Patriotism, let alone nationalism, is not that British. We seem coy about celebrating our nationality and it’s rather a shame. Until recently the Union Flag was seldom flown on public buildings and, unlike in other parts of the Commonwealth where the Queen’s portrait is often seen or the States where the Star Spangled Banner is ubiquitous, our celebration is often low-key.
Flanders and Swann would say that the reason we Brits don’t need to tell everyone about how marvellous we are is because “everybody knew that”. That’s why the Citizenship Ceremony, a relatively new invention, is so charming. For once, we talk about what being British means, what our British values are and stir in a bit of pomp and circumstance. But only a tiny bit.
Last month, I attended the Citizenship Ceremony of an Australian friend. On a beautiful sunny day at Richmond Registry Office, with the borough’s chief Registrar presiding and the local Mayor replete in her finery in attendance, a small clutch of folk from all over the world were ‘welcomed to the British family’.
The Union flag draped serenely on a flagpole discreetly in the corner and the Queen beamed approvingly from her portrait on the wall. The Registrar informed the new citizens of the solemn promises they were making to the United Kingdom and Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors. The Mayor talked enthusiastically about the attractions of Richmond, oaths were taken, the National Anthem was played (but sadly not sung) and that was that. Fruit juice and cake followed.
If it all sounds a little perfunctory, it was. Short, good-humoured, almost informal: typical British understatement. The most charming aspects of the ceremony were the practical advice and the slight uneasiness that we were even bothering. New citizens were warned that they should on no account have their Citizenship documents laminated because that caused chaos when applying for passports. Everyone got a pack. The pack was very important. The Registrar chuckled gratefully that he didn’t have to pronounce some of the more tricky, exotic names.
But despite the latent ‘carry on’ film feel (I half-expected the Mayor’s ceremonial gown to slip off and reveal a gold lame bikini much to the embarrassment of the Registrar who would then wipe his brow with a pair of knickers that found themselves in his pocket by a convoluted series of coincidences) it was still stirring and humbling. We Brits don’t talk or think enough about this nation’s values of tolerance, democracy and human rights and we can be somewhat blithe about the almost unfettered freedoms our ancestors have bequeathed us. The Citizenship Ceremony recognises all that and asks new citizens to help us protect that hard fought for heritage. I must confess, when they all agreed they would, I welled up. We need all the help we can get.
(Image from Mark Drasutis.)