Britain has always been a nation capable of telling itself a good story. It has rarely mattered whether that story was true. The story itself is usually enough: to bring the troops to the beaches, to quiet the servants in the cellar, to quell the coloniser’s unease, to ward off the threat of uprising, to clinch the referendum vote.
And on a sunny day in May, the story Britain told itself was one of inclusivity and progress, eked out in gentle doses, in the form of a biracial divorced millionaire American bride for the brother of the future king. Revellers camped out on the streets of Windsor, in sleeping bags not unlike those of the homeless who sleep there every night, though the former slept more soundly, without the threat of evacuation. And while the nation cheered for the international couple, who had been quietly fast-tracked through Britain’s punishing immigration process, tens of thousands of UK-foreign couples denied spousal visas under the Conservatives’ draconian immigration laws will have watched the wedding on separate continents, if they could bear to watch at all. While 2,640 members of the public were invited by the Royals to stand outside of St. George’s Chapel, roughly the same number of men and women sat in mostly windowless cells, at Britain’s nine immigration detention centres. And across Westminster, Home Office officials likely clinked champagne flutes with relief, as the nation turned its eyes away from the ongoing disgrace of the Windrush scandal to glimpse a television actress’s first wedding dress of the day: a pure white garment of double-bonded silk, held together by minute stitches, invisible, the way the workings of power always hope to be.
The Modern Royals! declared fawning international magazine covers in the days and weeks that followed, seemingly unaware of the contradiction in terms. For the first time since Brexit or Grenfell, the eyes of the world were on Britain, and the nation delighted in the pretty, self-flattering image the wedding conveyed. If you squinted, and didn’t think too hard, Britain appeared on that day to be a nation proud to be inclusive, progressive, and diverse.
The Most Reverend Michael Curry’s ‘impassioned address on the power of love caused hilarity and bemusement’ (The Times, May 2018). ‘Imagine our homes and our families where love is the way,’ he said.
An estimated 15,000 British children are separated from a parent due to the Conservatives’ policies on family reunification, the most restrictive in the western world. Punishing and ever-rising visa fees – a minimum of £1,998 every 2.5 years – and arbitrary income requirements – beginning at £18,600 – outright disqualify 41 per cent of all British citizens from sponsoring a foreign spouse, while effectively discouraging far more. Mothers are kept from nursing their babies. Fathers miss their children’s births, their first words, their first steps.
The Prince ‘proposed to Meghan Markle while roasting a chicken on a “cosy night in” at Kensington Palace’ (The Sun, November 2017).
The current spouse visa cost is £1,523, every 2.5 years, plus the £400 NHS surcharge, another £56 for the actual piece of plastic comprising your Biometric Residence Permit, and a neat £19.20 to register that same piece of plastic. Many who apply for these visas require swift decisions, in turn incurring a £510 ‘expedited service’ fee. If, after undergoing this process twice, you would like to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain, the cost is a staggering £2,389. The UK Home Office makes profits of 800 per cent on each immigration application it processes.
‘During the preface portion of the order of service, the Dean of Windsor spoke about the institution of marriage as “the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured”. And just before the word “children” was uttered, Harry turned to Meghan and smiled’ (Harper’s Bazaar, May 2018).
When a UK-foreign couple has a child, the restrictions and fees rise further. The stories of British citizens currently separated from their spouses and children are endless, forming together a narrative of inhumane disregard; the Government’s blind disdain towards immigration wreaks havoc on the private lives of its own citizens.
‘The bride’s headpiece, made from silk tulle, featured a trim of hand-embroidered flowers from each of the 53 counties in the Commonwealth in threads and organza… Crops of wheat, which symbolise love and charity, sit at the very front of the veil’ (People, May 2018).
In the hostile environment proudly cultivated under then-Home Secretary, now-Prime Minister Theresa May, British men and women of the Windrush generation have faced unlawful detention, denial of benefits, health care, and other public services, and the ongoing threat of deportation. The Joint Committee on Human Rights released a report late in June stating that the treatment of these migrants has been both ‘perverse’ and ‘unlawful’.
The bride wore custom haute couture Givenchy. ‘Its makers had to wash their hands every 30 minutes when making it, to keep it pristine’ (The Telegraph, May 2018).
Thousands of migrants and refugees who came to the UK seeking safe harbour have found themselves imprisoned indefinitely in unsafe, unclean immigration detention centres. Every day, at least one detainee requires medical attention for self-inflicted wounds.
The Duke and Duchess smiled and waved as they ‘made their way through Windsor’s streets in an Ascot landau pulled by four Windsor grey horses, and accompanied by a guard of the Household Cavalry, plumed and polished with breastplates and helmets gleaming’ (The Guardian, May 2018).
