In the early 70s, although I was at an all-girls’ academic school there was a filtering down of the May ’68 events all the way to me and my peers. We started talking about politics generally. One thing I remember was that a group of us read the Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer at the same time, and one of my best friends stopped wearing make-up overnight. That book and others were influential in my growing feminist awareness. I went to university in 1975 and was involved in frequent demonstrations both about domestic and international issues.
It was a fevered time in British politics. I got involved in an anti-deportation campaign for Philip Agee, a former CIA operative disaffected by the US’ support for authoritarian regimes in Latin America. He arrived in the UK and published Inside the Company here because he could not get it published in the US. There was a certain amount of political agitation about it and in the end, he was deported. But that, along with the introduction of differential fees for students from overseas, was the first time that I started thinking about people from abroad. Of course, I had always known people from abroad, but through this I became aware of the levels of discrimination and risks that you ran if you were not British. That’s what made me interested in immigration, and that’s really what led me to eventually decide to become an immigration lawyer. It was a tiny field in those days: there were only a handful of law firms in London specialising in immigration including Winstanley Burgess, where I was lucky enough to be an articled clerk. I got the immigration law bug. Immigration law is interesting politically and intellectually. It has been part of one of the great developments in UK public law: judicial review, which now is common, but in those days it wasn’t. It was a very interesting time to be an immigration lawyer and I’ve loved it ever since.
It was through my work that I was first introduced to Natalia and Nicolai and Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). I was asked to become their lawyer when they arrived in the UK and had to claim asylum. I was taken aback to discover that there was this appalling dictatorship on our doorstep in Europe. Apart from enjoying working with them, I found it interesting politically because I had not discovered this aspect of European political life before.
I have always been interested in theatre. When I first left university in the very late 70s I was the general manager of a travelling theatre in Brighton called Cliff Hanger. I was their woman of all tasks: I booked them into shows, but I was also their roadie, and got the props together. I have remained a keen theatre goer. BFT’s method of collective work has a lot of resonance with me. Being a young adult who grew up in the 70s and early 80s I was around a lot of collective action and it is good to see it still happening. I have remained involved in some collective activity and I was one of the founders of the Refugee Women’s Legal Group which was active in the 90s, and influential in introducing gender guidelines in asylum cases both in the UK and internationally. Being a Trustee of the BFT has fed back into so many things I have always enjoyed and found stimulating: politics, theatre and collective endeavour.
Alison Stanley is Partner and Joint Head of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Team at Bindmans LLP