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)?