I’m coming up to my 10-year anniversary in the UK in November 2013. I came on a fiancée visa, got married several months later, and started working shortly thereafter, once I converted to a resident visa (you can’t work on a fiancée visa).
I haven’t become a citizen yet, because it never seemed necessary. After living and working here so long, I feel well integrated – I feel like I belong. The only time I am made to feel like I don’t belong is when I travel without my husband and get an inquisitorial immigration agent. On several occasions upon responding to the question of how I got my visa, I was asked why I was not traveling with my husband. Um, because it is the 21st century? And anyway, even if we were divorced, I would still be entitled to my indefinite leave to remain. Unless the Home Office has changed the definition of indefinite – which wouldn’t surprise me.
The rules of immigration have changed a lot since I first arrived, which has made me think again about becoming a citizen. If we were to move back to the States for work opportunities, which is a distinct possibility in this economy, then I would lose my residency if I were to stay away for more than two years. If we were to return, we would have to meet the new higher income requirements for married migrants, which might be difficult, as we might not have jobs or property in the country.
Additionally, given the current government’s focus on cutting down on immigration numbers, there is no guarantee that the requirements will not become more onerous and difficult to fulfill. So the current anti-immigration climate is making me (and not only me) reconsider the idea of citizenship. If it seems odd that a society that frequently expresses concern about overcrowding is provoking more long term migrants to become citizens, thus creating a larger permanent population – well, that is just one of the many ironies of immigration policy.
We need to talk about the Queen
But let’s get to the real heart of the issue – why am I still not a citizen (apart from the cost, which is not unsubstantial)? It is a little matter of principle; a matter of the Queen.
In 2004, as part of an effort to encourage migrants to integrate and show their commitment to Britain, the first citizenship ceremonies were introduced in the UK. This was a part of a broader effort to raise the bar for future citizens – they also had to pass a language test (if they were not native English speakers) and a Life in the UK citizenship test. The English and citizenship tests later became a requirement for residency as well.
At the ceremony, the new citizens recite two oaths – a citizenship pledge asserting loyalty to the United Kingdom and an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
Citizenship Oath of Allegiance: I… swear by Almighty God that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.
Citizenship Pledge: I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfill my duties and obligations as a British citizen.
The citizenship pledge is inoffensive. The oath of allegiance to the Queen highly so, for several reasons:
1) The oath of allegiance to the Queen is not inclusive
I grew up reciting the oath of allegiance to the American flag: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Leaving aside the controversial “under God”, which was added in 1954, possibly as a reaction to the Cold War and communist state atheism, this oath is familiar to all Americans. It is recited in schools, government meetings, and at the beginning of congressional sessions. It is a pledge made by citizens, and by reciting it, new citizens join the American community.
The British citizenship oath of allegiance is not recited by the general population. It has never been required that British citizens by birth swear allegiance to their Queen. It is sworn by parliamentarians, certain government officials and Anglican clergy. As a ritual of integration therefore, it fails. If no one but public servants and naturalised citizens have to say it, it doesn’t act as a communal ritual, it acts to set immigrants apart.
This leads to the second concern:
2) the oath of allegiance does not leave room for republicans
I am an American small-r republican. I don’t support the idea of a hereditary monarchy, I don’t believe that one family should be raised above all others in a nation, I believe in citizenship, not subjecthood. I think that a hereditary monarchy perpetuates a class system and undermines social mobility (the UK has even lower social mobility than the US). And I also don’t think it is fair on the royals, who are forced to live in a fishbowl with no privacy and no free will.
And I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are plenty of British-born critics of the monarchy. In a very unrepresentative Facebook poll of my friends, five were very opposed to reciting an oath to the Queen, two thought it was just weird and one said it was the natural order of things. Granted, three of the five opposed are Scots (where, incidentally, the police do not swear an oath of allegiance), but as Andy Murray just proved, the Scottish still count as British.
Republicanism does not have a lot of currency in the UK at the moment, mainly due, I suspect, to the enormous respect for the current Queen, who has been an almost supernaturally exemplary head of state. But I imagine once the current monarch dies (since she is unlikely to step down before then) there might be some reconsideration of the institution. I am heartened that the rules have been changed so that a first-born female child can inherit the throne. Not enough to actually resign me to the monarchy, but I’m impressed that a tradition-fetishising society can change a law that is blatantly discriminatory and anachronistic. Maybe there is hope for the future.
And in the meanwhile, at the citizenship ceremony l might just have to cross my fingers like Tony Banks.