Fear of lost 'Britishness' triggers citizenship plan
Los Angeles Times
March 16, 2008


Kim Murphy

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 holiday?

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 community service.

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."