Becoming one of us

Sitting in the other day on a citizenship ceremony – a few dozen people from all round the world (Sierra Leone, Poland, Turkey, Bangladesh, Somalia, Cambodia, Nepal and the rest) becoming British citizens, with a fairly low level of ceremony. Holst on the dodgy CD player and the deputy mayor of the town.

Most of the deputy mayor’s speech involved the town’s history, in particular with regard to immigrants – off on the wrong foot with the Vikings, who pillaged, but then doing rather better with Huguenots and so we come to the present day. Very little said about Britain itself – and there would, I imagine, have been even less at a similar ceremony in Scotland or Wales.

Should there have been? I don’t want to go down the road of nos ancetres les Gaulois , let alone some sort of tea tray and Toby jug version of Britain’s history, with Dover Castle, Spitfires and the Great Reform Act all buzzing round the old ladies cycling off to drink warm beer in church. But is there, still, a place for some sort of common national myth? Is national even the right level – or would new citizens and native born ones be better off with local patriotism instead? I’d bet there are more people who are proud to be Londoners than are proud to be British. How does this compare with other countries?

I’m not even going to suggest a common European myth. The mind boggles. But people become citizens for a reason, and it’s not just because they long for the chance to sit in a British jury box – the people I saw seemed to regard their citizenship as a prize worth the gaining. Maybe the British common myth is doing fine among its newest believers, at any rate, without any encouragement.

The issue’s also been on my mind because of the introduction of points-based tests for immigration, which has attracted some criticism. (Its merger with the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme is probably only a matter of time.) It’s basically just a formalisation of what pretty much every country does for aspiring immigrants and to be honest I don’t have a problem with it – except that it seems fairly inflexible. How quickly will it adapt to changes in the labour market? At present it’s set up to favour high-skilled high-earners. If you want to adjust overall levels, you can change the threshold score, and a specialist committee will apparently tweak the system to react to any specific shortfalls in the labour market.

This second part is the problematic one. It’s going to be interesting to see the pressures put on this committee when they have to decide whether there aren’t enough bricklayers because a) there’s a genuine shortage so you need to allow in more immigrants or b) employers aren’t paying enough so all the British ones have gone off to work somewhere else in the EU.

Maybe there’s a market solution? Allow employers to buy additional points for their valued immigrant employees, allowing them to stay in the country (and reducing the incentive to employ cheap labour)?

8 thoughts on “Becoming one of us

  1. Went through the same ritual a few months ago. It was the second citizenship ceremony I’ve been too. The first was my then girlfriend, now wife, becoming a New Zealander. This time it was both of us becoming British.

    That first occasion felt more special, even though I was just a spectator. They talked about how successive waves of immigration had defined the country; how distinct cultures would add to society by retaining their individual characteristics, while accepting and respecting existing NZ law and culture. There was singing, in Maori. Afterwards everyone had a drink and chatted and had their photo taken with the mayor.

    Here, it was “nice of you to join us; repeat after me; and by the way, would you like to buy a commemorative photo?”

    I don’t feel especially British and I certainly don’t feel English. I *am* a Londoner. Not proud, but grateful.

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  3. Britain is a despicable ‘nation’. They have no ambition, no self-respect, and no prospects. They have nothing better to do than get plastered every other night and watch girls in miniskirts (despite the winter) throw up down back alleys,
    [/bitter half truthful rant]

  4. One interesting effect of European integration (little ‘i’) has been the way larger political entities – those offering the citizenship – are seeing pressure for power to be devolved: Scotland, Catalonia, Walonie, Northern Italy… The 20th century nations providing citizenship today might look very different in 50 years with 100+ more equal sized states. But, who issues the passports? Probably, at European level just for practicality and efficiency?

    I’m not sure how this would affect feelings of ‘belonging’ for the naturalized – maybe ‘European’ will be enough and Haggis training not deemed necessary.

  5. The problem with creating a British ‘national myth’ is that it’d be all too easy for people like the BNP to hijack it. The nations of England, Scotland and Wales were founded on the basis of religion, ethnicity and language. Unfortunately it is much easier to make those things exclusionary than it is to make them inclusionary.
    America has it different, since it was founded on a set of abstract ideals, and has a very small native population. This means that an inclusive national myth can be constructed much more easily than in nations founded on more “traditional” bonds.
    On another note, many have argued that this lack of a national myth is the reason that post-colonial countries have such a hard time holding together. Arbitrary boundaries make for countries that are diverse in ethnicity and language, and the lack of a founding principle makes it difficult for any leader to rally people around a form of nationalism that isn’t based on personal charisma.

  6. PS: Is there any way of modifying your comments section to throw in a blank line between paragraphs? That would make comments much easier to read.

  7. In all seriousness, it would not be all that difficult for Britain to have a little national mystique despite the end of Empire. My American passport is filled – rather quaintly and a little garishly – with pictures of ‘authentic’ Americana like bald eagles, moon landings and golden fields of wheat as well as quotes from famous Americans (MLK, LBJ, Kennedy, Washington, Jefferson..).

    It would not be so difficult to hammer out a similar set of national imager and icons in the UK a little more formally. For what is British? In terms of people, one might have a long set of illustrious individuals including Cromwell, Newton, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Bacon, Hume, Shakespeare, Wellington, Darwin, Churchill and the Beatles.. As for British values? Moderation, fair play, openness to the world (both immigration, which has a long history, and trade/intercourse abroad via the empire), the balance of power (moderation/peace/independence), the sea, rock and roll..

    That is not so bad a list of national imagery. Some of it might profitably make its way into a citizenship ceremony.. On the other hand, modesty and common sense are British traits too. Perhaps it is better for a no-nonsense and unpretentious approach, without the glitz and slightly silly ‘mystique’ that afflicts some countries.. Still, I think there is a bit of a crisis today in Britain’s identity. It is too amorphous and not positive enough!

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