In defence of citizens

The only thing worse than Phil Woolas’s points system for citizenship is his critics’ argument that the idea of citizenship is undesirable.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Yesterday Phil Woolas, the UK’s monotone minister for immigration, published a consultation paper, Earning the Right to Stay in Britain, which proposes that new migrants will only become British citizens if they earn enough ‘points’. They’ll get points for joining a political party or doing voluntary work, and they’ll lose points if they show an ‘active disregard for UK values’, such as by taking part in heated anti-war protests or questioning ‘the British way of life’ (1). One critic has denounced it as ‘government by Tesco’: just as you earn Clubcard Points at Tesco by being loyal and reusing carrier bags, now migrants will be able to earn Citizen Points by being docile individuals who support all wars and never mock the Queen (2).

Woolas’s mad initiative shows that his government has no understanding whatsoever of what it means to be a citizen. Rather than seeing citizenship as an active, grown-up, democratic and political relationship between the individual and his government, New Labour sees it as something akin to the relationship between a teacher and a potentially wayward pupil: a citizen must apparently be unquestioning and obedient, and always respectful in the presence of rarefied institutions.

Yet if there’s anything worse than Woolas’s harebrained scheme for putting migrants on the conveyor belt from Wide-Eyed Naivety to Slavish Respect, it’s the arguments being put forward by his critics: namely, that the very idea of British citizenship is impossible, even undesirable; that in a society as diverse (a trendy word for ‘fractured’) as the UK, we should ditch the idea of citizenship altogether and let communities define themselves as they please.

Where Woolas has ossified citizenship by turning it into a stuffy relationship of respect for authority, his critics are effectively making a virtue of the collapse of collective ideals and civic duty by dressing up ‘divided Britain’ as ‘diverse Britain’.

With its latest how-to-become-a-citizen scheme, New Labour is really projecting its own uncertainty about what constitutes British values today, and its own desperation to redefine British citizenship in an era of moral relativism and political flux, on to newcomers to this country. Unable to say in any profound, meaningful way what Britain stands for, and why British citizenship is important, the government instead creates a bizarre list of do’s and don’ts, of right ways of behaving and wrong ways of behaving, and forces foreign arrivals to adhere to the list before they can become ‘probationary citizens’ and possibly full-on, passport-owning citizens in the future. This is not only about putting pressure on migrants (though we shouldn’t underestimate Woolas’s and the Home Office’s deep desire, as usual, to make it harder for people to come to Britain); it is also about advertising some basic idea of Britishness to British-born people, too, and attempting to reconstitute through expensive, extravagant ‘citizenship ceremonies’ for migrants a new vision of the UK.

It is striking that the Home Office can only conceive of British citizenship as a set of practical, can-do skills that can be measured by ticking boxes. The basic requirements for all new migrants who want to become citizens are: must be able to speak English; must have some knowledge of British life (and prove it by taking a Citizenship Test with questions such as ‘according to British custom, where does Father Christmas come from?’ and ‘what should you do if you accidentally spill someone’s pint in the pub?’); must be able to support themselves without claiming benefits; and must have no criminal record (3).

After jumping through these preliminary hoops, wannabe citizens can earn extra points towards their final goal by improving their English-speaking skills, doing voluntary work, possessing some special artistic or scientific skills, and showing a willingness to live in parts of Britain experiencing population decline, such as Scotland (perhaps the toughest demand of the entire scheme) (4). They will also be forced to attend ‘orientation days’ where they will be taught even more about British values and social norms (5). If migrants manage to get all of their boxes ticked, they have a higher chance of becoming a ‘probationary citizen’, a bizarre limbo category where they are presumably neither unfree migrants vulnerable to deportation or full citizens with equal rights. If they do anything bad while on probation, such as show an ‘active disregard for UK values’, they can lose points; ‘active disregard’ could potentially include anything, including taking part in ‘anti-British demonstrations’ or exercising ‘extreme’ forms of speech (6).

This shows how New Labour conceives of citizenship: as an entirely practical thing denuded of political engagement and of any open, testy, free exchange of ideas. A citizen is an obedient and skilled individual who knows how to behave in pubs and what to tell his children about Santa Claus; he is not someone who involves himself in extreme politics or expresses disgust with his government. For New Labour, a ‘good citizen’ is basically just a well-behaved worker bee, who never provocatively questions British values. But that is not a real citizen. It is more like being a member of a golf club, where you’re welcome so long as you wear the right shoes, play by the rules, and observe all of the right social etiquette in the clubhouse – and where you can be ejected if you do anything judged ‘unacceptable’ or ‘untoward’. Citizenship that promises to provide you with a passport while simultaneously denying you the right to protest furiously or speak out of turn is not citizenship at all.

