Thursday, 13 March 2008

The danger of navel gazing and change for change's sake

Lord Goldsmith’s citizenship review has attracted a wealth of comment, both in the mainstream media and indeed on various blogs. O’Neill and Ciarán have discussed the proposed changes to rules permitting Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK to vote in Westminster elections. The discussion on Draw Breath assumes a fascinating theoretical dimension as Willowfield argues that those born in Northern Ireland claiming citizenship of the Republic of Ireland do not need to be provided for by special dispensation as Goldsmith suggests. It is on their tacit, but unclaimed, citizenship of the United Kingdom that the right to vote in Westminster elections rests, rather than on their residency in the UK as Irish citizens. Ciarán is more concerned with potential diminishment of an arrangement which acknowledges the special ties that bind together the people of this archipelago. I find myself agreeing with the crux of his argument as well as assenting to the detail of Willowfield’s.

Goldsmith’s suggestions are aimed at fostering a greater sense of belonging within the United Kingdom. He is exploring methods whereby peoples of various nationalities and origins can coalesce around a common core which identifies them as British. The review which he has produced to this end is a fairly piecemeal approach to the issue. Common sense suggestions, such as providing extra funding for immigrants to learn English, flounder amongst the type of headline catching, but ultimately fatuous, ideas that commissioning such reviews tends to produce. These ideas are a self-justifying confection which unconsciously or otherwise seeks to rationalise the expenditure required to produce the report / review. Thus we have the suggestion that children should pass through a citizenship ceremony when they leave school, or the idea that a British Day should be instigated as a public holiday.

As someone who believes that Britain and Ireland are intrinsically linked by both history and culture, like Ciarán I would regret any moves to diminish the acknowledgment of that relatedness. Instinctively I feel that emphasising the common links between Britain and Ireland is a more constructive pursuit than underlining distinctions between the two islands or the two polities within them. It is vitally important also, that in the quest to define and shape a sense of British identity, we do not forge a narrower understanding of that identity. The strength of Britishness is that it is not a brittle or prescriptive in the way that some national identities can easily become. It would be deeply regrettable if an instinct to be seen to be “doing something” and an excess of national navel gazing were to change this for the worse.

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