On Citizenship

What is citizenship for? That’s a question I’ve been asking for the last few years in an academicsetting: but it seemed more relevant than ever this week as I listened to commentators debate the logic of the Government’s new Citizenship Test: Too much history? The wrong sort of history? More on this in a moment. But it seems to me that before we can answer this question about what sort of qualifications are needed for citizenship, we need to think a little more about what citizenship itself is supposed to mean.

According to the UKBA, one of the two benefits of citizenship is that you can vote in national elections. Except, of course, if you’re a Commonwealth citizen – Not just ‘White Dominion’ Australian or Canadian, but Ghanaian, Jamaican, Indian or even Pakistani – you can vote already. Very occasionally, the vestiges of Empire work both ways. That just leaves the British passport. Which is really as much about being able to leave as it is about being able to stay. Of course it’s more than that too – an emblem of belonging, a document that will save you bureaucratic form-filling and money as you no longer have to apply – again – for continued leave to remain. But the point is that citizenship should be seen not so much a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but a confirmation of community ties.
But where’s the “British Community”? If the Citizenship Test is taken as indicative, it would appear to lie in the past, the memories of dead Englishmen and comedy groups that – however brilliant – disbanded thirty years ago. The truth – as Christian Joppke’s book Citizenship and Immigration underlines– is that the the story of national citizenships can only be told in the past tense, because the values that supposedly bind us together – tolerance, respect, democracy – are exactly the same as the values that Americans or Germans or South Africans would also claim bind their citizens together. Britain is the elite’s attempts to build a composite of national and regional identities: depending on whether you believe the publicity or the practice, its most powerful quality is either its ability to evolve and incorporate new, diverse belongings or its ability to continue to sustain rule by an Etonian English Establishment. My point is that Britain has always been an imagined community existing more in the minds of civil servants than in the culture of cities or country villages.
So if citizenship is supposed to be a confirmation of community ties, why focus on reinforcing the creation myths of an ultimately hollow “Britain”? Why not on the citizenship of everyday life – paying taxes, your children attending school, queueing in the Post Office. Yes, this requires a working knowledge of English (or Welsh), and understanding of the broad contours of how to interact in modern British society – but given our draconian visa regimes, this is mostly taken care of before you even step foot in Britain, and in the rare cases when it is not, the answer is not a test but tuition. We should, though, be careful not to set the bar too high. As I sit typing this in London, I do not know my neighbours. I cannot make a nice cuppa tea (I hate the stuff). Just as expecting our new Citizens to master a pub quiz in Imperial history ignores the fact that only around one-third of sixteen-year olds sitting GCSEs even take History, and one-third of them don’t get more than a ‘D’ grade,an Arcadian vision of village fetes and street parties and cricket teas is not only fantasy, it’s many other (British) people’s hell.
A common language; a smattering of cultural connections; the reasonable expectation of a livelihood. The desire to become a citizen. Surely that should be enough? After all, citizenship is the most arbitrarily distributed of goods (perhaps even more than wealth). Having the option to choose a different community seems a basic means of redressing the injustices resulting from birthplace or parentage. And what does citizenship mean anyway, when the state is shrinking and social rights being retracted? Moral panic about impending Bulgarian and Romanian floods may distract the masses, but British citizenship means less today not because of migrants, but because the entitlements of Empire are in the past, and the future laid out is one of private goods not public rights.
‘Citizenship’, wrote T.H. Marshall ‘has become… the architect of legitimate social inequality’. My favourite line on citizenship: one that reminds us that citizenship is ultimately a form of co-option, a social safety valve. Citizens are all equal, so the theory goes: so what does it matter whether I am rich and you are poor? It matters a great deal, of course, and the debate surrounding the citizenship test underlines the extent to which citizenship and its social rights are being eroded by a political project that sees power as ‘the privilege of a limited economic class’. Marshall, a great historian, knew well that History is written by the powerful: but also that progress lay in the inclusion of the powerless, the choices we made about what citizenship meant. And that’s why this new citizenship test is dangerous: it spins a British fairytale none of us should believe, just as the Bulgarians and Romanians are being spun a patronising horror story (for the edification of the British media). When in truth, we citizens should be less anxious about protecting our precarious privileges and more concerned about regaining, from our own government, our so easily-lost social rights.

    10 Comments on “On Citizenship

    1. Thanks, really enjoyed reading your blog – and you’re completely right to highlight the economic costs of citizenship as excluding many, am actually doing some research in my day job on that at the moment…