Fear of lost 'Britishness' triggers citizenship plan
March 16, 2008
LONDON - Alarmed
that Britons don't know what it means to be British anymore, the government is
proposing a range of measures to remind them.
For starters, a new report suggests, how about asking graduating high-school
seniors to say a pledge of allegiance, and scheduling a national patriotic
The result has been a wave of veddy British irritation.
Among young and old, liberal and conservative, religious and not, the reaction
to the recommendations on boosting "citizenship" have been overwhelmingly
dismissive: Real Brits don't do oaths of citizenship, say some. It's "too
American," say others. Why, republicans ask, do we have to promise to be loyal
to a monarchy many don't even support?
Perhaps not surprisingly, Scotland, always threatening to bolt the United
Kingdom, made it clear it wasn't inclined toward pledging loyalty to the queen.
Wales was also not overwhelming in its enthusiasm.
"I think in this day and age of a global world, I would find it very hard to
swear allegiance to one country," said Clarissa Williams, vice president of the
National Association of Head Teachers, who said she was not certain her students
would want to take the pledge.
"I honestly feel we are citizens of the world, not just one country," she said.
The "Britishness" issue has dogged the nation through the last decade, as the
increasing autonomy of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, combined with major
immigration from Asia and Central Europe, has watered down traditional symbols
such as tea, rugby and an addiction to the soap opera EastEnders.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, and thus by definition somewhat mistrusted
in England, seized on the Britishness issue like salve on a wound the moment he
took office. The July 7, 2005, bombings on the London transport system,
committed by British Muslims, made the issue of what it means to be a British
citizen a matter of crucial national security, the prime minister said.
"While the British response to the events of July 7th was magnificent, we have
to face uncomfortable facts that there were British citizens, British born,
apparently integrated into our communities, who were prepared to maim and kill
fellow British citizens, irrespective of their religion," Brown said last year
in calling for this week's report.
"This must lead us to ask how successful we have been in balancing the need for
diversity with the obvious requirements of integration in our society," he said.
Brown has lamented that there is no British Fourth of July or Bastille Day. "And
what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in the United States
in every garden?" he said.
Some recommendations in the report, prepared by former Attorney General Peter
Goldsmith, have won grudging support.
The idea of a British national day by 2012, in time for the London Olympics, has
been hailed as, at the least, a chance for an extra day off work. Many have
applauded the idea of offering breaks on tuition or local taxes in exchange for
Likewise, clarifying the various categories and responsibilities of citizenship
seems to many to make sense, along with encouraging long-term foreign residents
to apply for citizenship.
But the preponderant response has been that Brits don't need the government
telling them how to be British. Many have said that loyalty oaths are less
meaningful than upholding "British values" such as tolerance, a commitment to
liberty, and perseverance under adversity.
Many took the opportunity to weigh in on the raw-sore issue of the moment a new
European Union treaty many believe will delegate even more powers to Brussels.
"The rise of the EU, globalization and internationalism have weakened the notion
of a sovereign nation-state that was master of its own destiny," Anthony Browne,
director of the Policy Exchange think tank, wrote in the Daily Mail.
"With most of our laws made in the Belgian capital, our interest rates dependent
on a bank in Frankfurt and our armies unable to fight without international
support, any sense that this is a club worth belonging to has been eroded."
To help define what it means to be British, the Sun, a tabloid, consulted
various celebrities, along with its readers.
The results: "Bad teeth framed by a stiff upper lip"; "black humor when all
around are being po-faced;" "socks with sandals;" "standing in an orderly
queue;" "roast beef and two fresh veg at Sunday lunchtime followed by fruit
crumble;" "men offer seats to ladies on crowded trains."