Ritual allegiance

Giving British citizenship more trappings won't increase its value.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

The UK government has launched a consultation document on citizenship ceremonies, which it hopes will ‘place a much greater emphasis than at present on the value and significance of becoming a British citizen’ (1).

At present, applicants for British citizenship fill in a form; if their application is successful, they will receive a certificate in the post. They have to take an oath of allegiance in front of an approved person, such as a solicitor or a Justice of the Peace, but this is a ‘low-key affair’.

The aim of the consultation document is to agree on the content of the ceremony – to help to create ‘a memorable celebration’ and to ‘provide the new citizen with a lasting memory of this key life event’ (2). The idea is that the ceremony will help to forge newcomers’ commitment to British society, to increase their sense of obligation and belonging.

But the problems of British citizenship are little to do with the summary methods of granting it. If immigrants today feel less allegiance to Britain, this is the result of a change in Britain, rather than a change in the immigrant stock. The fact is that there is little sense of what it means to be British today. Immigrants want to live in the UK because it offers opportunities for material improvement, rather than because they are attracted to British values. And even the most elaborate naturalisation ceremony in the world is unlikely to be able to change this.

Certainly, many immigrants who have been naturalised as British citizens wear their citizenship lightly. One man who obtained British citizenship four years ago, originally from Lebanon and in his forties, told me that ‘To be honest, I believe that I am not British. I am Lebanese’. He says that he can’t imagine himself living here for the rest of his life, and always hopes to go back ‘next year’.

Having lived and worked in Britain for 12 years, he feels certain obligations. ‘I like English people’, he says, ‘I appreciate that this country takes me as a guest. I do my best to help’. Citizenship meant something to him – ‘I swear to this country. If this country needed help – in war – I would give help’. But this sense of owing Britain certain duties is contingent, rather than lasting and meaningful. It is a kind of contract, something that comes with being in Britain, rather than something that comes with being British.

Others have a still more practical view of British citizenship. A 37-year-old who came to Britain from Algeria 13 years ago, and gained citizenship seven years ago, said that he ‘felt nothing’ when he got the crucial certificate through the post: ‘I thought, alright, I got another passport, another bit of paper.’ British citizenship is useful – ‘you don’t need a visa’ – but, he said, ‘I will never feel British. Behind you, you have your origins. You feel that one day, you are going back’.

But will a citizenship ceremony make Britishness more meaningful? This Algerian immigrant, at least, thinks not. ‘Even if we have a big ceremony, and swear by the Queen, it won’t make any difference.’ After all, a ceremony could only help provide a focus for feelings of loyalty people have developed for themselves, it can’t invent them. As every child knows, repeating ritual words doesn’t make the words mean anything – the pledge of allegiance could just become immigrants’ version of ‘Our father, who art in heaven…’.

Of course, other countries have citizenship ceremonies and pledges of allegiance. In Australia, new citizens attend a ceremony held by the local government council, usually in the presence of friends and family. In America, citizenship ceremonies are often elaborate and formal affairs, involving patriotic songs and speeches about freedom and opportunity, and new Americans ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’ and renounce any foreign allegiances.

But these pledges and ceremonies were established at times when there was a popular concern to strengthen national bonds. In America, the pledge of allegiance was written in the late nineteenth century by a Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy; it came to be recited daily in schools across America over the next 60 years, but was not formalised by government until 1942 (3). In the early twentieth century, the ‘americanisation’ movement organised special lectures and classes for new immigrants, to instruct them in the American language and ideals – which only later became formalised as citizenship exams (4).

The British government, by contrast, is attempting to develop the formal rituals of British citizenship in a complete vacuum. There is little general sense of what it means to be British; no spontaneous movement attempting to strengthen national identity. Indeed, the government’s attempt to make British citizenship into an event is a response to the fact that being British doesn’t mean much at all.

But this raises a problem, because rituals can’t be invented in a vacuum. The whole business becomes arbitrary – whether immigrants pledge allegiance to the Queen or to the principle of tolerance, whether they meet in a mosque or a town hall. Who’s to say? When it comes down to it, the government knows that it wants to make British citizenship more meaningful, but doesn’t know how.

So this latest consultation asks for ideas on every aspect of the planned citizenship ceremonies. ‘Should national symbols – the Union Jack, and the national anthem – form part of the ceremony? Should some national cultural activity [eg a piece of music, song, poem] be included at the start or end of the ceremony? Do you have any suggestions?’ The questions go on, covering the music that should be played before the ceremony, to the venue for the ceremony, and whether new citizens are given commemorative gifts as a reminder of the event (and what these gifts should be) (5).

