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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Becoming a British Citizen

One thing that has been a subject of some debate over the last year in Britain has been the introduction of ‘citizenship ceremonies’ for people taking British citizenship. When my sister received her British citizenship all she had to do, besides convincing the Home Office that she fulfilled all the relevant criteria, was fill out a form while having a British citizen on hand to serve as a witness. David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, decided to change this and introduce American-style citizenship ceremonies, where immigrants would gather at their local town hall for a communal ceremony to confer their citizenship. This decision prompted some debate in wider British society, with some seeing it as 'a ceremony that makes people feel like they belong', while others described it as 'degrading and offensive to ethnic minorities'.

After twelve years of living in Britain I decided that it was time for me to get dual nationality, so, just before I came back to New York we filled all my papers out and sent them to the Home Office, because I wanted to lock down my status, since I think that at some point I would like to move back to Britain. So, for me, having followed much of the debate online over the past year it was very interesting to actually participate in such a ceremony when I was back in London over Christmas/New Year's. How was it? Quite nice actually. When my parents and I turned up at Westminster Council House, a beautiful nineteenth century edifice hulking over the Marylebone Road, we were unsure what exactly to expect. After a brief wait we were brought through to the Purple Wedding Room (there are a lot of weddings conducted at Westminster City Hall) for the ceremony. I had paid a bit extra to get the process expedited so that I could do it before I went back to the States, so I was doing it by myself, where the standard formula would be to do it with a group of ten to fifteen others. I went in to the room, signed some forms, and then stood up for the ceremony. The registrar gave a little speech welcoming me to British citizenship, said a few nice platitudes about Britain and Westminster being diverse places of all different kinds of origins and religious faiths and so on, then we had the Oath of Allegiance. She would read off a sentence or so and then I would repeat after her. After that they played God Save the Queen over the loudspeakers (fortunately for all concerned I didn't have to sing!) and I shook hands with the registrar and her assistant, and that was that.

Completing the formalities took maybe ten minutes, and I found it quite a pleasant ceremony. I didn't feel like I was having some kind of noxious British nationalism thrust upon me (and my mother is a member of Daughters of the American Revolution!) or that my 'ethnic identity' was being brutally cleansed. It was nice that there was a ceremony to it, that going that last step and actually getting British citizenship wasn't something like getting a tv license, where you filled out a form and wrote out a cheque and sent it off sort of perfunctorily, without much thought. I think it is a nice idea, and I thought the entire process was well-judged and well put together.

|| RPH || 3:41 PM || |