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No entry to Aldeburgh if you’re British

The tenor and academic John Potter has just suffered a security nightmare at the Britten homestead.

It is a proud British tradition that we are not required to carry identity cards. Except at Aldeburgh, apparently, where they ask to see your passport in the Britten year. John pulled out when they refused to back down. Read his outrage here and below. He has every right to be furious.


March 19th, 2013

by John Potter


john potter
Imagine the scene: one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, you turn up at the stage door to rehearse and are met by a border guard who assumes you to be a criminal threatening the state unless you can show him your passport to prove otherwise. No passport, no entry, and presumably the risk of being detained indefinitely.

Kafka, Orwell or John Le Carré maybe? Nazi Germany before World War II, or somewhere in the Eastern Bloc after it?

Wrong: Aldeburgh today. No entry for British performers unless you can prove you’re British.

I was booked for a concert on Easter Saturday with Concerto Caledonia, James Bowman and a whole bunch of fabulous musicians, but have had to pull out as I’m not going to show my passport to a concert promoter in my own country. It’s fundamentally wrong.

Aldeburgh Music is a ‘licensed sponsor of the UK Border Agency’. When I first got wind of this my thoughts were along the lines of what’s one of the country’s great musical institutions doing in cahoots with something I’d only heard of in connection with cruelty to children and pregnant women and the possible closure of London Met. Then it dawned on me that the UKBA assumes that EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY is an illegal immigrant unless they can prove otherwise. This is completely mad – who on earth dreamed up a scheme that assumed a whole country’s citizens to be illegal immigrants?

Towards the end of my time as an academic I was sometimes asked to provide my passport number when visiting other UK universities, and also to get the passport numbers of visiting lecturers at York. I just assumed this to be yet another example of the university not trusting its staff, another layer of pointless bureaucracy. But I now realise that ALL ACADEMICS ARE ASSUMED TO BE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS unless they can prove otherwise. No wonder HE institutions throughout the land are terrified of losing their ‘highly favoured’ status and going the way of London Met.



We have to wake up. The comparison with Nazi Germany is not an idle one – it’s the incremental undermining of fundamental freedoms that leads to the total erosion of everything else. The Kafka and Orwell comparisons are apt too: we seem to have ended the Cold War so that the UK Border Agency can go to war against its own people.

There are things we can do. Academics: don’t go anywhere in the UK where you’re required to produce your passport; post your lecture online – students won’t be disadvantaged and your employer might begin to take this problem seriously. This especially applies to emeritus staff and people of my generation: we really don’t need to go along with this stuff.

Performers: I know musicians have to work, and the system perpetuates itself because we can’t afford to say no. Well, some of us can, and we should. Most concerts have several performers and will still work perfectly well with one missing (like the Aldeburgh gig). Only one person need make the gesture – an empty chair and some explanation to the audience will work wonders in raising consciousness.

Are there any benefits to being a UKBA sponsor? Yes, they get to employ foreign artists without their having to get visas in their own country. All well and good (though it’s a pity those countries don’t offer reciprocal arrangements, as anyone who’s ever had to go through the dreadful US visa process will know). And of course they keep out the undesirable Johnny Foreigner and producing your passport is a small price to pay for that, Daily Mail readers will say. Well it isn’t and I’m not paying it. A British Citizen should have the right to work in his own country without having to prove he isn’t a criminal. Even the Daily Mail should get that one.



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  1. In amongst this rant he doesn’t actually say what Aldeburgh asked for specifically: his passport to be physically shown, the number provided in advance, or what.

  2. I once worked for a UK company that required everyone to bring in their passports to prove they were eligible to work in the UK. I am a Brit born and bred and had already worked at the company for two years at the time. Ludicrous!

  3. Are you sure they didn’t just want some proof of identity before letting people backstage?

  4. Dr. Emilio Pons says:

    I am terribly sorry to have to say this, but this only goes to prove that, as usual, most artists are ill-equipped to think logically and beyond the confines of the artistic world and their inflated egos.

    Sure, the guard at the entrance door failed to show some common sense; after all, a man the age of Mr. Potter can hardly pose a security threat. On the other hand, the guard was only doing his job.

    In Germany all citizens, and foreigners alike, are required to carry their personal ID card at all times. No exceptions. This has nothing to do with a totalitarian regime. So please refrain from using the term Nazi so lightly! it’s offensive to both the victims of that murderous regime and to Germans who had nothing to do with it, which includes anyone born in the last 68 years!

    Our inflated egos as artists may lead us to incorrectly conclude that we must be recognized by all members of the opera houses, concert halls, etc. where we perform (which, at any rate, is a ridiculous and unfeasible expectation), but once we step out the door of an artistic institution, we are absolutely ordinary citizens, like everyone else.