Something like national identity, of course, cannot be decided upon by consultation. Even if every person in Britain replied to the document giving their idea of a national song, this does not make it a national song. It will end up being the result of individual votes, rather than something that is part of the fabric of communal life.

Immigrants to Britain in the past didn’t have fancy ceremonies – but they still felt more British than today. Alka Sehgal, who has researched the sense of belonging among first-generation Asian immigrants, says that ‘they didn’t feel a ceremony was needed; neither did the British state’. ‘Most of the first generation came for positive reasons’, says Sehgal. They admired English culture – ‘Shakespeare and all that’ – and were drawn to the opportunities opening up in post-war Britain. There was an ‘identification with the idea of the welfare state; they believed that society was progressing in a way that would benefit all of its citizens. Also, British life to be seemed a model of efficiency – you could get telephones installed, and so on’.

Few immigrants today are so enthused. One 26-year-old from Turkey, who gained British citizenship two years ago, told me that he would return if he could. In Britain, he says, there is ‘no respect – they don’t respect old people, everybody is rude’. His 19-year-old nephew has indefinite leave to remain, and has no plans to try for a British passport. ‘I don’t need citizenship, why would I want it? I wouldn’t do anything for this country’, he said, his voice full of contempt.

And countries like America and Australia are having problems creating identification among new citizens, in spite of their fancy ceremonies. American Christian writer Anne Morse notes that ‘an Iranian doctoral student at Harvard found that just one of 10 Muslim immigrants he surveyed felt more allegiance to the United States than to their country of origin’. This, she says, is ‘in striking contrast to earlier generations of immigrants from Japan and Germany and Italy, who willingly took up arms against the countries they, or their parents, came from’. The problem, says Morse, is that ‘America seems to have lost its ability to Americanize its newest citizens – to instil the love and loyalty so eagerly absorbed by earlier generations of newcomers’ (6).

Much of the American elite seems uncomfortable with formal codes laid down in the past. Some American lawyers and political figures argue that gaining citizenship should be made less arduous – suggesting that new citizens no longer be asked to renounce their allegiance to other nations, or that there should be little distinction between citizens and non-citizens (7). And US president George Bush made a notorious gaffe when, after addressing a gathering of new citizens on the ‘American creed’, he got his pledge of allegiance wrong, raising his arm rather than placing it across his heart.

Western countries all over the world have lost much of their cohesiveness as nations – naturally, naturalisation becomes more difficult. New sets of rituals cannot cover up this problem. ‘A passport doesn’t change your mind, it doesn’t change the way you think’, one new British citizen told me. A passport is just a piece of paper that allows you to travel; a ceremony is just some words you have to say to get the piece of paper.

While the government’s consultation document didn’t have a coherent sense of British identity for immigrants to buy into, it did suggest that they should lessen attachment to their community of origin. It dissuades people from swearing on their own Holy Book – ‘It is not expected that Holy Books will be routinely available at the ceremony’.

The document also emphasises the fact that ‘citizenship ceremonies are intended to engage the community as a whole, and the government does not see it as appropriate for such (civil) ceremonies to be held in buildings connected with only part of the community, such as those belonging to a particular political party or religion’ (9). A perfect citizenship ceremony, in the government’s eyes, would involve a nice cross-section of different community groups, and perhaps ‘a local school’ could ‘perform some music or dance’.

But immigrants don’t simply retain attachments to their homeland and culture out of habit and custom. Instead, the main issue is that they find little that is compelling about their new home. Fearing ethnic and religious ghettos, the government seems to want to neuter something of immigrants’ old ties. But this cannot work unless they are given something new to identify with.

‘I would play Kurdish folk music at my ceremony’, one young Turkish man told me stubbornly, ‘not English music’.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) See the Citizenship ceremonies – consultation document, Home Office, 25 July 2003

(2) See the Citizenship ceremonies – consultation document, Home Office, 25 July 2003

(3) See the pledge of alliegance

(4) The Naturalizers, Policy Review, July/August 1996

(5) See the Citizenship ceremonies – consultation document, Home Office, 25 July 2003

(6) Fear of commitment, World, 1 February 2003

(7) See examples in Fear of commitment, World, 1 February 2003

(8) Bush Remarks at Ellis Island (New York) Naturalization Ceremony, 10 July 2001

(9) See the Citizenship ceremonies – consultation document, Home Office, 25 July 2003

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