The Quest for a British Identity: Citizenship Tests? Yes, but Let's First Agree on Our Own Values. (the NS Essay 3)

By Hewitt, Patricia | New Statesman (1996), December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Quest for a British Identity: Citizenship Tests? Yes, but Let's First Agree on Our Own Values. (the NS Essay 3)


Hewitt, Patricia, New Statesman (1996)


Growing up in Australia in the 1950s, I was very familiar with the assisted migration scheme that attracted thousands of families from postwar Europe. But on a recent family visit to the Hebridean island of Islay, I discovered that my father's great-grandparents had been assisted migrants more than a century earlier, when Scottish landlords, determined to rid their lands of "surplus" population, helped thousands to travel to new settlements in the Antipodean colonies.

This discovery changed my perception of my nationality. I felt both more Scottish and more Australian -- and, paradoxically, more British, too.

I grew up British in Australia. Mine was a generation brought up on British history (I learnt more at primary school about the Viking and Norman invaders than lever did about Australian Aborigines or the early white explorers). Our political and legal traditions were British, and so were our cultural reference points. We read British children's books, sang English Christmas carols and ate plum pudding in midsummer, with the temperature in the 90s. The national anthem was still "God Save the Queen", and this was long before Australia acknowledged the appalling wrongs done to its original people, let alone developed the self-confident national identity we saw at last year's Sydney Olympics.

So I am not surprised when a Sikh friend in my Leicester constituency tells me about his British origins in East Africa: "My father worked for the British civil service. My uncle served in the British army. We are British." He is still angry about the device of British overseas citizenship -- which stripped the right of entry from those who were born British in Uganda, Kenya and the rest of the non-white British Commonwealth. He, and many of my British Asian friends, grew up British --- as well as Indian, Pakistani and Hindu, Sikh or Muslim -- in the Indian subcontinent, East Africa or South Africa.

Their experience of Britishness was very different from mine. They were targets of racism; I, a white, middle-class Australian, was not. But if we do not understand the sense of Britishness felt by all those British citizens who grew up in the Commonwealth, then we miss a crucial aspect of the debate about multiculturalism. The history of Britain's different ethnic and religious communities, complex and contested as it is, is part of modern British history; and their identity is part of the contemporary British identity.

These family histories are histories of migration. It is time to abandon the idea that migration is something that other people do to Britain, and remember that migration is what we have been doing to the world for centuries. Britain, as a free and wealthy country, would be a magnet in any case for people seeking a better life and for those fleeing impoverished, war-torn lands. But the magnet is a thousand times stronger for those connected to Britain by history, language, culture and family.

We should also remember that our diversity brings not only cultural richness, but also economic and competitive advantage. In this global economy, the globe is at home in Britain. The new generation of British Asian, Caribbean and African professionals and entrepreneurs not only grow businesses here, they also create trade and investment links abroad. Both Germany and Britain want to recruit people from India who have IT skills that Europe urgently needs; but as one Indian business leader asked a senior German politician: "Why would Indians want to go and live in Germany when they feel at home in Britain?"

Not everyone who settles in the UK wants to become a British citizen. But most do. As David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has said, acquiring British citizenship should be more than a bureaucratic process. Australia has long expected "new Australians" to learn English and something of the laws and values of their new country; in return, their new status is publicly celebrated in citizenship ceremonies. …

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