Thursday, September 04, 2003

On Citizenship

Magnus Linklater hits a few nails on the head in the Times.

The trouble with tortuous definitions is that they raise more questions than they answer. Sir Bernard has tried to come up with an approximation of what it means to be British, while at the same time emphasising the importance of our “diverse range of cultures and identities”. He says he does not favour the idea of a “melting pot” or “assimilation”, because that implies a surrender of identity; but he is equally against “separate enclaves, whether voluntary or involuntary”, because that suggests ghettos. He is uncomfortable about the phrase “parallel lives”, because parallels never meet. Even defining terms is difficult enough; he speaks of “multiculturalism”, while the Home Secretary prefers “diversity”. If Sir Bernard had stuck to the first bit of his report, which was about the importance of learning English, he might have had an easier time of it.

Josie Appleton pointed out a year ago that 'the exercise of trying to tell immigrants how to be British is becoming an embarrassing demonstration of the fact that the elite doesn't know itself'. She returned to the attack in February, and again in July.

"The British government, by contrast, is attempting to develop the formal rituals of British citizenship in a complete vacuum. There is little general sense of what it means to be British; no spontaneous movement attempting to strengthen national identity. Indeed, the government's attempt to make British citizenship into an event is a response to the fact that being British doesn't mean much at all.

But this raises a problem, because rituals can't be invented in a vacuum. The whole business becomes arbitrary - whether immigrants pledge allegiance to the Queen or to the principle of tolerance, whether they meet in a mosque or a town hall. Who's to say? When it comes down to it, the government knows that it wants to make British citizenship more meaningful, but doesn't know how."

UPDATE - Richard Littlejohn makes the same point more colourfully in Friday's Sun.

UPDATE 2 - Minette Marrin and Nick Cohen weigh in.

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