Turning British

Mikal Mast

After over ten years living in the UK, I am finally applying for British citizenship.

British citizenshipI put off this administrative procedure for so long for several reasons. For one thing, it is very expensive. The application for British naturalisation currently costs £906. Filling out all that paperwork is always a headache. And finally, there is that minor issue of becoming a subject of the Queen, which seems undemocratic as well as archaic.

I finally changed my mind when practical considerations overcame philosophical qualms. I decided to become a citizen for the same reason that a number of my friends have taken the plunge, but perhaps not for the reason most British people would expect: I want to be British because it will make it easier to leave.

I have already sunk a great deal of time and money into becoming a permanent resident. I entered the UK on a fiancée visa (which currently costs USD1500). After my marriage I got temporary leave to remain (currently £601). Two years later I gained Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) (currently £1,093). Finally, applicants for ILR now have to pass the Life in the UK test (£50) and, if they wish to submit copies of their travel and immigration documents rather than originals, must pay to have these copies notarised (£67).

If I left the UK for more than two years I would lose my residence visa. We have been considering a move back to the US, but as my husband is British, there is every likelihood that we would at some point return to the UK. If we were to come back, I would have to start the whole process over again from scratch, a process that is becoming increasingly onerous due to visa policy changes. Becoming a British citizen makes it easier for us, a transnational couple, to live in either of our homelands.

British iconsSo, that is the practical reason for becoming a British citizen. But like marriage, citizenship is more than a bureaucratic procedure and a legal status, it also has emotional implications. Citizenship involves a sense of identity and a sense of belonging.

Do I feel British? My first six years in the country were spent in Glasgow, so to a certain extent I feel Scotland is ‘home’, although Scottish independence would complicate that connection. My husband’s family is from Suffolk, and over many visits I’ve become very familiar with the area, so that feels a bit like home as well.

Beyond the geographical connections, I also feel at home with the society and government, perhaps more so than with my native America. There are many things to prefer about Britain, including:

  • no death penalty
  • universal, single-payer healthcare
  • a functioning welfare system that reduces inequality
  • an extensive and generally well run public transportation system
  • a broadcast media that is legally required to be fair and balanced
  • a public that is not armed to the teeth and a police service that is consequently mostly unarmed and mostly operates with reasonable force
  • a justice system that does not imprison large portions of the ethnic minority population
  • a government that actually functions and tries to legislate based on evidence
  • no religious fundamentalists pressuring the government to operate according to  ‘religious’ principles
  • a simple tax system that does not require overseas citizens to annually file taxes even when they have no assets or earnings in their native country

Of course, they don’t get everything right. Britain has a class-ridden society with low social mobility, but circumstances are hardly better in the US. Related to this, before taxes there are similar levels of inequality in the UK as in the US. The finance industry has a disproportionate influence on policy and society and, in many parts of the country, the housing stock is inadequate and unaffordable.

Anti-immigrant sentiments are, unfortunately, also quite widespread. According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, 74% of British people think that to be ‘truly British’ you have to have been born in Britain, 77% think you should have lived in Britain for most of your life and 51% said it was important to have British ancestry.

Of course, being aware that such attitudes exist and personally encountering them are two very different things. I recognise that, as a white woman from a Western country, my experiences pale in comparison to those of other migrants, in particular those from non-OECD countries. But it does beg the question: if citizenship is meant in part to be about community and yet large portions of that community believe you’ll never truly belong, does this mean, in the end, that it essentially becomes nothing more than an administrative procedure and, to take the marital analogy one step further, nothing more than a marriage of convenience?