As a non-Brit who’s lived here for the better part of a decade and half, as a witness to the political and rhetorical contortions to which the debate around Britishness has (almost legitimately) given rise and as a member of the Goldsmith citizenship review, I hate to break it to Helena Kennedy but the fact is that despite her assertion that citizenship oaths are ‘risible’ and her intimation that this all a bit over the top, the fact is that the Citizenship review was long overdue and the report covers necessary and refreshing ground.
Firstly, because the major transformations to which we tirelessly refer as globalization had cornered us into quasi nonsensical legal situations—situations in which neither duties nor in fact rights were particularly clear or applicable. It was time to give the myriad over-lapping statuses a good dusting and the report does exactly that.
Secondly, citizenship is too often reduced to something that is exclusively local. As if being a good citizen was just about ‘being a good egg’ – in fact citizenship is the political expression of a social bond that is both real and imagined. It is that set of institutions through which we may in fact be able to experience and examine the dynamic, ever-evolving bond that binds us to one another. And more to the point, experience a bond that binds us to people we don’t know, by allowing us to make certain assumptions about them. In that respect, citizenship is all about one’s everyday life, the regular places to which one connects, the organizations we contribute to—but also about how participating at the local level allows us to connect to something larger. Never has this been more necessary: our capacity to tackle difference and indifference, illusion and disillusionment is about inventing mechanisms that allow us to know strangers more than we otherwise would. The report replaces citizenship in this context as a chain of institutions and relationships to which we may only connect directly to a few links but whose greater chain we trust.
Finally, the coverage on the Today programme privileged what is in fact no more than an interesting footnote – the oath. The idea of the oath is borrowed in part from the US’ ‘pledge of allegiance’ but whatever emphasis was placed on oaths and ceremonies probably owes more to the Canadian case. More importantly, highlighting the oath above everything else really is missing the point. The aim of the exercise was to think about the link between the local and the national – giving local authorities the scope to adapt national level concerns to their own context. Whilst allowing each and every citizen to forge a connection to a broader context and set of aspirations.
I suppose what disturbed me most was the parochialism of asserting that everyone was in fact perfectly in sync with the meaning of a Britishness that had been long defined. A strange situation in which an attempt to ask ourselves who we are, is met by a shrug and the silent accusation that if you have to ask you clearly don’t get it. Surely a set of solid precepts for a 21st century citizenship is having the courage to ask the right questions?