According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people in the UK who consider themselves to be “British” has gone up dramatically since Brexit. And recently the government offered more than 5 million people from Hong Kong the opportunity to become British citizens. Which is an offer that was long overdue. However, does having a British passport define your Britishness? I had some thoughts about that…
As I’ve mentioned before, I work for
the government. And recently I moved to
a different department. At which point I was
told that I needed to prove my right to work
in the UK. So I gave the HR team my old passport.
Human Resources then turned around and said:
“we can’t accept this as proof of citizenship
because your passport has expired”. And I thought
that was absolutely bizarre. In fact, I thought
it was a pretty stupid policy. I’m trying to be
kind here, so I can keep my job. A passport
is a government-issued document. And yes it
does prove your legal citizenship. However, just
because your passport has expired doesn’t mean
your citizenship has expired too! And speaking
of passports, the UK government has recently
decided to give five million people from Hong
Kong an opportunity to become British citizens.
Now I do have some thoughts about this. Basically
it’s a really bad way of dealing with a problem
that should have been solved a long time ago. And
ultimately it is better than doing nothing. But
it’s not what I want to talk about today. Today
I want to talk about what it means to be British.
Now every year the Office for National Statistics
(ONS) releases its “Annual Population Survey”,
which is always full of fascinating
facts about the changing demographics of
the people living in the United Kingdom. And one
of the interesting changes they found this year
was to do with being British. Specifically how
much of the population considers themselves to be
British. Now last year only 49% of the population
considered themselves to be British. However,
now in our post-Brexit world, that number has
gone up dramatically. 56% of the UK population
now considers themselves to be British. And it
got me wondering. What does that actually mean?
What does it mean to be British? Now this is my
brand new British passport. They used to be red
but, now we’ve left the EU, British passports are
dark blue. And on camera they almost look black.
Now if you ask most people, this document is
conclusive evidence that I am British. I disagree,
because I don’t think it’s the British
passport that actually makes me British.
And it does annoy me that people think that way.
You see, to me, Britishness isn’t about a
piece of paper. It’s about something deeper
than that. It’s about your cultural DNA. And
I want to try and explain what I mean by that.
As it happens I’m entitled to many different
passports in addition to my British one.
Firstly, I am entitled to apply for and own both
an Indian passport and a Pakistani passport.
Secondly, because of family connections, I could
easily get myself a European Union passport.
But I’m not going to tell you which one! And
finally, if I wanted to, I could easily apply for
an Israeli passport. I’m not going to do that,
of course, because I am NOT a racist. And I do
not believe in apartheid. So the very idea
of holding a passport for a country that is
fundamentally racist, to its core, quite frankly
it sickens me. So obviously I’m not going to
get myself an Israeli passport. But, anyway, the
point is that I’m entitled to a lot of different
passports. Which means I am entitled to live in
a lot of different places. And I could do it. I
could easily move to Bangalore or Karachi or
Tel Aviv or Berlin. But, no matter where I go
and live in this world, I will always be British.
And, even if the UK government decides to strip
me off my British passport, it wouldn’t change
the fact that I’m British. You see, to me, being
British isn’t really about legal entitlement.
To me it’s very much a state of mind. We have
a shared mentality, shared cultural references, a
shared sense of humor. Those are the things that
make you British. Not this piece of paper. And i
think we all instinctively understand this. Okay,
imagine a situation where an
immigrant family comes to the UK.
And, sadly, the parents die and their
son is sent to an orphanage. Or,
to put it more accurately, their son
is put into government care. And then,
when he turns 18, the government deports the
orphan because he didn’t have a British passport.
He grew up here, but no one went to the effort
of filling in his paperwork. So he was an illegal
immigrant and he had to leave. Instinctively
most people will feel uncomfortable with that.
It doesn’t seem fair, and a belief in “fair play”
is very much a part of the British mentality. And
that situation feels very, very unfair. The
government will say it’s done the right thing.
But it just feels wrong to deport that young man.
And sadly this is not hypothetical, by the way.
This has happened. And it goes to the heart of
what I’m trying to say. A passport doesn’t define
your Britishness. It’s just a legal document.
Being British and being a British citizen are
not the same thing. A good example of this is my
dad, who is a first generation immigrant. He came
to this country in his early 20s. He’s been here
ever since and he has a British passport. But,
if I’m being honest with you, he’s not really
British at all. And that’s because he never
really wanted to be British. He never bothered
to become proficient in English. In fact,
he still thinks in Punjabi; his inner monologue is
in Punjabi. When he does maths in his head, he’s
not counting in English. He’s counting in Punjabi,
because that’s how he learned it in school.
Now, of course, there will be people frothing at
the mouth, and furiously bashing their keyboards,
to point out that “English isn’t the only language
here”. That’s true. That is true. Absolutely true.
English is not the only official
language in the UK. But, if we’re honest,
Gaelic and Cornish, and even Welsh, are just
historical curiosities. Those languages are
kept alive by a tiny minority of enthusiasts.
Otherwise they would have died out long ago. But I
don’t want to get sidetracked from my main point.
Because it’s more than just language proficiency
that I’m talking about here. What I’m really
talking about is culture and attitudes.
My dad has no interest in British current
affairs. He doesn’t read British newspapers
or watch British news channels. He doesn’t
really know what’s happening in British politics.
However he knows everything about politics
in the Punjab. And, thanks to facebook, he
now knows exactly what’s happening in the village
where he grew up. His heart and mind are not here,
where he lives. He’s still obsessed with the
people and the places he knew when he was young.
Now I’m not saying that there is anything
wrong with the way my father has chosen to
live his life. I sincerely believe that people
should be allowed to make their own choices.
And, if immigrants choose not to integrate,
then fine. If they’re not hurting anyone,
and they’re obeying the law, then it’s none of my
business. And it’s none of your business either.
And that applies whether it’s a Punjabi living
in Britain, or an Italian living in America,
or indeed a Brit living on the Costa del Sol.
There are enormous numbers of Brits who move to
Spain. And they’ve done the paperwork ,and they’ve
become Spanish residents or Spanish citizens.
But they never bothered to learn the local
language. They still buy English newspapers. They
still watch English television. And they spend
their entire time with other British immigrants.
And I’m not saying that’s wrong. It does seem like
a missed opportunity, as far as I’m concerned,
but I’m not saying it’s wrong of them to live
their life in that way. It’s absolutely fine
to make that choice. It’s absolutely fine to
hang on to your old language and culture and
interests. But doing that also has a consequence.
And in the case of my dad the consequence is that
he’s not really British. He is now, and he always
has been, a Punjabi man. Albeit a Punjabi man from
the 1970s. Anyway, to sum it up, what I’m saying
is that being British and being a British citizen
are not the same thing. I can choose whether
I want to be a British citizen or not. I can
renounce my citizenship. But I will always be
British, regardless of whether I like it or not.
As it happens, I do quite like it.
So, you know… “God save the King!”