Bolstering Britishness

The monarchy, and its central function as a symbolic unifying force, have been given a new lease of life by citizenship ceremonies

Immigration Modern Life Whittle's London
Citizenship tests in Streatham: Should there be something more stirring about British citizenship? (GRGS/Flickr)

Last month, I attended my first citizenship ceremony. Amazingly, they’ve now been going for more than 10 years, having been brought in by the Labour government during one of its spasms of anxiety about Britishness, or rather of guilt about its apparent lack of concern. There was much criticism of the whole idea at the time; Tory oldsters saw it as inherently un-British and silly, while Guardianistas sneered, much as they do when it comes to anything to do with nationality, and British nationality in particular. But the idea survived, and they are now taken for granted as a feature of the civic landscape.

On balance, I’ve never minded the idea, and in the absence of anything else have thought them a step in the right direction; changed circumstances call for new measures.

This one was in one of London’s outer boroughs, where I’d been invited to see my good friend, an Indian guy who came to the UK ten years ago and who has established a very successful career as an engineer. My friend was making the final step to British nationality. He was one of around 20 people from variously Indonesia, Pakistan, Bulgaria and Nigeria, who together with supporters and various family members made for a full council chamber.

The structure of the ceremony, the nuts and bolts holding it in place, was quite sound. Union and borough flags flanked a large photo portrait of the Queen; there was another picture of her on the wall behind for good measure. Outside jubilees and royal weddings such a set-up is unusual enough in Britain to surprise one on first viewing, but it did convey a sense that this was an occasion to be treated seriously, and sure enough people were taking pictures of it even before the ceremony began. Other than a few, including an Australian who ambled through the proceedings in T-shirt and jeans, most people seemed to have made an effort, one couple even wearing a form of their national dress (my friend had bought a new suit specially).

The oath of allegiance to Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors was taken en masse and after each person had been up to collect their certificate and have their photograph taken, a recording of the national anthem was played. Then we all filed out.

As I sat there it struck me that the monarchy, and its central function as a symbolic unifying force, have been given a new lease of life by these ceremonies, one which couldn’t have been foreseen when the Queen was crowned more than 60 years ago. There appeared to me to be no inhibition about expressing loyalty to the monarch, and her central, matriarchal presence in the visuals and words of the proceedings gave it all a benign, non-partisan feel. Everybody there would have been utterly familiar with her. None of this would work as well if, as republicans want, the picture had been of a President Mandelson, or Heseltine, or Branson, or indeed if it had just been a flag.

So what was it that ultimately made it all feel lukewarm and unsatisfactory? There were small hitches, such as non-working microphones—which many might consider reassuringly British anyway. The mayor, an amiable old buffer who decided to address the assembly from a seated position, rambled listlessly on and on, describing the various attractions and transport links the borough had to offer as though he were selling it to a convention of tour operators. He listed famous residents past and present who, he felt compelled to mention, included a few contestants from TV talent shows. It was hard to pay attention to all this, which was moreover somewhat beside the point.

As my newly-British friend and his Nepalese flatmate remarked as we had a coffee afterwards, shouldn’t there have been something  just a little more stirring about what it means to be a British citizen? About our democratic traditions, our values, our belief in freedom of speech? This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta; wouldn’t this have been worth a mention? Could there not have been something which demonstrated what was particular and special about Britain?

The tests and information packs these new Britons are given probably cover much of this material. But the ceremony is the climax to all that, and something memorable, something inspiring, is called for.

And, one could say, something increasingly necessary. We’re at one of those times when a resounding statement of our beliefs, traditions and values is vital. I’ve often heard from those who have come here as immigrants a genuine bewilderment at Britain’s apparent unwillingness to stand up for or be proud of these things. Are not such citizenship ceremonies the perfect place in which to make a start? Contrary to what many an inhibited Brit would assume, among the very newest of us such an affirmation of national identity would find an appreciative audience.