What’s the difference between Martha Stewart, ‘lifestyle guru’, ‘third most powerful woman in America’ etc, who was refused entry into the UK last year, and the 16 foreigners who have just been barred by the Home Office? Jacqui Smith’s initiative – name the naughties – was announced on Tuesday, with some fanfare and much triumphalism. It fingers people likely to stir up hatred or ‘glorify terrorist violence’, which obviously isn’t Stewart’s bag, and not all of them have criminal records, which obviously is, yet somewhere here there’s a bigger difference.
It was about this time last year that Stewart was planning a visit to Britain but a few days before she was due to jet in, she was told she couldn’t come. Her criminal past in the US was the problem. She wasn’t convicted of insider trading, but she did fib to investigators during an inquiry into the sale of shares in the cancer-drug company ImClone hours before the public announcement that its wonder therapy, Erbitux, had failed to win FDA approval. That was in 2001; Stewart offloaded more than $200,000 worth of shares. In 2004 she was sentenced to five months in jail, which she served, coming out under supervised release in 2005. She famously told Barbara Walters that she wasn’t the only irreproachable human being in history to be sent down: ‘Look at Nelson Mandela.’
The UK Border and Immigration Agency couldn’t help being drawn on the Stewart ban. The government, it announced, was opposed to entry for anyone convicted of ‘serious criminal offences abroad’. That’s much coyer than the latest approach to exclusion: loud proclamations from the rooftops of the names of the unwelcome, along with some cursory whys and wherefores. In its busy press release, the Home Office names 16 of the 22 people ‘banned’ from our shores between October 2008 and the end of March. (The other six names are not disclosed ‘for public interest reasons’.)
The list is a flattering tribute to British values: fair-minded, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-extremist. And since we’re all global citizens in the end, nationalities – which might be prejudicial – are studiously avoided in the brief résumés of offenders against these norms. It could be a blueprint for a list of detainees in some new Robben Island – copyright Martha Stewart – run by a reasonable world government that confined unreasonable people.
Fred Waldron Phelps Sr, for example, is a disbarred lawyer, also an extremist baptist preacher with a church in Kansas and broad-spectrum phobias, triggered by Sweden, Jews, the Irish, Muslims, Catholics and, above all, homosexuals. His daughter Shirley sees eye to eye with Phelps on most of this; they do kitsch stunts together, such as picketing the funerals of Aids victims.
Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky are young Russian neo-Nazis, or ‘ultra-nationalists’, as the Moscow Times calls them: spree-killers with a good number of ‘dark-skinned’ victims under their belts. (Ryno is also an icon painter.) Last December they were sentenced to ten years for 20 murders and another 12 attempted murders.
Samir al Quntar is a pro-Palestinian Druze who got five life sentences in Israel after a failed abduction in 1979. He was accused of killing a policeman and then, in a firefight with Israeli security, shooting another and murdering his three civilian abductees. That’s two policeman and three civilians: the Home Office version is garbled. He was part of a Hizbullah swap for the remains of IDF dead in the Lebanon war of 2006. The exchange took place last year.
Phelps said a month or so back that he meant to come to Britain for a spot of homophobic picketing. But what about Ryno and Skachevsky, detained in Russia? Do they have immediate plans to visit comrades at Combat 18? Is Quntar lining up a walking holiday in the Peak District? This, it seems to me, is the substantive difference between the new list of named nasties and someone like Martha Stewart, who actually tried to come in the first place. When I asked the Home Office whether the people on the list had applied to visit, the answer was no, not all of them.
Michael Savage, the bilious chatterbox who hosts a syndicated radio talk show in the US, was amused to hear he was persona non grata. ‘Darn!’ he told WorldNetDaily, ‘And I was just planning a trip to England for their superior dental work and cuisine.’ In fact, he hadn’t travelled to the UK for twenty years and wasn’t thinking of doing so any time soon. Savage now feels the joke’s gone sour and he’s considering legal action against Jacqui Smith.
Banning may be controversial but it only becomes a matter for serious debate when the people in question are on the point of buying a ticket and packing a bag. Until then, they’re pasteboard villains, carefully chosen to project a goody-two-shoes fantasy about our geniality and tolerance. The list is probably good fun for Home Office researchers, imagining how far they can take it – Pol Pot? Mr Kurtz? – but it’s also an occasion for the government to brag about figures, in the more-this-less-that manner of statements on failed asylum-applications. With the new ‘presumption in favour of exclusion’, the Home Office says, ‘we are preventing more promoters of hate from coming to the UK than ever before, with more than five being excluded a month as opposed to two a month under the previous policy.’
That’s good then, even if it doesn’t take a lot: all you really need is a pencil and paper, a couple of office mates willing to throw a few names in the air and a dogged commitment to end hate now.