Edward L Fox: Why I'm becoming a British citizen

I observe America from a distance now, and see it as a place where you win big and you lose big


Tomorrow afternoon I'll be going up to Haringey Register Office for a citizenship ceremony where, with a group of others, I will swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, and pledge to "give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms", among other reasonable undertakings.

I am an American, New York City born, as were my fathers before me. Isn't American citizenship good enough for me? Well, yes it is, but having by now spent a greater proportion of my life here than in the US, I feel I want British citizenship too, and not just because I will be able to join a faster queue at Heathrow.

When I filled in the application for UK citizenship (which, at £280, doesn't come cheap), I expected that there would be a question on the form that said "Please state why you want to be a UK citizen. Continue on a separate sheet if necessary." But the question was not asked, and my reasons were not sought. So here is my answer.

First of all, I want to be able to vote here. I'm a member of the Labour Party (which allows foreigners to be members), so it would be nice to be able to express this preference other than just by having a bumper sticker on the car. There are local elections in May of next year, and I'm keen to vote in them, to take my revenge on local councillors. Not that it will make much difference, mind you. Local democracy in the UK is moribund. Where there should be democracy, instead there is "consultation". This is the process whereby local politicians listen to their constituents at public meetings, smug in the knowledge that they are under no obligation to do what the public are asking them to do.

Nationally, it's all quite lively, as we know. This situation is inverted in the US, where local democracy is strong and at the national level we see George Bush in the top job, and senators and congressman who, with rare exceptions, don't dare say boo to a goose in public in case it harms their chances of re-election. They praise their own timidity, calling it "civility", "collegiality" or (less often recently) "bipartisanship". I don't want to say I'm becoming British purely out of disgust with the unfolding disgrace of the Bush II era, but let's say it helped me to persevere with the application.

The fact is that I do feel a bit British after all these years. National identity is defined by the historical events you feel badly about: I came to realise that I felt worse about the dissolution of the monasteries than about the American Civil War. I feel bad about the Forgotten Army in Burma. I don't feel that bad about the Beeching Report and its consequences, but I sympathise with people who do. Mind you, I still feel bad about the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to California, and that happened before I was even born.

I like the British idea of patriotism, especially compared to the American, because of its virtual absence: herein lies a kind of freedom. The UK must be the only country in the world whose public holidays stand for nothing in particular. They are not named after famous victories or historical grievances. They are called "bank holidays", which means blank holidays: holidays with no patriotic burden.

On the other hand, this summer my family and I went on holiday in the States. It was great to be back in my native land. One night we went to a minor-league baseball game in Lynn, a suburb of Boston. The game was preceded by a lady singing the national anthem. We all stood with our hands on our hearts as the singer pealed out verse after verse of patriotic gore. Then halfway through the game there was another patriotic song, and a second moment standing solemnly with hands on hearts. I thought I had had quite enough patriotism by the time the game ended.

I also listened to right-wing talk-show hosts on the car radio from morning to night talking about "liberals" as if "liberals" were an enemy nation and the country were getting ready for civil war. The patriotic songs don't seem to be working there.

I guess my scepticism about the country of my birth shows how British I have become. In going to the trouble of getting UK citizenship (which I did not need) I am expressing a cultural affinity that has grown since I have lived here. I observe America from a distance now, and see it as a place where you win big and you lose big, and the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the constitution and the volume is up rather high. Here, people live according to what I call the principle of 60 per cent: no one is more than 60 per cent happy, no one is more than 60 per cent unhappy, no one expects more than 60 per cent of the pie or 60 percent in the polls. The result is a social consensus; it's hard to define, but it's there, and there is a kind of freedom in that.

So let's not fret too much about whether we need to tighten up the definition of British citizenship. Best to leave it as a loosely defined, elusive amalgam of the values of a shaggy consensus, a modest, muddled compromise. While an allegiance ceremony is a good idea, we shouldn't try to imitate the grand, formal, strictly-defined character of American citizenship, with its stern symbols and rites.

An American friend has been through the ceremony I'm about to go through. What was it like? I asked him. Oh, it was very nice, he said. It was very short. Everyone was very embarrassed.


The writer is an author and journalist

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