Hand on heart - but where is your soul?

My Burmese father would be happier to spend his declining years with his brother's family in Rangoon
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The Independent Online

Let us fantasise for a moment and pretend that, if instead of being a cynical, hard-bitten journalist with a penchant for mockery and a constant eye on the main chance, I was a decent, sensitive, clean-living economic migrant intent only on furthering the fortunes of my family through honest toil and hard graft, how would I feel about taking an oath of allegiance to my adopted country? Delighted, and why wouldn't I be. It costs nothing, you get to shake hands with Prince Charles and a certificate to hang on your wall not unlike the framed affidavits you see in hairdressers confirming in large, curly letters embossed with gold that Dawn is a qualified beauty therapist with honours in waxing and highlights. Even more important it represents a rite of passage like baptism and bar mitzvah into a formally structured future. It's easy for us who belong to the club to scoff. We don't know what it's like not to be a member.

Besides, to judge by the smiles on the faces of the 19 immigrants who've just become citizens, it's also fun. They promise to uphold our democratic values, observe our laws and respect our rights and suddenly I had this flashback to the promise I made as a pixie to Brown Owl a century ago. I'd do good deeds and help other people everywhere, especially those at home. Ah, there's the rub. Where exactly is home to a 22-year-old Pole whose weekly wages at Garfunkel's in Piccadilly will be sent straight back to Warsaw to support the family? Becoming a card-carrying citizen does not, whatever Lord Tebbit may say, require a second-generation British Trinidadian to cheer for England when they are playing the West Indies at Lord's. Your hand may be on your heart when you take that Citizenship Oath, but your soul is not so easy to locate.

Deep down, I know that my Burmese father, who fought for Britain against the Japanese and has lived in London since 1958, would be infinitely happier to spend his declining years with his brother's huge family in Rangoon. The Burmese mercifully are not athletic, which makes it unlikely I shall ever have to choose whether to cheer for England or Burma at Lord's or Wembley or the Athens Olympics, but I respect the right of immigrants to cheer for whoever they like, except my Scottish husband who is a chip off the Rab C Nesbitt block and will support anyone who's playing England at anything.

Citizenship ceremonies are easy to mock, but are they really so very different in spirit from the Buckingham Palace award ceremonies that most Brits, with the exception of Benjamin Zephaniah, take in their stride? My sister-in-law, whom no one would call extravagant, splashed out on an entire new outfit to go to the palace to get her MBE. We did manage to persuade her that forking out an extra 500 quid to Parker Bowles Enterprises for a personalised video of the event was a waste of money. Just as well. All the Queen said when she attached whatever it was she attached to Morven's lapel was: "Oh dear, this pin is a bit tricky.''

Still, it was a near thing and demonstrates the value that normally sensible people place on ritual. For that reason, I am not totally convinced that Prince Charles in Brent Town Hall has sufficient pulling power to tempt foreigners to become citizens; couldn't we make the whole thing a bit glitzier? I see the novice citizen being carried in a swaying, bejewelled howdah along Constitution Hill, through the Buck House gates into a courtyard where the elephant kneels and Her Majesty in full garter regalia presents her new subject with a nice B- (for British) shaped brooch or tie-pin and tickets for No Sex Please, We're British.

When I asked Abdul the Afghan jeweller across the road who mends my earrings whether he had thought of taking the citizenship test, he said sadly that if it meant a written test as in America, he couldn't. He'd like to, but he wasn't good on British prime ministers. Abdul, his wife and four children walked over the mountains from Kabul to Pakistan to escape the Taliban; his children were at the same primary school as ours. Who knows though, with so many people wanting to live in Britain and another 80 million EU members round the corner, the Government may insist on a test. Citizenship certificates don't grow on trees, I can hear Mr Blunkett scold.

Which British prime minister tucked his shirt into his pants? How many British footballers play for Chelsea? What is Britain's favourite sandwich filling? If your answers aren't John Major, none and chicken tikka, you are the weakest citizen, I'm afraid. Goodbye.

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