Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Becoming a British Citizen

I am becoming steeped in rites of passage of late. First, a friend was called to the bar, and second, I attended two friends' citizenship ceremony. I was intrigued by this since not long ago we Brits were considered subjects not citizens. It may have been part of Blair's attempt at "cool Britannia" to rebrand us as citizens without the implied feudalism of being a subject. Citizen sounds closer to consumer also, so we now we exercise choice. Of course, if you are a Muslim who emigrated to Britain and you fall afoul of the new terrorism laws, you might have that choice exercised for you in a nasty way when you are repatriated.

The US has an oath of allegiance and has carried out ceremonies for a long time. For Britain it's a new way of doing things. New Labour thought merely posting a certificate that said you are now British didn't do enough to instil a sense of Britishness and belonging. Now, once you have served your time and clocked up enough British flying hours, you get to take a test. Sample: when do British children normally receive their pocket money--monthly, weekly, after they've done their chores? The answer's obvious, isn't it? Weekly. What? You didn't know! Out you damn foreigner!

Once you've passed this gruelling exam, you are eligible for the ceremony. You are invited to the town hall. In my friends' case it was the Old Marylebone Town Hall, a fine, stout Victorian building (although it is truely an edifice!). The deputy superintendent registrar then talks you through the ritual. There are two groups. The god-fearing ones choose to swear by almighty god while the heathens merely affirm. Affirmation lacks resonance and authority somehow. Swearing before god means you could be struck by lightning at any moment.

After the rehearsal there's a short wait in which the lord mayor of Westminster should have ironed his rather creased blue and gold robe and also cleaned his grubby white gloves. We see this splendid vision when he enters and we are commanded to be upstanding for him. You can tell everyone's thinking why didn't he iron his robe? It is very badly creased. He briefly welcomes us to Westminster and latterly Britain. His priorities are to be seen talking to future voters. And indeed he reminds his audience that they will be able to vote and that they have a voting registration form in their welcome packs.

Then the deputy superintendent steps forward and asks the "swearers" to stand and each says his and her names. The "affirmers" do it next. They all stand together and read the oath after him.

I (name) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

There is a lot of twaddle in this. The UK doesn't have a constitution, at least not a proper one, so knowing one's rights and freedoms is tricky because they can change anytime. Duties and obligations means the government's passed a new law and god help you if you are Muslim or look like one. And do try hard not to look Brazilian; that really is dangerous.

I watched the nascent citizens read their cards. I suppose reading it aloud may have increased the significance. But that was brought home as each one stepped forward to receive their certificate from the mayor (and be photographed doing so--orders taken after the ceremony) and a glass inscribed with the City of Westminster's logo/brand/seal, depending what century you come from. Once everyone had passed go and collected their glasses, we were again commanded to be upstanding for the National Anthem (it needs capitals, doesn't it). Fortunately we only had to listen to it and not sing it, which would have been excruciating. Only the first verse was played as I think we were being broken in gently on this.

Then it was over. Gregg, Adrianne--our new citizens--and I sloped off to the pub where we talked about their Christmas trip to the Red Sea and their dream of returning to Australia before long because Britain was too cold for them.

Rule Britaaanniaaa!



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Unknown said...

It is curious you should blame Tony Blair for the citizenship ritual.

The Oath of Alliegence was introduced in 1948 with the British Nationality Act of that year. This was the legislation that turned us into Citizens rather than Subjects.

The Pledge was introduced in the British Nationality Act 1981 by Mrs Thatcher's Conservative govt.