Thomas Sutcliffe: We won't value citizenship until it costs us something

'New arrivals will need to show civic responsibility; residents can put up two fingers to the whole notion'
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I was eating in a small local restaurant the other night when we were suddenly treated to an unadvertised floor show. Pretty unwelcome too, as it turned out – since the performers were two Dickensian trolls, anorak hoods over their heads and cigarette stubs clutched between their childish fingers.

They pushed through the doors and past the suspicious waiter – the bolder of the two announcing that he'd come to talk to his mum. The innocuous looking woman he pointed too didn't look like the kind of person who would allow an 11-year-old to wander the streets at night, but you never quite know in Stoke Newington, so the waiter overruled his suspicion and let them past.

Naturally, it wasn't filial affection that had brought them there, just a desire to strut between the tables, staring down the customers and, I imagine, scooping the place for unguarded bags. Eventually they were persuaded to leave – but not before they had fiercely defended the integrity of their personal space ("Don't you fucking touch me!") and flicked their lighted cigarettes at the staff.

They were, even at this young age, fully aware of their rights. And it was this faintly depressing incident which came to mind yesterday when I saw a headline reading "Citizenship classes for immigrants". Not necessarily a bad idea, I thought, but shouldn't we start with the natives?

The Government, of course, is ahead of me here – because, from next September, citizenship will become a statutory part of the National Curriculum for Key Stages 3 and 4, and the subject is already being taught to younger schoolchildren. So, while there might appear to be a discriminatory flavour to the proposal regarding new immigrants – an air of cultural quarantine – it will soon have disappeared, as far as educational expectations are concerned. Whether you're born in St Albans or Accra or Tirana, you will be required to absorb the principles of moral responsibility and political literacy.

One distinction will remain – if you are born in St Albans you will be able to pick your nose through citizenship classes and flick the outcome at the teacher without surrendering your right to citizenship. But if you are born in Tirana, as far as one can understand, the requirements for due diligence on the part of pupils will be rather more stringent.

Potential citizens won't, apparently, be required to take an oath of allegiance, as new citizens do in Australia and America, but there has been talk of a "citizens' entitlement card" for graduates, a badge of membership which presumably will require some form of initiatory test. New arrivals will need to demonstrate a modicum of fluency in the language of civic responsibility; residents will be able to give a two-fingered gesture to the whole tiresome notion.

Faced with such a discrepancy, the anxious liberal would usually flinch – can such discriminations rest on an accident of birth alone? Should Tracey Wright, the woman who beat her six-year-old stepdaughter to death in Norfolk recently, really enjoy a status from which a devoted Hindi-speaking mother is excluded? Liberals might also question the unstated assumption that those born in Britain enjoy some innate sense of community which has to be painstakingly acquired by those who arrive from overseas.

The anxiety isn't entirely misplaced, but I suspect that the best remedy for it might be counter-intuitive. Rather than lower the hurdle to full citizenship to a level that allows everyone to stroll over it, why not raise the bar, but require everyone to make the leap?

No one, barring the occasional joyrider, expects to be able to enjoy the privileges and convenience conferred by a driving licence without first demonstrating their fitness to hold one. So why should we take the privileges of citizenhood for granted without some test of our understanding of what it involves?

Indeed the phrase "take for granted" may lie at the heart of the problem – the "worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life" which Bernard Crick's Advisory Group on Citizenship identified in its 1998 report on Education for Citizenship. The confidence we have in our entitlement to our rights of citizenship is intimately linked to a kind of indifference to them – an indifference which, under present circumstances, is only disturbed on formal occasions.

The jury of her peers which found Tracey Wright guilty in court was worryingly disconnected from the society of her peers, which did not intervene until it was far too late – and that gap was possible because we've pretty much ceased to think of ourselves as citizens until we feel that our privileges are threatened in some way.

Another way of putting this is to say that a good that is obtained at no cost will always to some degree be treated as worthless – which is why it is no bad thing that the government's proposals appear to put a price on citizenship. A membership that excludes no one – even those hostile to the principle of membership in the first place – makes the notions of "belonging" and "joining" utterly meaningless. Something must be surrendered if something is to be gained.

If the arrangement is to be truly just, though, nobody should be exempt from the entrance fee – whether they are born in this country or somewhere else. None of this need rule out the basic protections to which even the most recalcitrant and odious citizens are entitled, but it may be that we won't get more first-class citizens until the notion of a second-class citizen has a wider currency.