Swearing an oath of allegiance to me
The attacks on the proposal that schoolkids should swear an oath to Queen Elizabeth II were driven more by narcissism than republicanism.
The publication of a UK government-commissioned report, Citizenship: Our Common Bond, has been causing a bit of a fuss this week. The problem is that its author, ex-attorney general Lord Goldsmith, has, amongst a host of other recommendations, suggested that a sense of Britishness, of what it means to be a British citizen, might be fostered by getting school-leavers to swear an oath of allegiance to queen and country. Unsurprisingly, given the vaguely post-1649 climate, the gnashing of teeth has been making quite a racket.
John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders called it a ‘half-baked idea’. Labour peer Baroness Kennedy did not even deem it half-baked: ‘I think it’s puerile and I think it’s rather silly.’ Predictably, neither the Welsh nor the Scots were that keen either. ‘I’m not sure how seriously we should take this, frankly’, mocked Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond. Plaid Cymru leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, preferred a more demur approach, calling the proposal ‘inappropriate’. It seems not even images of Prince Harry, doing his best Major James Hewitt impression while giving the Taliban a chasing, have been enough to revive pride in the monarchy.
Of course there are good reasons not to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II or to any other unelected head of state. Sinn Fein refused to take the parliamentary oath of allegiance as a matter of republican principle, despite it being the condition for taking up seats in parliament. More broadly, to pledge allegiance to the monarch, no matter how nominal their political power, is still to approve the feudal legacy of the divine right of kings. In other words, it remains a symbolic renunciation of hard-won democratic freedoms, a figurative prostration before an unelected representative. I would never pledge an oath of allegiance to the queen, or to any of the other scoundrels in the House of Windsor.
Yet the reaction against the proposed oath for schoolkids has been of a different stripe. It is criticised not so much on the grounds of republicanism but of identity politics. The bit that sticks in the craw of critics, then, is the attempt to impose a collective national identity upon diverse individuals. Timothy Garton Ash’s comments in the Guardian today capture well this sense of private resistance: ‘My emotional and cultural loyalties, the things that make my heart beat quicker, whether in poetry, music, history or sport, are mainly English rather than British.’ His point is that an individual’s sense of identity is ‘multidimensional’. To try to force each citizen into the same mould is to violate the nature of cultural belonging. Baroness Kennedy concurs: ‘I think it’s also very divisive because there is a significant percentage of the population who would find it very uncomfortable and probably wouldn’t be very happy about their children making such an oath.’
If Garton Ash and Kennedy state it, Matthew Parris in The Times (London) performs it. Reflecting upon the inaugural train journey of the Idridgehay Express in Wirkworth, Derbyshire, noting affectionately everything from the provision of Bucks Fizz to people waving from their back gardens, he concludes: ‘This is the real Britain, and I love it, and do not need to sign a register in some stupid, government-imposed citizenship ceremony to prove it.’
Although there is something admirable in Parris’ two-fingered approach, it does touch upon the narcissism of the opposition to Lord Goldsmith’s proposals. Whether Welsh, Scottish or Parris, what galls is the assumption that the government knows what being a citizen ‘means to me’. The cultural identity offered by government diktat is simply not particular enough. If Goldsmith’s proposal shows a government so desperate for a sense of Britishness that it will even dust down the old queen, then the criticism of his proposal shows how fragmentary the politics of diversity are. The institutionalisation of diversity questions the very idea of collectivity and loyalty, depicting them as necessarily bad things that impinge on individuals’ ‘sense of themselves’.
Insofar as it rejects the patronising overtures of government, the resistance to the oath idea does have an immediate appeal. ‘Citizenship’, Goldsmith writes, ‘is no longer solely a relationship between individuals and the state; it has become a basis for connection between individuals.’ Conceived as the thorough mediation of individuals’ lives by the state, Goldmsith is alert to what this euphemised technocracy lacks – a collective sense of purpose. Or as he puts it, what is needed is a ‘[a] narrative, non-legalistic statement of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship’. Hence the appeal to the queen.
But while the solution proposed – a coercive form of citizenship, a sense of belonging imposed by Whitehall – is oppressive, the problem diagnosed – a lack of purpose to social life – retains validity. In saying ‘what on earth does the queen mean to me?’, the criticisms miss the mark. The critics not only reject the content of this particular proposal, but any attempt to forge a collective social project per se. Cultural particularism here trumps all aspirations to universality. In this sense, the attack on Goldsmith’s dumb proposal is the very opposite of republicanism, that desire to unite the people in a common shared project, whatever personal and lifestyle differences they might have.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Josie Appleton argued that Brown’s attempt to re-brand Britain is vacuous while ridiculing the British citizenship test. Frank Furedi called Britain an island without a story. Munira Mirza looked at Britain’s homegrown identity crisis. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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