Leading article: A flagging quest in search of Britishness

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The Independent Online

It is unfortunate that the publication of Lord Goldsmith's report on British citizenship should coincide with the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a dark period in our nation's recent history with which the former Attorney General will be forever associated. The man who gave Tony Blair the legal cover to take the nation to war in Iraq is hardly best placed to lecture us on the virtues of patriotism and citizenship.

Actually, there are some semi-decent suggestions in Lord Goldsmith's report, such as his call for a review of the present ban on asylum seekers taking paid jobs while they are awaiting their claims to be judged and that there be better funding for English language lessons for migrants (which have suffered disgraceful cut in recent years). But there are an awful lot of New Labour-style gimmicks in there, too.

The idea of extending migrant citizenship ceremonies to school leavers comes into that category. So does the suggestion for a "British" public holiday and a "Deliberation Day", the latter to be set aside before each general election for "political debates and events".

Some of Lord Goldsmith's report also sounds wearily familiar, in particular the suggestion of a "special" honours list which "focuses exclusively on the achievements of ordinary citizens rather than on those of senior figures in public life". Tony Blair made a similar suggestion when he was Prime Minister but nothing much came of it. It is hard to see why things will be different this time.

Much of the report is interfering in tone. The idea of a "small" council tax and student fee rebate for those who volunteer in their communities by helping out in local schools or organising a recycling project might be worth exploring. But it should be for local councils, not Whitehall, to take a lead on this sort of thing. The suggestion of making citizenship lessons compulsory in primary schools also strikes a terrible note, considering how overburdened the school curriculum has become under this Government.

Some parts of are simply baffling. Lord Goldsmith suggests an overhaul of Britain's treason laws as a way of encouraging a sense of national unity. Does he seriously believe that one of the solutions to the problem of "a diminution in national pride" is to start prosecuting people for treason again?

The fundamental problem with this project is that a sense of national identity is not something that can be imposed. Consider the issue of national symbols, which Mr Brown first highlighted two years ago when he urged people to "embrace the Union Flag". The Prime Minister might not have noticed but there has been a resurgence of enthusiasm in Britain for flags in recent years. The trouble is that it has been for those decorated with the George Cross, the Saltire and the Red Dragon, rather than the colours of the Union. No amount of exhortation from Downing Street is likely to change this preference.

The other red herring is the idea that we can import patriotic customs wholesale from abroad. Lord Goldsmith commissioned studies into citizenship ceremonies and rituals in Europe, North America and Australia for this review. International comparisons are fine for general policy research, but when it comes to promoting a sense of national identity they are meaningless. Different nations have entirely different traditions and histories. One country's rituals cannot merely be grafted on to another.

The whole exercise smacks of posturing and seems driven by hysteria about the supposed failure of ethnic minorities to "integrate". Rather than embarking on this nebulous quest to define "Britishness" for the 21st century, Mr Brown should concentrate on governing Britain. That should be more than enough to keep him busy for the time being.