrivals are, what they believe in or their way of life.  A tolerant society must be able to listen to differences of opinion, thought and ways of life.  This does not mean that we accept or remain indifferent to unreasonable behaviour and action.  Rather a free society should be allowed to contest ideas and ways of living through debate, dialectical dialogue and yes unpleasant argument.  The rule of law should only be applied when actual intent to harm or injure is evident, otherwise citizens should be free to argue and win in the battle of ideas and views.

The UK’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in February 2012 announced reforms to the previous New Labour’s leaden and unfathomable immigration points-based system, which was introduced in November 2008. New Labour created a technocratic system of immigration, which required migrants to hold a license granted by a UK sponsor.  The migrant had to score a certain number of points, be regulated and monitored by his/her sponsor, which involved biometric information held by both sponsor and the state, and a large degree of surveillance.  Points were given based on income levels, savings, country of origin (migrants from poor or “difficult” countries would score low) and marital status.

The effect on short-term visiting artists and academics of non-European Union (EU) nationality became a nightmare of red-tape procedures, which are costly and led to many artists and academics being deported at point of entry at UK airports, visa refusals and cancelled or postponed performances, talks, creative residencies and collaborations with UK artists, as documented in the Manifeso Club Reports. The Manifesto Club campaigned to put pressure on the UK Government to review the detrimental effects the points-based system was having on non-EU visiting artists and academics supported by an 11,000 strong signed petition, and joining forces with English PEN, Artsadmin, Visual Arts & Galleries Association, the novelist Kamila Shamsie and cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, Nicholas Trench on lobbying and media exposure of the over-zealous authoritarian, disproportionate actions taken against visiting artists and academics.

The Immigration Minister Damian Green MP delivered a speech, entitled Making immigration work for Britain on 2nd February 2012, stating that Britain is one of the great artistic and creative centres of the world, and we do not want to be discouraging world-class performers from coming here.  I am aware that this has been a sore point for some time and we are taking action….I am looking at allowing some who are more akin to visitors than workers and who do not have regular sponsors to come through the visitor route rather than having to obtain sponsorship under the points-based system.”

This is a breakthrough after 3 years of campaigning that short-term visits by non-EU artists and academics should not be subjected to the same procedures as economic migrants who come to work in the UK, a small but significant victory for the Manifesto Club and its allies.

However, Damian Green’s elitist and selective immigration policy which only welcomes “the brightest and the best” who can make a contribution to the UK’s economy and the 1,000 elite quota of non-EU artists, scientists and academics who will be allowed to stay in the UK for a longer periods of 2-5 years is terribly blinkered and short-sighted.  Many non-EU artists and creative people contribute to society and civic life in other meaningful ways in a precarious position of juggling day-jobs with their art.  The US independent film-maker Meghan Horvath who lives in London wrote a moving testimony of what it means to be a “migrant” who is made to submit to a technocratic licensing system of migration, which reduces the individual to units of points-scoring.

Migration cannot simply be based on economic determinism and success. A society that doesn’t take risks is a grey society.  Was it possible to predict the revolutionary impact that Apple Computer guru Steve Jobs would have had on communications technology, the biological son of a Syrian immigrant to the USA? Or the intellectual and political brilliance of CLR James who emigrated from Trinidad to England in 1932? There should be no such thing as undesirable migrants.  As citizens we constantly negotiate life and work out the good and the bad for ourselves, through a developing morality that strives for the best in all of us.

Free expression is a second fundamental pillar to a free society.  Liberals and the left tend to be staunch defenders of free speech, but become highly censorious when it comes to speech, thoughts or outward expressions that they disagree with.  A free society will not have the 2006 Religious and Racial Hatred Act nor the Licensing Act of 2003.  Both laws have been used to curb, police, fleece and censor free speech and art.  I recently wrote about the banning of body-based performance art in Bristol where the licensing act was used as legal justification for the censorship, and there is a petition set up by the Scottish writer and performer Kris Haddow to scrap Scotland’s Public Entertainments License Fees which would literally stop cash-strapped small galleries and music promoters from being able to put on shows and exhibitions

Hate speech is a contentious subject, but censoring opinion and thought only serves to validate irrational ideas.  The writer Kenan Malik cites an excellent quote by the novelist Monica Ali as follows: ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.'

Malik makes a clear and rational point that “the more that policy makers give license for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. It leads to the encouragement of interest groups and the growth of sectarian conflict.”

Free speech does not mean being indifferent or acquiescent; contesting and challenging through argument and debate are the tenets of a free society.

Finally citizens should be free to associate with whomever he or she so wishes as friends, as a group, religion, workers’ union, political organization or social club.  This means ditching the 2010 Equality Act, a silly law that stops the Catholic Church or the British National Party from discriminating against non-Catholics or non-Racists.  Consider if a Trade Union was forced to take on a rampant anti-union smashing capitalist businessman as its campaigns manager because he could do a great job?  Or an environmentalist pressure group couldn’t discriminate against the president of BP from being a member?  This doesn’t mean that discrimination should not be challenged in the public sphere of services whether public or privately owned.  A race or gender bar in a pub or access to health or banking services must be challenged, but the state has no place to interfere in intellectual or private association which people may come together in order to share ideas and solidarity.

A new nation will never be paradise on earth or a utopia.  Free citizens means being autonomous agents negotiating a new morality – it will be messy, tempers will flare, freedom is dangerous, and the rule of law should only be enforced to protect individuals from physical violence and harm, and conversely the state should play no role in implementing violence through militarism and coercion.

Sinead O' Donnell and Poshya Kakl, 'Stones for Mariel' photo-action in Iraq close to Iranian Border, 2011. Photo: Moien Artoro


Manick Govinda

Manick Govinda is an artists' producer and head of artists advisory services at Artsadmin, having worked with artists such as Zarina Bhimji, Zineb Sedira, Franko B, Yara El-Sherbini, Peter Liversidge, Zoe Mendelson and walkwalkwalk. He is a member of the Mayor of London's Cultural Strategy Group and is a non-executive director of ArtRole, a-n: The Artists' Information Company, and The Showroom.

He is also Co-ordinator for the Manifesto Club's Visiting Artists campaign against the UK Home Office's restrictions on non-EU artists and academics.  The Manifesto Club supports free movement across borders, free expression and free association, and campaigns against the hyper-regulation of everyday life.

He has written for various publications including Blueprint Magazine, a-n Magazine, Spiked Online, Culture Wars, Migrant Rights Network, Open Democracy and the Manifesto Club.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

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