The Gift of Citizenship

As he approached the microphone at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy on January 20 1961, the poet Robert Frost, then 86 years old, was unable to read the poem he had prepared for the occasion because of the glare of the sun off the snow. Thinking quickly, he chose to recite a poem he had written twenty years earlier called ‘The Gift Outright’, which, though overshadowed by John’s own speech telling his countrymen to ask what they could do for their country, has since moved on into the vast myth-making plains of American identity. It begins, ‘The land was ours before we were the land’s…’ and celebrates American independence as a surrendering to the land, rather than an overthrowing of oppressors; a choosing of a destiny already dictated by geography and necessity. A land of immigrants can forge its own identity, because it is a matter of participation rather than natural right; not of what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

According to the Home Office website, there are two ways of becoming a British citizen. One is registration (basically for British overseas territories citizens and, in certain circumstances, the ‘stateless’), the other naturalisation. Naturalisation requires living here for five years, being over 18, sufficient knowledge of English, being of good character and not being of unsound mind. David Blunkett’s citizenship test has yet to materialise, other than in Liverpool and only in prototype form, attracting what The Sunday Express described as ‘outrage’ by its organisers’ refusal to allow new citizens to graduate to The Beatles; apparently only Elgar or Vaughan Williams will do. Outraged Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle said, ‘They are imposing high culture on others’.

Recently I went to a friend’s citizenship ‘ceremony’; it was depressingly bureaucratic affair, conducted in the sterile environment of a solicitor’s office. The lawyer was a nervous, pale sort who sheepishly asked my friend, Catarina, if she wanted to swear on the Bible (you can take the oath with or without) and could not mention the Queen without giggling. The oath itself is couched in somewhat uninspiring legalese: ‘I (insert your name here) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law.’ He then told her that would be five pounds, please. No fur or ermine, no questions on the efficacy of the longbow at Agincourt or the origin of Walford’s unfortunate Slater sisters and no Elgar, no Vaughan Williams. Catarina, a Brazilian, has lived here for six years, was married to an Englishman for two of them, and intends to return to Brazil in another couple of years.

I am not suggesting that a decent soundtrack to the taking of an oath would make her stay, but a recognition that a nationality is a significant part of a personal identity is no bad idea. In the process of learning what you are, learning where you are is not entirely irrelevant. Citizenship is more than a matter of bureaucracy, just as an individual is more than an economic unit, as both Marxists and Coalition forces in Iraq would do well to realise. However, the primary test of citizenship should be language. All our history and culture is encoded in language, and it binds individuals of whatever background to the area they live in far more surely than some fragments of knowledge. And the borders of language are more porous even than those of the nation state. English is a language with a comparatively massive vocabulary and a flexible grammar, open to change and innovation. New users can and do shape it according to their whim, for it allows both a unique personal identity and a collective consciousness.

In conclusion: David Blunkett, ditch the citizenship test, bring on the TEFL teachers, and sex up the ceremony.

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