The unexpectedly moving experience of watching forty strangers become fellow citizens and compatriots at a UK citizenship ceremony
“Citizenship is more than an individual exchange of freedoms for rights; it is also membership in a body politic, a nation, and a community”
— Melissa Harris-Perry
“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship”
— Ralph Nader
On Wednesday this week I had the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony at Camden Town Hall, as my American wife finally took the oaths and became a British citizen.
This journey has been quite the odyssey for us. Jenny first came to this country on a short study abroad programme, staying for only a matter of months. She returned a couple of years later to study for her postgraduate degree, which is when we met, and after marrying we moved back to London (she on a spousal visa) and have been living here together since 2012.
The subsequent steps – applying for indefinite leave to remain, studying for and taking the Life in the UK test, providing biometric data more often than one would think necessary given the unchanging nature of one’s fingerprints and of course forking over large sums of money to the Home Office at regular intervals – were frequently stressful and time consuming, but there was never a question that this was a step we were going to take.
Britain is home for Jenny just as much as is the United States of America. She may have stubbornly refused to learn the 24-hour clock, use Celsius when talking about the weather or guzzle tea ten times a day along with everyone else at her office, but she is indisputably a proud Brit and a Londoner. She understands our cultural quirks, appreciates our history, loves the natural beauty of our countryside and maintains a richer social life and a wider network of British friends than I have ever cobbled together for myself.
Thus, naturalisation was simply a case of formalising on paper a transformation which had already taken place in her heart and mind. Jenny was already British in pectore; we were simply waiting for the legal side of things to catch up with reality. And so it was that I found myself sitting in the gallery of the council chamber at Camden Town Hall in King’s Cross, witnessing my wife and a diverse group of strangers complete the long and arduous process to become something which (through accident of birth) I have been fortunate to take for granted my entire life.
It was a genuine honour to be present as over 40 people from all backgrounds, races, religions and countries of birth solemnly affirmed their commitment to our United Kingdom. Many people are content to live in this country, building lives here, contributing and receiving back, without making this gesture of commitment. But I believe that it is very important, and admire those who do so.
Citizenship is more than a basket of rights, privileges and perks. It is also a binding commitment to the society in which we live. Choosing to naturalise means a willingness to undertake obligations as well as demand one’s due. Becoming a citizen is a declaration that one is bound to one’s fellow citizens by something more than temporary convenience or the accidental byproduct of an overseas work assignment or relationship.
This bond is hard to describe or put down in words, which is perhaps why so many self-declared “citizens of the world” – people who consider themselves to have transcended national alignment and who flit from place to place without ever making a binding commitment to anywhere they set foot – don’t understand why it matters.
But if you have built a life in Britain over the course of years or even decades, why would one not want to formalise that connection? Yes it costs money, and yes the Home Office does its damnedest to make the process as bureaucratic, expensive, frustrating and opaque as possible, often actively throwing barriers in the way of people who desperately want citizenship. But if one has the means and the opportunity, why not take the pledge and acquire the passport? Failing to do so is the civic version of cohabiting with a partner but never marrying, one foot always out the door, one eye always casting around for something better.
If I was a non-citizen living in Britain, I would take citizenship in a heartbeat. In fact, as a natural born citizen of this country I was almost envious that the immigrants who were naturalised today in King’s Cross were able to solemnly mark the event. Those of us born here often take our citizenship for granted, but these immigrants strove and sacrificed to attain their status.
With the ongoing debates around Brexit, I encounter all manner of arguments from people who clearly don’t understand the first thing about what citizenship entails or represents. For example, many are genuinely outraged that EU citizens could not vote in the 2016 referendum. I find it to be astonishing that people who live here but are unwilling to share the bond of citizenship with me seriously believe that they should still have the right to help determine the future of my country.
At this point I inevitably hear outraged spluttering along the lines of “I pay my taxes / serve in Our Blessed NHS / help employ local people, so why shouldn’t I have a say?” But this only highlights the transactional view of citizenship that many now hold, with paying taxes and claiming benefits the only relationship one might possibly have with a country.
And to be fair this transactional view of citizenship is also encouraged by the UK government, which rather than pursuing an immigration policy optimised for economic growth, social stability or national security instead blindly chases an arbitrary and unattainably low net migration number. When the state makes clear its view of immigrants as a problem to be mitigated and prospective citizens as purely a bureaucratic burden to be processed it is difficult to demand greater fealty or civic engagement from immigrants themselves.
Yet citizenship still matters, despite its somewhat tarnished image. Only citizens are able to participate fully in our civic life – voting, running for office, serving on a jury. If one is unwilling to undertake these commitments 99% of the time, as long-term EU residents who choose not to take citizenship are essentially declaring, you can’t object when you are then prohibited for participating in the one very specific event (voting in the EU referendum) in which you have a direct interest. That kind of cafeteria civics would represent a one-way flow of benefits from the state to the individual and undermine the reciprocity needed for society to function.
The Brexit debate has highlighted just how degraded our conception of citizenship has become. With reduced and increasingly ineffectual armed forces, only a very limited opportunity for national service (the National Citizen Service being one of the few entirely positive policies enacted by David Cameron) and our exquisite embarrassment about any display of patriotism, it is really no wonder that we have come to see citizenship as just a bunch of perks.
This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.
I am sure that some of those who naturalised in the citizenship ceremony today did so for purely practical or transactional reasons. But I hope that even they will look back on today with pride and now feel a deeper connection to the country they call home.
Ultimately there is nothing magical about naturalisation. The certificate does not hold any special magical powers. It is not a measure of personal worth, and of course many UK residents who are non-citizens on paper are far better citizens in practice than many of us who are natural born. Naturalisation is just one indicator, albeit a very important one, of an important responsibility solemnly accepted.
Of course, none of this will be the case in perpetuity. The nation state is not forever, and in a century or two, civics and geopolitics will doubtless look very different. But for now, the nation state remains the best guarantor of freedom and incubator of prosperity that mankind has yet devised, and attachment to the nation state has been the means of securing these blessings for an individual. Wishing for its premature demise is foolish.
To those citizens of the world, outraged by Brexit, who hold their EU citizenship more dear than their British citizenship, I would simply point out that any objective, dispassionate analysis shows us that the European Union is not the only (nor best) vehicle for international cooperation, its status as the natural successor to the nation state is far from certain and it will never possess the essential spirit of democracy until there is a European demos – a body of citizens willing to take the oath that my wife and forty others willingly gave to the United Kingdom.
Watching these people – as diverse as one would imagine forty people randomly plucked from the streets of Camden to be – take the oaths of allegiance was to witness them transform from being strangers and fellow immigrants to being compatriots. It was nearly as emotional for me, sitting perched in the gallery, as it clearly was for many of them.
And if only more of us knew the journey involved and the sacrifices made by these people so that they might share the same rights and responsibilities that we enjoy as British citizens, we would not be so cavalier about our own citizenship and all that it represents.
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