    We are required to carry our official identity cards for a variety of reasons –none of which include, to quote Mr. Porter, to “prove that we are not criminals.” In fact, the only way to prove that you are not a criminal is a police record attesting to the fact that the individual in question has no criminal record. (So, for the record: if he were criticizing the “raison-d’être” of the rule, I’d agree that showing an ID is hardly proof of innocence or of the lack of intent to commit a crime; but that is not Mr. Porter’s reason behind his arguments against the security measure).

    We use our identity cards to carry out any transaction at a bank, to identify ourselves as the genuine holders of train tickets, etc. Would Mr. Porter be throwing this fit if he had been thrown out of a train for failing to produce an official form of identification to verify that he was the legitimate holder of a train ticket? Hardly! He is throwing this fit because his ego as an artist was hurt.

    Yes, it is time for a change in attitude, but not for the type which Mr. Porter is demanding, but rather, one that opens our eyes –and minds– to the undeniable fact that we live in a completely different society nowadays, particularly clear since the heinous attacks of 9/11, and the indisputable dangers posed by international terrorism (particularly of the Jihadist type), which require higher security measures for the benefit and security of ALL of us.

    • Dr Robert Penson says:

      Using a flawed measure to give the illusion of security whilst restricting people’s movements is hardly acceptable. Furthermore using 9/11 to justify it is no different to labelling it nazi like. Nor is the reactionary response or the deliberate misunderstanding of his point really sufficient argument to justify the space wasted writing it. We live in a different time is also untrue, there have always been security threats and our rights and liberties are not cheap things to give away, this may be only a small step, but there are only so many small steps between freedom and places no civil person wants to be. In short if you’re going to insult the man at least try to understand his argument first .

    • Dr Pons, I don’t think there was actually a guard denying him entry. This is a concert happening at Easter – it’s a *booking*, not an event which has taken place. The stuff about the guard was an analogy.

      So it’s not about having a fit because someone doesn’t know who he is – they do know who he is, which is presumably why they booked him to perform. The ego doesn’t really come into it, it’s not about being recognised; you’ve misunderstood the point.

    • Both. You have to fill in a form with the details in advance and then bring your passport, which they then copy for the UKBA.

      • Outrageous. Truly Orwellian.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I agree it’s a little…bizarre if you have to go through such formalities *in your own country*, but you also explained:

        “Are there any benefits to being a UKBA sponsor? Yes, they get to employ foreign artists without their having to get visas in their own country. All well and good (though it’s a pity those countries don’t offer reciprocal arrangements, as anyone who’s ever had to go through the dreadful US visa process will know).”

        So what that looks like to me is that by complying with these measures, you are helping to make it easier for foreign – or non-EU – colleagues to come over and perform with you at Aldeburgh, or other sites in the UK. Isn’t that a good thing, a form of solidarity?

    • Dr. Pons – yes, I suspect in many of your examples, Mr. Porter would be upset. He simply doesn’t have to carry such an ID card or similar with him in Britain, and that’s that.

  5. “Then it dawned on me that the UKBA assumes that EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY is an illegal immigrant unless they can prove otherwise. “

    Perhaps it’s a matter of treating everyone equally rather than singling out people who seem to be foreign?

  6. Sorcererpds says:

    Dr Emilio Pons – you are missing the point. In the UK we do not have an identiy card. If we wish to leave the country, we need to show our passport. If we wish to open a bank account, we need to provide a utility bill and a driving licence or passport to verify our identity for purposes of money laundering. We should absolutely NOT need to carry our passport with us everywhere we go. We have never had to do this and we should not be starting now. The idea that a singer cannot enter a concert hall to perform or rehearse without taking his passport with him is ludicrous. What about people who do not have a passport? Are they/we non-people who don’t exist?

    • Dr. Emilio Pons says:

      I wasn’t aware of the change in legislation that took place recently (2011). Up to that point, there WERE identity cards in the UK.

      The point remains though: why should the guard be expected (let alone forced) to recognize Mr. Potter as a participating artist without him providing *some sort* of ID?

      Like other people have already mentioned, it’s about security, and about treating everyone equally.


      - How is the guard expected to distinguish between Mr. Potter, and someone who has no business backstage (whether or not they are criminals)?

      - What if anyone were to show up at the stage entrance and claim that he or she is a member of the administration of the building without producing some sort of official identification?

      And, please, don’t fall into the same illogical trap that Mr. Potter did. Have I ever said or implied that people with no passports “do not exist”? (Rhetorical question, of course)

  7. Was a passport the only means of identification acceptable ?
    I never mind producing something to prove I am that person and why was Mr. Potter not aware of this necessity beforehand?
    Surely he should have been informed?

