Thursday, 21 February 2008

Citizenship

What does it mean to be a British citizen? For Gordon Brown, it is about values: liberty, civic duty, fairness, and internationalism. Certainly, it does comprise those things but, as many have pointed out, just because these values have such a strong association with our history, it doesn't make them peculiarly British. So it's something more than values. It is also about identity or rather identities (because diversity is intrinsic to Britishness- in fact diversity has been essential to Britain's survival as a nation and political community.)

The English language, understanding of British society, appreciation of the history of Britain and its empire, associating oneself with a British 'way of life' would all seem to be part of it. All these things can be easily demolished intellectually. They are real but very tricky to define. In a complex world of multiple and overlapping commitments, questions of identity are breathtakingly complex. That does not mean that identity does not exist.

John Major's risible idyll of warm beer (yuk!) and cricket on a village green on a Sunday afternoon is just as compatible with 'Britishness' as Philippe Legrain's hysterical plea for a cosmopolitan Britiain in today's Guardian. (As a quick aside, as part of their training every journalist should have to spend at least a year outside of London with top-up sessions of 3 months in every subsequent year- it would certainly do Mr Legrain some good.) But as a snap-shot of culture in today's UK or even any of its constituent parts both are completely wrong. Major's ossified notions of identity are a nonsense. Legrain seems to deny that Britishness even exists which is equally nonsensical.

While obviously Britishness is not a racial or ethnic concept, it still conveys an identity but what is that identity?

Yesterday's announcement of a process to citizenship is an interesting one. It seems, on first reading, like a good approach- a period of residence, followed by a short probationary citizenship, then full citizenship with the rights and benefits that come along with that. There has to be a pathway to full citizenship and it has to mean something.

But this is not just about immigration. We all need to consider what modern British citizenship is, the duties that we have, the benefits that citizenship confers and what it means to be British. And actually, these are more important questions than who's in and who's out. So Britishness and citizenship both matter but they matter to us all.

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