I became a British citizen last week. During the official ceremony in the town hall of Camden Council, one of London's 32 councils, sat several dozen people, the sorts I see every day in my adopted home.
Some women were dressed in headscarves and long skirts, others tight jeans and leather jackets. One man wore an expensive-looking pinstripe suit, while another trudged in with a knitted cap and a long t-shirt. Nobody really stood out, except maybe the young woman with electric blue dreadlocks and thigh-high moon boots.
The CD player balancing precariously on a chair in the corner lent the event an unfinished feeling, a surprise in a country that practically invented pageantry.
Nevertheless, after we listened to a welcome speech, pledged our loyalty and stood for 'God Save the Queen,' the woman to my right held up her new nationality certificate.
|Brinley Bruton/ msnbc.com|
|Brinley Bruton takes her official photograph with the Mayor of Camden after becoming a British citizen.|
"I'm going to hold onto this and I'm not going to let go," she said, smiling broadly.
Most of us 'queued' (that's the term for lined-up here) for an official photograph alongside a portrait of the queen and the real life Mayor of Camden, who wore a lace collar and a fur-trimmed red cloak.
Outside the hall after the event, another woman hugged an older companion, her long pink veil trembling, whether from laughter or tears I couldn't tell.
Effort to assimilate
Versions of this event, which the government initiated in 2004 and describes as "rather like a wedding," occur throughout the country. The initiative is part of a struggle to integrate Britain's growing population of immigrants – about 160,000 were naturalized in 2006, representing a fourfold increase over ten years.
Britain is trying to assimilate a population that is growing more and more diverse. Like the United States, people are literally dying to get into this country, and whether the small island's economy and society can support the influx is constantly debated. Just to give you an idea, more than 100 languages are spoken in Camden's schools alone.
So at first I didn't question the need to go through a slightly forced ceremony – having been born an American, the idea that a country would formally welcome and guide its newest citizens made sense. It should be as simple as embracing certain traditions, abiding by the laws and declaring yourself British, right?
Many come here to escape poverty and oppression. Others come because they have hit professional glass ceilings at home. Some surely come here for love. But what I've learned is that actually becoming 'British' may not factor that high on many people's lists.
Take my reasons (I'm keeping my American passport), which are a combination of practicality and emotion. I have come to love the country that I moved to extremely reluctantly six years ago because of what I perceive to be its citizens' almost kneejerk tendency to question authority, tolerate eccentricity, and remain loyal to friends.
At the same time, I recognize the practicality of having a passport that allows me to work throughout much of Europe, and return here after long absences. I have also noted Britain's excellent consular services while working in difficult countries.
'Becoming British,' whatever that is, isn't among the reasons I've done this.
And I now know that many long-standing citizens aren't too sure that I or any of the newcomers will ever actually be British. In fact, I've walked into a storm over what it means to be British, and whether these ceremonies, which many believe are modeled on similar ones in the United States, are in fact downright un-patriotic.
'Not a flag-waving nation'
"One point of being British is that you don't really talk about it," said a good, and very British friend.
That's putting it politely.
"If I were to go to one of these events I would probably kill myself laughing," says Alan Sked, another Briton and an expert in international history at the London School of Economics.
The ceremonies, and citizenship tests that precede them, he says, are part of a "propaganda drive by the government that has made possible the breakup of Great Britain."
They are an attempt to paper over the country's ongoing identity crisis, he says. This crisis was brought on by the current Labour government, which has ceded control to both the European Union, and helped set up regional parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Sked adds.
So the citizenship ceremony "is not a traditionally British thing, it is an invention, artificial – this is just not a flag-waving nation. From a traditional point of view, these people would be simply assimilated," Sked says.
One new citizen I met at my ceremony agreed with Sked's last comment at least.
"Identity does not develop overnight," says an Egyptian academic who has been in the country for over a decade. "A 20-minute ceremony doesn't change a single reasonable person's life."
The reasons this man gives for becoming British are practical – mainly, he is tired of the grilling he withstands every time he travels. He says that visas are very hard to get with an Egyptian passport, and when he returns home he is treated like "a criminal." This has gotten much worse since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Who he is, and how he identifies himself, will not change at all, he says, adding: "The question that needs to be answered is, what does it mean to be British?"