Brits are fond of defending the existence of their Royal Family by claiming they have no ‘real’ power, but with British identity up for debate and Britain’s place in the world under renegotiation, their power is all too definite. They are the merry players on the warped stage Britain calls its heritage, a half-story of history where the realities of a nation built on imperialism, oppression, and a brutal and punishing class system fall behind a neat velvet curtain, rarely raised. But if you glimpse behind that curtain – or if Britain holds you there out of sight – you will see a nation whose future is being dictated by xenophobic policies, racist attitudes, and old boys clinging tight to the vision of a Britain that for centuries belonged only to them.
On an alternate timeline, 2018 could have been the year Britain established a powerful new twenty-first century identity for itself as a nation rich in culture and richer still for its diversity. Through clear, decisive policy, Britain could have cemented itself in the international consciousness as a country with modern and fair immigration policies, a country that could lead others (including Ms Markle’s and my own wayward America) by example, a nation committed to acknowledging the influence – and atoning for the shadow – of its mark on the globe.
Instead, we threw a wedding and called it a day.
As the biracial American wife of a white British man, my concern for Britain’s future is, in many ways, a concern for my own, and for a far-off dream of a kind of Britishness that might someday come to include me. When news broke of Prince Harry’s engagement, friends on both sides of the Atlantic reached out to ask how it felt to be ‘ahead of the trend’. In truth, as royal wedding excitement built to a fever pitch, I felt a growing sense of dread. From my time in Britain I have learned that the Royal Family and their actions exist in a separate realm, shielded by unspoken gag order from Britain’s usual critically minded discourse. The same friends of mine who proudly declare themselves socialists, who speak with nuance about Britain’s colonial history, who call for the end of the British class system, grind their teeth when I broach the topic of the Royal Family. ‘The royals are a third rail,’ one close friend told me, as his eyes begged me to change the subject. Even more than the subject is off-limits – a ‘third rail’, guaranteeing political suicide for those who dare to touch it – the Royals seem to me a kind of mutually-agreed upon collective fairy tale for the masses: to engage critically in their history or their actions is, to many Brits, as offensive as criticising a beloved childhood bedtime story.
In this way, the royal wedding was the perfect storm: a chance for the nation to feel good about itself without the threat of critical thinking barging in on the fun. To laud a mixed-race, trans-national wedding between two millionaires as progressive is to revel in the shallowest, quick-hit form of self-congratulation, a kind of wishful ‘trickle-down’ thinking that the experiences of the super-wealthy speak in any way to the reality lived by those they lord over. To call that wedding the mark of a new chapter is to attempt to ignore and hastily turn the page on the increasingly dark, racist, anti-immigrant moment Britain is still very much living. I held out a thimble of hope that the wedding fanfare might provide an opportunity for Britain to self-reflect on the ways in which increasingly mainstream xenophobic attitudes and hostile immigration policies are indelibly influencing the nation’s character. Instead, I found myself at the centre of a Black Mirror episode in which all those around me smiled tightly with ears plugged and eyes shut. I sometimes ask my British friends what being British means to them, and time and again, after an initial baffled pause, somewhat side-stepping the question, they tell me that they see Britain as a tolerant nation, an open and diverse nation, a welcoming nation. This was the vision of the Royal Wedding, and this was the vision I too held of Britain, before I went through the immigration process myself.
As an American, I am no stranger to the web of delusions that make up a national identity. But as the immigrant daughter of an immigrant mother, I have taken great pride in the way my own country’s identity was – and, I so fiercely hope, will continue to be – secure and wide enough to welcome my mom as one of its own; she is far and away the most American person I know. Of course, America is a nation founded by white colonisers who, after systematically wiping out a native population, now exist in a perpetual state of fear that the next wave of immigrants will be the one that extinguishes them. Like Britain, my own country is experiencing an extraordinarily dark and brutal backlash to decades of relatively progressive immigration policies. But still, for many first- and second-generation Americans, the idea of ‘being American’ has little to do with birthright and everything to do with spirit and how deeply you embrace the values America has tried, at its better moments, to stand for. (Especially, in times like today, when that means speaking truth to power against your own government. In America, nothing is sacred, not least of all those in power.) I had, perhaps foolishly, assumed that Britain would be much the same, with a national character broad enough to welcome me into the fold, if only I’d try. I did not yet know that Britishness is a stiff dress, without give; it struggles to fit a foreign body. Growing up in the suburban Midwest I had always thought of the UK as America’s sophisticated older sibling: more cultured, more thoughtful, more generous. I’d been a self-identified Anglophile from the age of 10, raised on a steady diet of my dad’s Rolling Stones and The Who records. My impressions of Britain were shaped by the same stories it told itself, through Love Actually and Spice World and the Harry Potter books, and later, as I fell in love with English literature, through White Teeth and Mrs Dalloway and The Golden Notebook, through Keats and Byron, through Stoppard and Shakespeare. I fell in love with a composite Britain, multicultural and intellectual and subversive, sexier and savvier and wittier than my own young, unwieldy, often-oblivious country. I pinned a Union Jack on the wall of my bedroom. I dreamed of someday studying English Literature in its birthplace.
