Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

British Citizens of History

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

British Citizens of History

Article excerpt

A keen sense of irony appears to be part of the sense of fun of our new and renewing government. Indeed, reading the section on citizenship in Jack Straw's green paper The Governance of Britain, published in July, has provided the best laugh I've had in years. At the outset, let me make it clear that I take my British citizenship very seriously. I remember the day my father lined the whole family up and formally presented us with our naturalisation papers. Not exactly the ceremonial occasion the government is contemplating, but more deeply felt than any bureaucratic invention.

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The trouble is that this long ago seminal moment in my family's life was itself laden with irony. Both my parents were born British subjects, citizens of the British Raj. Britain had been in the business of shaping their identity, and consequently mine, for centuries. It was only when we ventured to set foot in Britain that doubt about our citizenship and ability to be British arose. Now Straw informs us that the concept of citizenship is complex. He suggests we should "look to history to help us to define citizenship". But alas, the history Straw has in mind is the "more clearly defined sense of citizenship" that he finds in the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa! Does no one at the new Ministry of Justice have any knowledge of history? Are we to draw our lessons from the most racist and confused states on the planet? All became "nations" by dispossessing the original inhabitants.

Take Australia, the only country where no treaty was ever made with the indigenous population. Its idea of citizenship included hunting them to extinction for sport; the last such massacre occurred in 1958. Aborigines became citizens only in 1948 and the road to effective citizenship remained tortuous. They still have few rights despite being citizens.

South Africa became a nation by reserving 13 per cent of its land as the rightful abode of its indigenous population, allotting all the rest to white immigrants for their enrichment. …

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