  8. It wasn’t intended to be an exercise in ego mania (though I’m perfectly capable of that…). If things were really as simple as the identity card scheme we’d all have them and my plumber would have to produce one to fix my pipes. He doesn’t, so I do see why I should.. It’s also not really to do with security matters (we have properly qualified agencies to deal with those). We’ve managed for eons without having to produce passports to give concerts, but in order to catch the odd illegal we now all have to suffer. I don’t think that’s fair.

  9. Shoel Stadlen says:

    Some thoughts from Aldeburgh Music:

    We completely understand why artists are surprised and annoyed about the new UK Border Agency (UKBA) rules. Following a recent UKBA audit, we have been instructed to view and copy passports of all visiting artists and having taken advice we feel we have no option but to follow this new guidance, so as not to jeopardise our ability to invite musicians from around the world . It’s a huge administrative burden on Aldeburgh Music and feels like an invasion of privacy for the artists. It’s ironic that this is our founder Benjamin Britten’s centenary year and he was a composer who did so much to further the causes of peace and artistic links across borders.

    While we are not the first organisation to be asked to do this, it is likely to be something which more and more arts organisations will have to respond to in the near future. Hopefully the arts sector will be able to agree a collective view on this and common sense will prevail. In the meantime we have to proceed as instructed and hope that this doesn’t disrupt the exciting summer of music making that we have planned.

    • So it is understood that the policy is not of Aldeburgh’s making. But one wonders how it was communicated to artists. I can imagine that if the trouble had been taken to say ‘look, we are sorry this has to be done, but it ultimately enables Aldeburgh Music to continue in our privileged position as a UKBA sponsor, and enables us to continue to offer a rich and diverse programme of visiting artists from around the world, we would much appreciate your co-operation etc. etc.” then surely no-one can argue. Indeed it would seem churlish to refuse since it is clear that following the procedure does ultimately enhance the arts programme. Unless one is taking the view that foreign artists take work from UK artists, in which case call the Musicians Union…

  10. Moneypenny says:

    Norman, your outrage is misdirected. Aldeburgh have to have passport details for all of the performers because otherwise they will fail their next UKBA inspection, and therefore lose their Sponsor status, and therefore be unable to have artists performing at Snape who are from outside the EU.
    So be furious at the hopeless UKBA and their systems, not at the promoter who wants to bring the best artists to Snape, regardless of their country of birth.

    • Marguerite Foxon says:

      Sounds to me like the UKBA failed to notify their artists that identification would be required, and that they want to see a passport (I find this ludicrous, as do others, and it assumes that everyone has a passport. Probably, but not necessarily the case). In the US and in Australia we are very used to pulling out our licence if a photo ID is required – I assume he would object to that also?

    • I agree 100%

  11. This is but one indication of a lot more happening in the UK right now further eroding civil liberties. Already you can see surveillance cameras practically everywhere and just know there are many more. TSA , of course is another bone in the throat and not just for cellists. Your Parliament is now considering the proposed Justice and Security bill with its secret courts and it will slip through to a final vote soon. It is apparently a product of your security services, and so complicated in its drafting that few MPs have carefully vetted it, so that should give one cause for comfort.

    We are seeing everywhere an ever expanding and tightening of the “national security” web in which the legislators have been, and are all too complicit – it is happening in the States as well- and it is being implemented by means of a pervasive surveillance of persons, stricter and stricter regulation of travel and movement, and secrecy infecting the whole process, so that one often knows nothing of what or why something has happened to him or her, or how to protect one’s rights, and this has all been instigated and conflated by the “war on terra” created by our leaders.

    I’m sorry Mr. Potter has had to endure the indignity of this new demand, but it is good he has written about it.
    Hopefully, people will begin to connect the dots, join together and demand a more civilized governance.

  12. Timon Wapenaar says:

    I find it truly incredible that the idea that the citizenry should be obliged to carry papers should be accepted. There is no point in trying to distinguish between those who implement the system on the national and the institutional scales, the infringement on the basic rights of the citizen are the issue, basta. If you want to know how the story finishes, all you have to do is look at apartheid South Africa and the hated ‘dompas’ (pass book), which very soon (aside from being an instrument of oppression and the object of protest in its own right) came to be used as an excuse for random acts of intimidation. This is the thin end of the wedge. If the need to control the population is such that respected members of society are forced to submit to these exercises, then think for a moment how the very same procedures are being carried out in the tenements, among the British underclasses. The problem is that most citizens of the so-called free world have never had to live under an authoritarian regime, and so do not recognise the signs of an encroaching autarchy.

