Mark Steel: Let's be modern and swear an oath to the monarchy

Wednesday 12 March 2008 01:00

When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown launched the idea of New Labour, it was as a crusade to be modern. A typical speech would go: "Mister chairman, brothers and sisters, modern modern modern modern modern. New Britain new modern modern. Modern modern modern, thank you," (23 minute standing ovation).

And they ended up so modern they gave the job of reviewing British citizenship to Lord Goldsmith, who's concluded everyone should undergo a ceremony in which they pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. This is so advanced the rest of Europe only abandoned it 200 years ago. So there are probably other bits of his report, not yet published, which go: "Loyal British citizenship will be enhanced by dismantling the system of local government, and replacing it with a network of barons. A sense of modern national unity will be advanced if citizens, who shall also be known as 'serfs', kneel before them on the third Sunday of each month and offer them their wives as chattel. This measure, I feel, should bring about a rapid decrease in the practice of city centre binge-drinking."

One of the questions in the British Citizenship test asks what you should do in the event of someone spilling your drink in the pub. So from now on the correct answer will be: "Challenge them to a duel."

Teenagers, he's said, should have to "graduate" into true British citizens, to show they've encompassed Britishness. So maybe the boys will have lessons in subjects such as being sexually attracted to Helen Mirren. And teachers will say: "We're very lucky today because Mrs Mirren has kindly agreed to sit at the front of the class for us so off you go. Come on Jenkins, start tingling boy, and Walcott, let's have a bit of drooling shall we, this is a national treasure, surely the odd slobber isn't too much to ask."

And girls will graduate if they've got a letter about what's annoying them published in The Daily Telegraph, such as: "Dear sir: It has come to my attention that the 'boys' who frequent Club 99 at the rear of the disused cinema in Swindon old town have, of late, appeared unrelentingly minging. One fears this is indicative of a general decline, like so much else these days, and makes one yearn for back in the day in like 2004, and that when they was like well fit. Yours sincerely."

The reason anyone who tries to define "Britishness" gets in a muddle must be because there's hardly anything that unites everyone who's British. And while there are behavioural traits that are typically British, you can hardly insist all immigrants have to adopt them to be considered a citizen. Otherwise you'll have citizenship lessons in which an instructor shows an England football match to a group of Somalians and says slowly "Now all together – 'Lam-pard and Gerr-ard, they can't play together - it's OBVIOUS.' Follow that with a deep sigh, then a muttered 'hopeless'. Well done, you'll soon be ready to go to a packed pub on the night of a qualifying match for your field work." Or you could have a question that asks: "Name five situations in which it would be suitable to stare blankly and mutter the phrase 'fucking Ada'."

Even if you can locate Britishness, it's constantly changing. If someone studied for a citizenship test by reading a pamphlet on Britishness from 30 years ago they'd be stuffed, because they'd answer the question: "Name four things that make people feel proudly British", with: "The Black and White Minstrels, Gary Glitter, a mouthful of dripping and the smell of asbestos in schools," and get themselves instantly deported.

The other tangle we get in is when we wonder why we can't be like Americans, who have no qualms making pledges to their country. But their pledge is to a set of ideas on which the country was founded, most of which evoked the rights of citizens and were fought for in opposition to the monarchy we're still being asked to subject ourselves to. So even most liberals feel comfortable with it, sensing they're signing up to the ideas of the founding fathers, and a flag that was carried in a war against slavery, and that recent presidents have betrayed those ideals.

Whereas we're asked to say something like: "We are truly grateful to live in a land where we are all judged on our efforts, and our actions as good citizens. And for this we give boundless praise to our almighty gracious glorious radiant majesty that she may bestow upon us these rights, oo she's marvellous, 82 and never stops, we are truly the most odious rancid sewage compared to thee."

Anyway, the thing is we just don't do oaths and pledges of allegiance because they're not British. And anyone who says otherwise should be told they've failed the test, don't understand our culture and have to go and live somewhere else.

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