When I finally did, it was on exchange from my university in California, a land that is in many ways Britain’s polar opposite: the brutal, wild west. In the eyes of Britain’s immigration code – the only eyes that matter, each time I cross the border – I was not a spouse, then, but a student, 20 years old and finally across the Atlantic. (How narrow and telling are the identities those who seek to come here must wear: Tourist. Spouse. Student. Refugee. Entrepreneur. If you’re not buying souvenirs, paying tuition, entering a legally bound monogamous relationship, fleeing for your life, or filthy rich, what right do you have to come to Britain?)
I vividly remember arriving in the UK late in the summer of 2012, while the nation was running off the collective high of the London Olympics. Fuelled entirely by adrenaline after a sleepless red-eye flight, I snaked around the endless single-file line at the border, my first experience of Britain’s pride in queueing. When I stepped forward and handed over my passport and a letter from my university, the agent glanced briefly at the Stanford letterhead, then did me a once-over.
‘So, who’s funding your trip?’ he asked. ‘My university,’ I said. I was a scholarship student, and Stanford grants covered the cost of my time abroad. ‘They won’t be covering everything, though, will they?’ he asked, his tone openly mocking. ‘Who’s covering the rest? Is it the bank of mum and dad?’ This was the first time I had ever heard about the bank of mum and dad, but it would not be the last. This exact question would be posed to me, in tones ranging from pity to abject condescension, by the border guards every time I came back to Britain over the next several years. ‘No,’ I said, turning Spice Girl latex-red as I mumbled something about financial aid. He ushered me through with a swipe of his hand. Then, and in the six years that have followed, no one at the border has ever said to me, ‘Welcome to Britain.’
I met my partner while studying abroad, and in the months leading up to and following our engagement in 2015, we researched our immigration options in Britain and America with a diligence fuelled by totalising love. Because Jonathan was studying to become a barrister, we determined that the first years of our married life would likely be in the UK. It was only after making this decision that we realised just how many hoops we would have to jump through as a couple in order for me to receive a spouse visa. Jonathan took on multiple jobs, including, finally, a full-time role in Parliament, while continuing his legal studies, in order to scrape past the income threshold of £18,600 per annum. We married in London, in part because marrying in the US would have delayed our ability to live together in the UK by months, maybe a year. (The process for bringing over a spouse you’ve married abroad is, somehow, even more complicated than pursuing a spouse visa from within the UK.) We took out a loan in order to afford the expedited visa costs and to avoid my being sent back to the US. We postponed our honeymoon, for fear that without the finalised residence permit in hand, I might be denied re-entry upon our return. We spent the weeks following our wedding double-checking every detail of our application, collecting and scanning my husband’s bank account details and pay slips for the past year, printing out photographs of our wedding and our three years together, transferring our text message history onto a USB stick, and compiling our love letters, written while long-distance, for official scrutiny. I wore my wedding earrings, for good luck.
(If this all strikes you as painfully heteronormative, it should. It is. The system shuns difference and queerness; it acknowledges legal marriage and civil partnerships, with narrow exemptions for long-term monogamous cohabiting couples. The border opens only for traditional relationships and traditional identities, conventional lives it can conventionally contain. I, for one, never envisioned myself becoming anyone’s ‘spouse’. But Britain would not have me any other way.)
Our files in hand, we arrived early for our visa appointment at Lunar House in Croydon. When our number was displayed, we walked up to the counter with our files full of letters and photographs and paperwork. In my head, I ran over the facts about our relationship that I’d been warned they might quiz me on: our first date, the colour of his toothbrush, his favourite breakfast. I was jolted back to attention by a dour-faced man who, without a moment’s pause, glanced at us and said, ‘Payslips.’ ‘What?’ I asked, but my husband had understood, and set out before him his payslips from the previous few months. ‘Oh,’ I said, and brought out my own bank statement, showing two years of savings from my work as an editor. ‘I don’t need that,’ the man barked, shoving the paper away. Nothing about my own work history or financial circumstances mattered; the Home Office only cared about my husband’s ability to ‘support me’. He grilled Jonathan on his work history, and the state of his finances, and then, without further ceremony, he walked away from his desk to file our paperwork.
After twenty minutes, he returned. ‘Do you have more payslips?’ he asked.
