Matthew Norman: So what does it mean to be British?

Does it imply a duty to learn British history, or guarantee the right to remain as ignorant as Prince Harry?

Those of you with a year planner for 2005 to hand are hereby requested, on behalf of our most gracious sovereign, to keep the month of October free of all engagements. At time of writing, the precise date of the inaugural "Citizenship Day" has still to be announced, and both common sense and the form book suggest it never will be. But on the off-chance that the Home Secretary proceeds with his latest meisterwork, stand by your desk diaries and await further instructions.

From a flick through my own leather-bound planner, three dates for this crucial reaffirmation of Britishness leap out. Early in the month, on 4 October, is the first day of Ramadan. Bang in the middle, on the 13th, falls Yom Kippur. And right at the end, as ever, comes Halloween. Already I find myself more bewildered than ever as to what, if anything, it means to be British today ... and especially so to an adolescent.

It is those on the verge of adulthood, inevitably, who are the core target of the Government's latest foray into the troubled arena of national identity. The central thrust of Charles Clarke's musings is a plan to ask or compel people (the thinking remains nebulous) to swear allegiance to the Queen on their 18th birthday; and then to join the rest of us in putting out the Citizenship Day bunting. But when in October should that be?

To the observant and politically motivated Muslim teenager marking the start of Ramadan, Citizenship Day might seem an affront. Having to rush home from the mosque, grab a bite and charge off to laud the country that permitted our fellow British citizen (or "citizen") Moazzem Begg to rot in Guantanamo for so long, with no access to lawyers and no prospect of being charged with an actual crime ... well, let's just say it could be bamboozling.

Similarly, to orthodox young Jews about to embark on their own penitent fast, a rousing chorus of "God Save the Queen" en route to the synagogue may seem an oddity as they recall the taste in fancy-dress outfits of her youngest grandson. Should Citizenship Day coincide with Halloween, meanwhile, the overgrown trick-or-treater with a precocious taste in irony might be mildly amused to be affirming loyalty to the monarchy on the day he or she is slavishly aping the culture of the republic that receives rather more literal allegiance from Britain than does Her Majesty.

Speaking of the old girl brings us to yet more confusion. How can we possibly be asked to observe Citizenship Day when we are not citizens, but subjects? This is more than a semantical point. To be a citizen is nominally to be the equal of all other citizens - a principle wonderfully expressed, however laughable its application, in the US Constitution. Subjecthood is to accept one's place in a rigidly defined social order crowned by one anointed and appointed to the role by the God worshipped by more of those subjects than any of His rival deities.

The 18th birthday pledge is being considered, so Mr Clarke claims, as part of the drive to destroy inequality. Only by swearing our undying fealty to the Queen, in other words, can we acclaim the belief that we are all born equal. It's tremendous stuff, and not long ago my automatic assumption would have been that it came to Charlie Clarke in the back of the ministerial Rover after a few bottles of claret at one of those drinks parties at which he used routinely to eff and blind at passing hacks. Alas, with a great office of state (the one so vexed by binge drinking) at his command, Mr C has sobered up, so we must reluctantly assume that he means it.

The big question, of course, is what it is that he means, or thinks he means, with the 18th birthday ceremony. Mr Clarke speaks of building bridges between different ethnic groups, while his junior Fiona Mactaggart thinks it may increase voting among young people. Yet again, I'm bemused. American students express their loyalty to the country every schoolday, and voter apathy there is vastly worse than here. As for the bridge-building/inequality- slaying side of things, much of the Cabinet views the removal of the monarchy as an essential first step on the long and winding road to a more equal society.

"We can't all be born to be king," sneered one senior minister two months ago, during a row with the heir to the throne, "but we can all have a position where we really can aspire for ourselves ..." If these words carry a stridently republican tone, you won't be too shocked to learn that they came from the mouth of Charles Clarke, then HM's Secretary of State for Education.

Lock Mr Clarke in a cell, blindfold him, pump him full of whatever truth drugs the CIA doubtless used on Mr Begg in Cuba, and ask him what it means to be British, and he might manage some incoherent, New Labour gibberish - "well, it's inclusivity, um, freedom, err, diversity, tolerance, ughh, the many, not the few." But he'd make no real sense, because there is no real sense to be made.

Whatever "being British" does mean, if anything, there are so many inherent paradoxes and so many versions of Britishness as to make any attempt to coalesce them - in a spoken oath or a mandatory rendition of the world's worst national anthem - both ridiculous and counterproductive.

Does it mean to revere such sacred precepts of natural justice as the right to trial by jury, or a natural inclination to imprison foreign nationals indefinitely with no intention of ever trying them in court? Does it imply a duty to learn about British history, or guarantee the perfect right to remain as ignorant as Prince Harry?

Is Britishness more about gently guarding the vulnerable from themselves than exposing them to the lure of all-night gambling and drinking? Does it suggest an instinctive emotional tie to Europe or America, Israel or Palestine? To Protestantism, Evangelism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, humanism, atheism or Halloween?

No one has the scope of imagination regarding the myriad versions of British lives being lived to encapsulate Britishness into any form of words; let alone into a paragraph of New Labourese, to be recited by a bunch of recalcitrant 18-year-olds, their minds focused on getting pissed, stoned, laid, beaten up or whatever it is self-respecting young Brits do these days to celebrate their coming of age.

At gunpoint, and with Mr Clarke's oath of loyalty to the Queen in mind, one might posit that the quintessence of Britishness, at least so far as this government of authoritarian hypocrites is concerned, is the mantra "do as I say, not as I do". For the rest of us, however, the only undeniable meaning to being British is possessing a small, rectangular maroon document which guarantees the bearer Her Brittanic Majesty's protection in foreign parts.

It isn't much, and it didn't do Mr Begg much good in Guantanamo, but it's the only tangible thing we have. The rest of it we must be allowed to interpret for ourselves, free from the supremely patronising and impertinent guidance of Mr Charles Clarke. And may I be the first to wish a very happy Citizenship Day to you all.

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