In New Labour’s worldview, citizenship means unquestioningly accepting society and values as they currently exist. In this vision of citizenry, we have the rulers at the top of society, like Woolas, who present to potential citizens an A-Z guide of British rules, regulations and customs so that the potential citizen can ingest and learn them and eventually earn a passport. Yet historically, in particular from the Enlightenment and the French and American Revolutions onwards, citizenship has been understood as a living, breathing relationship between the individual and his system of government, where society itself is an expression of the citizenry’s needs and desires rather than something external and aloof to the citizenry. For Rousseau, the eighteenth-century Enlightened thinker whose Social Contract inspired both the French and American Revolutions, a society built by citizens rather than serfs should give ‘form to the genius, the character, the taste and the customs of a people’ (7). In New Labour’s view, by contrast, citizens must dutifully accept the already-existing character, taste and customs of the UK, as defined by apparatchiks in the backrooms of Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, or else risk being chucked out. This almost takes us back to a pre-Enlightenment feudal set-up, where the people’s job is to live by petty rules and never speak up rather than to make and remake their societies.

New Labour hopes that by effectively factory-farming ‘new citizens’ it can reconstitute the meaning and ideal of British citizenship. But this gets things the wrong way around. Citizenship can’t be remade by making citizens to order, who learn things by rote, just as people will not be enthused or excited about Britain and Britishness by having a cardboard cut-out politician like Woolas using coercion against them to make them respect British values. Indeed, New Labour’s new citizenship schemes spring, not from a coherent view of what Britain represents and a desire to include more people in the British project, but from a powerful sense that Britain is a confused and divided state where no serious values or sense of community hold sway. And as Rousseau also argued, citizens cannot be made to love a society that has lost its way or become corrupt: ‘There is no political authority strong enough to be able to make citizens respect a law which they do not cherish.’ (8)

Yet if New Labour’s latest promotion of empty citizenship reveals its illiberal, anti-free speech, managerial instincts, then the attacks on New Labour show that its critics also find it difficult to value or celebrate the idea of the citizen today. Many have slated Woolas, not for trying to make yes-men citizens, but for trying to make citizens at all. Under the headline ‘Who wants to be a citizen?’, one commentator questioned the idea of a specific ‘way of life’, arguing that for some people Britishness means ‘getting inebriated every Friday night, rolling in the middle of a dual carriageway, singing “I Will Survive”’, while for others, for example Muslims, it means being religiously observant (9). In short, Britain is too diverse, too crazy and mixed up, to have any single idea of what a citizen is.

Here, the government’s critics are effectively accommodating to today’s dearth of values and culture of relativism and tarting up national discombobulation as ‘national diversity’. Where Woolas desperately, and forlornly, tries to usher in a new vision of citizenship to patch up fractured Britain, his critics say citizenship is undesirable because being fractured is good: we’re all different and distinct and we don’t have much in common. The ideal of citizenship is worth rescuing from these two camps. The Enlightened view of the citizen is as a public actor. A citizen is a free individual but also part of something bigger than himself; he is a citizen of something (preferably a republic), who is not so bound up in himself and his penchant for late-night drinking or wearing a hijab that he has lost all interest in taking part in public debate, trying to change other people’s views, trying to push society in a certain direction. Instead of allowing ourselves to become the citizen-robots Woolas would like to see, or accepting that citizenship is an inherently flawed concept and we’d be better off celebrating people’s differences, it would be better to have a full-on debate – with no restrictions on what can be said – about why the category of citizenship is in such crisis today, and how some real life might be breathed back into it.

Citizen O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild saw the UK government’s ID card scheme as an attempt to conjure up a sense of togetherness. Tim Black criticised attempts to persuade children to swear allegiance to the Queen. Josie Appleton felt the UK citizenship test sucks the zest out of being a citizen. Frank Furedi said that citizenship education was corrupting the curriculum. Kevin Rooney argued that students wouldn’t buy a new citzenship textbook. Donald Winchester claimed that the questions in the citizenship test were bizarrely random. Wendy Earle examined a report which claimed that children were searching for citizenship online. Or read more at spiked issue British politics .

(1) New migrants face ‘points test for citizenship’, Guardian, 3 August 2009

(2) Who wants to be a citizen?, Comment is Free, 3 August 2009

(3) New migrants face ‘points test for citizenship’, Guardian, 3 August 2009

(4) New migrants face ‘points test for citizenship’, Guardian, 3 August 2009

(5) New migrants face ‘points test for citizenship’, Guardian, 3 August 2009

(6) Citizenship points plan launched, BBC News, 3 August 2009

(7) Quoted in One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea, Edward McMillan, University Press of Kentucky, 1990

(8) As summarised by Maurizio Viroli and Derek Hanson in Rousseau and the Well-Ordered Society, Cambridge University Press, 2003

(9) Who wants to be a citizen?, Comment is Free, 3 August 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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