‘No,’ my husband replied. ‘The Home Office website said we needed six months of payslips, so we brought six months of payslips.’
‘More is better,’ the man said. We hadn’t brought any more; in truth, we had only just scraped by for the requirement. Jonathan’s income had only been high enough for the previous six months, exactly. No longer. The man disappeared again, and we waited in silence for another hour and a half before he returned.
‘You’ll receive your residence card by mail,’ he reiterated. ‘How long will it take?’ Jonathan asked. The man shrugged, and our £2,000 visa appointment was over.
I had been asked nothing. I could have passed through my appointment at Lunar House without speaking a single word. I felt the weight of our relationship in the bag of proof that we had carried with us, and wanted to vomit. Against my better judgement, part of me had taken the false narrative set forth by the Government in good faith; part of me had really believed that the arduous immigration process was simply there to ensure that the spousal visa was not taken advantage of by sham marriages. But the legitimacy of our relationship didn’t concern the Home Office at all, nor were they genuinely concerned with my ability to ‘integrate’ into British society, their euphemistic rationale for the income requirement. All that mattered was my husband’s financial status, his pay slips and bank statements. When my residency card arrived, my birthplace, Illinois, had been rendered ‘Illimois’ – a vivid reminder of how little I mattered.
To the UK Government, I am not a spouse or a person but a good to be purchased. My right to live and work and build a life and family in this country was not granted to me by virtue of my being the legitimate spouse of a British citizen but instead by the facts of my husband’s income. The only thing that could have been more dehumanising would have been if my partner had not passed the income threshold and could not, so to speak, foot the bill. There is every possibility that when my visa comes up for renewal next year, we will be unable to meet the cost. Visa prices go up arbitrarily every year, a cartoon carrot being dangled and ripped away as soon as the rabbit draws near. My husband and I are very privileged: we have good educations, we are native English speakers, we both have light skin. What we went through, even with those privileges, was humiliating and degrading; it is a process designed to dehumanise and alienate, a process where love counts for nothing and money means everything, a process that actively discourages British citizens from pursuing marriage with their foreign-born partners.
An American duchess doesn’t change that. The marriage of Harry and Meghan simply underscores that Britain is a nation of three realities: one for the uppermost class, one for those of us — in the Prime Minister’s words — ‘just about managing’, and one for the majority of society, for whom an international marriage is quite literally unattainable, for whom the right to family life is not a right at all but a luxury good they can’t afford, for whom love cannot conquer much at all. When a nation allows the story of the first to veil the struggle of the last, it risks losing grasp of its character altogether. In the glare of every spectacle a society is offered a glimpse of itself, and in the build-up to and aftermath of the Royal Wedding, most of Britain chose simply to look away.
Of course, fairy tales always hold the most power when times are bleak, and bleak they are. It’s no coincidence that in the face of crippling austerity, stagnant wages, Sisyphean Brexit negotiations and the near-guarantee of a poorer, sicker, and more unequal Britain to come, the nation rallied together around tea and crumpets and Union Jack bunting and expensively dressed aristocrats, crying out to the world, ‘This is what we do best!’ In truth, what today’s Britain does best took place not in the streets of Windsor but in the Castle itself, at the party that followed the fanfare, where the wealthy and the powerful celebrated away from the public’s eye, having pulled off the necessary, impressive coup: spinning a fairy tale so pretty that you con the worse-off into celebrating your privilege as their own.
Spring is a season of rebirth, and in Britain there is no nicer time of year for a wedding, before the heavy heat of summer, before the fast, earthy rot of autumn. It’s August now, and the tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic continue to document the royal couple’s days with starry eyes: a visit to Ascot, a trip to a polo game, a lifelong series of handshakes. On the London Underground, ‘WINDSOR: HOME OF THE ROYAL WEDDING’ is advertised at most Zone 1 stops; the homeless beg for change beneath the Duke and Duchess’s smiling image.
Across the ocean, in the my country, Reverend Curry preaches love and acceptance outside a detention centre in Hutto, Texas, riffing off the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men — all people, all people — are created equal.’ Many of the Windrush generation still lack British passports. The ‘hostile environment’ is still in place. Many of Britain and America’s immigration detention centres sit full to capacity. Thousands of British-international couples eat dinner on separate continents; parents continue to watch their children grow up over Skype. Next spring, I will sit in the waiting room at Lunar House again, waiting for the right to remain in the country where I have lived for three years, the right to remain with my husband in the home we have made. I will sit there silent and petrified; like so many others’, my future will hinge once again on my partner’s pay stubs. By then, who knows, the nation may be rallying around a new royal baby; the betting shops are counting on it. All men are created equal. It’s a beautiful story. Will Britain – will any of us – ever believe it?