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Becoming British, at last

The Guardian, 16 February

In my case, the past is literally “another country”. I spent my first 18 years in the US, moved to Britain in 1971, and have been ensconced here ever since. But I applied for British citizenship only a few months ago.

It’s been a curious exercise. I’ve spent a good deal of my 38 years here as a leftwing activist. Though never allowed to vote, I’ve taken part in numerous election campaigns. First and last I’m an internationalist. I wrote a book called Anyone but England – its title was my answer to the question, “Who do you support in test cricket?” So becoming British was for me a process laden with irony and the odd embarrassment.

Why did I wait so long? I always thought which passport you travelled on was a matter of convention and convenience. I had no desire to hide my US roots and I didn’t believe in making a fetish of national affiliation. On the other hand, I did resent having to stand in lengthy airport queues for non-UK non-EU passport holders while my British-born partner scuttled ahead (Immigration minister Phil Woolas’s suggestion that would-be citizens demonstrate their mastery of the British art of queueing is redundant; if you’ve lived here as a foreigner for any length of time, you’ve long since done that.)

Over the decades, as my roots in London deepened, the US grew more distant; with each visit the country came to seem more alien. The fact is that this is my home and I have no other. I guess in the end it was some desire to have that stated plainly that pushed me into the arduous task of applying for “naturalisation”.

It’s a strange usage. Was my status prior to this “unnatural”? The word suggested that by some official alchemy I could be trans-substantiated into a native. National categories of course are not facts of nature; they’re created and contested through the course of time. But that’s not how they’re treated in the platitudinous lectures about British “values” and “rights and responsibilities” woven into the process of becoming a UK citizen.

The first hurdle to be cleared is the “Life in the UK” test, a computerised multiple-choice test of 24 questions (fee £33.28). I might well have failed the test if I hadn’t first studied the 20,000-word Home Office handbook “Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship”. It’s a safe bet that the great majority of born and bred UK citizens would struggle to pass without similar preparation. How many could answer questions about Britain’s child labour laws off the tops of their heads? Or identify the percentage of the population made up of Christians (71.6), Muslims (2.7) or individuals with no religion (15)?

The test was introduced at the end of 2005 as part of New Labour’s drive to cement “social cohesion” and promote national identity. In reality, like other elements in the citizenship process, it functions primarily as a deterrent, a winnowing-out device: one in three fail. It measures nothing more than the ability to study a text and answer questions on it. Certainly not familiarity with British daily life. There are no questions about sport, music, TV, shopping or food. Nor should there be. In the end the government is trying to test something that can’t be tested.

Having passed, I was confronted with the 14-page application form, with a number of questions pertaining to my “good character”. Applicants are asked politely to “tell us if you have ever had any involvement in terrorism” with the additional warning: “If you do not regard something as an act of terrorism but others do or might, you must mention it when making your application.” Which others? The FBI? The Israel lobby? Fox News? In fact, there is no definition of “good character” in nationality law, which allows officials to consider any unspecified “information to cast doubt on the applicant’s character”. In 2008, 31% of all refusals were due to applicants failing the “good character” test (largely owing to unspent criminal convictions). The vagueness of the criteria worried me. I was nagged by the fear that I wasn’t the Home Office’s idea of a model British citizen. I would be blackballed.

Once I had organised my tax documents and filled in the form, I paid a visit to Hackney Council’s Nationality Checking Service, where for a £50 fee a diligent young woman double-checked my calculations, certified my documents, ensured my handwriting was legible and dealt with a gnawing concern (I couldn’t remember exactly when I’d been granted indefinite leave to remain). She phoned a Home Office official on a direct line and got a quick, plain and reassuring answer. God knows how long it would have taken me to do the same. An efficient service cheerfully delivered – though they do have to collect the Home Office’s exorbitant £720 application fee.

In due course I received a letter from the Border Agency informing me that my application had been approved and inviting me to attend the mandatory ceremony at my local town hall. As I read the letter I felt a warm wave of relief. I hadn’t been turned away at the gates of my own home. Relief, though, was followed by mounting anxiety about the ceremony.

I’m not against the use of ritual to mark life passages, and for me this was a kind of retrospective marking of a life-passage, one that had happened gradually over many years. But I think rituals should be optional. And they can be empty – when the words intoned are at odds with reality.

The ceremony is another New Labour innovation intended to strengthen national identity. But in seeking to inject some ideological content into the legal proceedings, the government enters murky waters. At the ceremony each new citizen is required individually to swear or affirm to “bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law”. My dread at this prospect wasn’t much allayed by the fact that after the royalist pledge the new citizens as a group declare their commitment to respect Britain’s “rights and freedoms” and “uphold its democratic values”.

My problem was that these rights, freedoms and democratic values stand in stark contradiction to the preceding royalist pledge. I’ve always been a committed republican. Some of that stems from my American background, but much from the rich tradition of republicanism in Britain: Milton and Rainsborugh, Paine, Blake and Shelley, John Mclean and Hugh Mcdiarmid, Sylvia Pankhurst and John Lennon. These are my British heroes, and all would have found the royalist pledge unsayable.

As an atheist I am allowed to affirm, without having to swear by a god I don’t believe in. As a republican I should be allowed to demonstrate my commitment to this country without having to pledge loyalty to a monarchy I don’t believe in.

In addition to worrying about the pledge, there was the matter of dressing for the occasion. The letter from the Council urged “formal” attire but added, “Cultural dress is welcome.” Well meaning but desperately patronising. Is a jacket-and-tie less “cultural” than shalwar kameez? And what was my “cultural dress”? I don’t even own a suit.

In the event, I turned up at Hackney town hall on a rainy Friday morning in the cleanest, crispest pair of jeans I could muster and a black jacket I’d bought in Delhi. The other new citizens had also interpreted “formal” in their own relaxed fashion. Only one man wore a suit and the women mixed a variety of tops with jeans or trousers. We were a wonderfully motley crew. The 18 of us hailed from 14 countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iraq, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Phillipines, Guyana, Jamaica and of course the US. The ceremony, held in the wood-panelled council chamber, turned out to be altogether more enjoyable than I had imagined, low-key but cheerful.

In the course of becoming British, I’ve been asked to prove things and say things that those born here are never asked to prove or say. I’ve been forced to define myself in ways that I was not comfortable with. I don’t and won’t ever feel like an “Englishman”, though I am certainly a Londoner. In this case, the local identity is more capacious, diverse and intimate – something that a citizenship process tied to an official national identity can never provide.

Still I felt a surprisingly warm glow as I ventured out of the Town Hall into the gloomy mesh of people, cars and buses. A personal reality had been given official and public recognition. I felt embraced and protected. What remains now is to register to vote, at last, in a general election (the 10th since I’ve been here) and get my new passport. At least when we’re next in an airport, my partner and I will be able to queue together.