On his arrival at almost any terminal at almost any British seaport or airport, the first thing a traveller will see (if not observe) is a large and menacing notice warning him of the dire legal consequences should he assault an immigration official. These notices are even more prominent than the ones telling asylum-seekers what to do on arrival.
Since notices warning against assault on officialdom are unknown in other countries, one may ask what it is about the atmosphere in Britain that turns passengers so volatile and allegedly so quickly prone to violence. Is it something about the passengers or the officials?
Certainly in my experience, now considerable, of arrival in this country, I have seen much more rudeness by immigration officials than by passengers. They often speak to foreigners with insolence and treat them as if conferring upon them a privilege in their personal gift, or as if (against their better judgment) they were granting prisoners release on parole. One might have supposed that all this unpleasantness at least served the purpose of preventing illegal immigration; but as we can see from the results, this is hardly the case. The rudeness is only a crude manifestation of petty bureaucratic power. Incidentally, no one intervenes to protest, because he knows that he will only make trouble for himself.
What this notice conveys to the alert Briton is that officialdom is now not so much an endangered and therefore specially protected species in Britain as a powerful caste that stands in almost feudal relationship to the serfs below (without, however, the corresponding noblesse oblige).
After the recent riots, rioters received sentences that were thought by some to be "disproportionate". Since something can be disproportionate only in relation to something else, such sentences could only have been disproportionate to previous sentences, as indeed they were. This does not mean, however, that the previous sentences were correct. The Guardian reported that 12 per cent of those convicted of offences such as robbery, assault, affray and burglary were "normally" sent to prison; but since the police clear up about one in 12 of these offences, this means that only one in a hundred robberies ends in a prison sentence. With average skill, then, you may rob with impunity.
But just let you be nasty to an immigration official! That is a terrible crime — that of lèse-bureaucratie — which cannot be forgiven and must be punished. But at least the notices have the merit of exposing the belief that the threat of punishment is not a deterrent to crime for what it is — the humbug that it has always been and continues to be.
First published in Standpoint.
Posted on 11/02/2011 8:11 AM by Theodore Dalrymple