Portillo's State Secrets 8: Britain's 1968 foreign entry ban on Scientologists


Patron Meritorious
The eighth episode of Michael Portillo's BBC series about formerly classified British documents contains a segment about Britain's 1968 ban on Scientologists entering Britain to train or study. A manuscript document and a former civil servant explain Margaret Thatcher's reasoning for lifting the ban.

The Scientology segment is at 09:49-17:40.


Portillo's State Secrets 8: Banned

Broadcast date: April 1, 2015

00:00-01:50 Introduction and program summary
01:58-09:45 Censorship of John Lennon's erotic art in Britain
09:49-17:40 Britain's former ban on Scientology members entering Britain to train or study
17:44-28:15 Banning of bull running and fox hunting in Britain

Transcript of the Scientology segment

Michael Portillo: If I say the word "Scientology," you'll probably think of movie A-Listers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But long before this religious movement became big in Hollywood, it was attracting followers in Britain. And, as secret documents show, the religion was causing alarm amongst government ministers.

Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a science fiction writer with a vision for a new concept of religion.

[Video clip from "An Introduction to Scientology" (1966, Golden Era Productions)]

Tony Hitchman: What is Scientology? How would you describe it?

L. Ron Hubbard Well, it's very interesting. You've just asked a question like: "What are the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica? Answer in one word."

[End of video clip]

Michael Portillo: In 1959, he moved its world headquarters to Britain, to Saint Hill Manor in Grinstead, East Sussex. Scientology teaches that we are immortal beings trapped on Earth in a human body. By undergoing a series of classes, followers can free their minds, free themselves of their human form, and reclaim their true selves. Critics accused Hubbard of running a money-making cult, of brainwashing, and worse.

[Video clip of L. Ron Hubbard from Granada Television interview, 1968]

Interviewer: Do you ever think that you might be quite mad?

L. Ron Hubbard: Oh, yes. The one man in the world who never believes he's mad is a madman.

[End of video clip]

Michael Portillo: Scientology caused worries for MPs and the media. But those who attacked it could face libel writs. The church's leaders were willing to fight back. So it's just as well that they didn't see this: a secret dossier from the Department of Health and Social Security in 1975. Well here, we have a report into Scientology.

Quotation from document: The teachings of Scientology create family discord and break up marriages. In fact members are ordered to disconnect from their families. A child of six years of age was declared a "suppressive" because she would not disconnect from her mother.

Michael Portillo: The report shows alarm about the church's alleged disciplinary actions.

Quotation from document: A person who is classified by Scientologists as an "Enemy" is "Fair Game". He may be deprived of his property by any means, be tricked, sued or lied to, or be destroyed.

Quotation from document: The Scientologists in Britain are based in East Grinstead. (...) The conditions under which Scientologists live in East Grinstead are like those in a police state.

Michael Portillo: And in 1977, the Department remained unimpressed by Scientology's claim to be a true religion, writing in a letter that Scientology was "an organisation that is essentially evil."

The hostility went beyond words. In 1968, the government banned Scientology members from entering Britain to train or study. Hubbard moved his world headquarters to a fleet of ships, although the religion continued to operate in East Grinstead. Today, Scientology has increased its number of bases around the country, like this one in London.

So did the government's action work?

The travel ban, how effective was it against Scientology?

Dr. David Barrett (Author & Sociologist): It didn't really have the effect that they were intending it to have. And in some ways, it might actually have had the opposite effect. And it was a lot of publicity about the ban. People reading about Scientology in the press, I'm thinking: "What is this, this new science of mental health? It looks like something I might be interested in."

Michael Portillo: In some of this, the British government seems to be wrestling with the issue: is Scientology a cult or a religion? What is the difference?

Dr. David Barrett (Author & Sociologist): Some people would say the difference between a cult and a religion is about a million members; it's just a matter of size. Other people would say: "A cult is a religion I don't like, so there's a great definition." Personally, I don't think the word "cult" is very helpful. Even established religions have a lot of good and bad within them. And I personally know people in the Church of Scientology who thoroughly enjoy being in it, who have gained a lot from it, who may have left it now, but who still believe in the principles of it.

Michael Portillo: Despite legal challenges, the travel ban remained in place. Then, at the end of the 1970s, there was a change of government and, according to secret papers, a reversal of policy ... apparently as the result of a very personal decision by one Margaret Thatcher.

In manuscript, she writes: "We really cannot keep this ban unless we are ready publicly to say why and to support the conclusion with evidence. (...) The question is not whether we approve Scientology or not, but what possible justification is there for this unique ban."

I suspect that Mrs. Thatcher saw this as an issue of personal freedom versus state meddling. But I'd like to hear the view of ex-civil servant Graham Angel, who provided briefings for her and other ministers.

Graham Angel (former civil servant) The fact that the Prime Minister had a clear view was really what determined what happened.

Michael Portillo: Why did the Prime Minister have a clear view? Do you know that?

Graham Angel (former civil servant) She had two constituency people who were Scientologists, and they went to see her and argued that the ban was unfair. I think, and you, Michael will know more about Margaret Thatcher's views than me, but I think she believed that it wasn't the government's job to tell people: "This is a good religion. This is a bad religion. And this isn't a proper religion." Government should mind its own business.

Michael Portillo: What did your paper say, in the end?

Graham Angel (former civil servant) It came out pretty clearly, in the end, that the case for maintaining the ban couldn't be sustained. We found that the Department of Health, which still wanted to keep the ban in place, couldn't find a psychiatrist who would stand up in court and give evidence to the effect that Scientology damaged people's mental health, which really didn't make much of a case.

Michael Portillo: The lifting of the ban, you were happy that was the right decision?

Graham Angel (former civil servant) Yes, I was. I could've made a case to go the other way, but if it was left to me, I think the balance of advantage was in favour of lifting the ban.

Michael Portillo: You civil servants are splendid! If required, you could've made the argument the other way.

Graham Angel (former civil servant) I gave them both sets of arguments, and they had to choose. Nobody voted for me.

Michael Portillo: [laughs] Splendid!

[Conclusion] This impressive building, the Church of Scientology in the heart of the City of London, proclaims that the travel ban didn't work. Indeed, it may simply have attracted more attention, even support, for the Scientologists. And standing as it does, just a short walk from the iconic Saint Paul's Cathedral, it proclaims: "You tried to ban us, but you failed."
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Gold Meritorious Patron
Excellent post.

I can see why she did it, and despite the fact that Scientologists don't believe it is a faith based organisation, I would prefer to see Scientology dealt with from a criminal angle rather than 'the religion angle.'