  13. Don’t know why he’s making such a fuss,have a copy made of your passport as we do in Spain and show when necessary. One has to show this when checking into a hotel for instance so as Monitoring says it is UKBA rules.

  14. Should read Moneypenny

  15. Mark Barrett says:

    I am with Messrs Porter, Sorcererpds and Lebrecht on this – all the way. Mr Pons, you are a bridge of ‘il-logic’ too far.

  16. Graf Nugent says:

    Britain has brought this on itself.

  17. I came across this via Facebook, so these things can spread far and wide.

    I feel I must say something to defend my very close friend John Potter, whom I have known for nearly 50 years as fellow undergraduate, fellow member of a pop-group, fellow teacher, cathedral lay-clerk and professional singer from the charge that he has taken his action ‘because his ego as an artist was hurt’.

    I must also take issue with John when he declares himself perfectly capable of an exercise in ego-mania.

    All this is quite ridiculous, and while what I have read brought mirth here and there, it was at this point that I laughed out loud.

    John Potter is a genuinely modest person despite his very special artistic and academic achievements. Those who have read all this rather carelessly may have missed the point that he withdrew from the ‘gig’ well in advance, and instead have a vision of him berating a poor door-man with a ‘don’t you know who I am’ tirade. If so, go back and read what has actually happened, and in particular, recognise the fact that the ‘gig’ is yet to be staged!

    It has been suggested by someone who criticised most artists as being ill-equipped to think logically that a man the age of Mr Potter can hardly pose a security threat. Being older even than Mr Potter, I feel my advancing age would make me more, rather than less likely to pose such a threat. At my age, it might be asked, “What is there left to live for?” And while I am on the subject of Mr Potter’s age, I must say that his zeal in support of his deeply held principles is as strong now as when he was a young student. Unlike many others of my generation, age has not wearied him.

    I’ve been asked for my passport by an opera company, and meekly handed it over. I remember being rather puzzled at the time, but did not want to challenge the request. Thanks to what John has done, I have now thought about it rather more clearly, and formed the conclusion that it isn’t the fault of the employer concerned. Rather it’s the fault of the conditions enforced by HMG. I hope John Potter’s decision to ‘stand up and be counted’ will encourage the government to devise a better way of dealing with these issues, so thanks, John !

  18. Les Handy says:

    What happens when a symphony orchestra shows up?

    • They show them CEO Henson’s passport (and I don’t mean for the muppets), and they all get turned away.

  19. Mr Potter, equating your experience with Nazi Germany is disingenuous at best, and plainly offensive at worst. Of course, you have the right to take a moral stance on the incident and to air your views as understood by freedom of speech. But, as an educated man, are you seriously suggesting a request to see some kind of ID is but the first stage to oppressive programs, death camps and genocide? Shame on you!

    • In reply to Graham Lack and those offended by my references to 1930s Germany – I do think that terrible things can flow from the incremental erosion of what might seem like relatively small freedoms. We have to be ever watchful and not take anything for granted.

      • How right you are. And not doing so will put us in a pot that is boiling so gradually that we won’t know when we, and our goose, are cooked.

  20. Enough indeed!

  21. Kirsty Money says:

    What a can of worms, or snakes! These wiggly things won’t get sorted out for the Aldeburgh project that Mr. Potter was supposed to sing in two weeks though. I am assuming all the other Artists involved have to produce their passports? What will happen to the project if he doesn’t sing? Is it really that simple to find another singer of his talent and expertise with three weeks notice and close to Easter? I understand Mr. Potter’s argument and agree with it, but this is an absolute nightmare from an organiser’s point of view. The amount of juggling that will now have to take place to ensure artistic integrity is not a straightforward routine.

    Now that Mr. Potter has made his stand and brought the issue to a wider audience, will he not re-consider singing?
    Just wondering if there is a middle way.
    I am a big fan of Revenge you see. Want others to become fans too!

    • I wouldn’t leave them completely in the lurch – it’s a very freewheeling event (the kind I absolutely love, sadly) and it will work perfectly well without me. If I’d been absolutely essential I’d probably have just signed on the dotted line – which the UKBA assumes everyone will do…


  22. Christopher Oakmount says:

    As recently as 12 hours ago I wanted to write in defence of carrying IDs (as is obligatory in my native country Austria), however today a student of mine described how he was stopped by the police, asked for an ID and held at the station until his parents fetched him. His only “crime” had been hanging around a mall looking foreign. I stand corrected and embarrassed.

  23. Richard Barker says:

    In all dictatorships and many so-called democracies, carrying personal identity papers is obligatory at all times. In Britain, it is not. I see no need for further discussion.

  24. You’ve had your say. Enough.

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