‘Congratulations on your achievement’: the day I became British

How does one mark the ceremony to become British? With mixed feelings, in many cases.

Nando Sigona
23 October 2019, 10.11am

‘Congratulations on your achievement’, ‘I heard congratulations are in order’, ‘well done’.

I look at my interlocutor undecided on what to reply. A smiling face looks at me, expecting a response. Eventually I put an end to the awkwardness by smiling back politely. ‘Thank you’, I hear myself saying unconvincingly and rapidly move on. What achievement exactly? I would like to ask.

I was allowed two guests for the citizenship ceremony but only went with my wife. I couldn’t think of anyone else with whom to share the event. A few people would have appreciated the opportunity, but not as guests, rather as researchers observing a strange rite of passage: me entering it as a foreigner and coming out as a British citizen.

For months – since June 2016, in fact – I have been imagining this day and guessing how I was going to feel about it. Never in my previous fifteen years in Britain had I been considering seriously applying for British citizenship. Not because I don’t like it here, but there was no need. I was happily at home in Britain as an EU citizen. I first came to London in 1997 as an ERASMUS student. To me, the UK was the EU, and for many years I thought that by moving here I was embodying the very idea of a pan-European identity in the making.

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From June 2016, this was no more. That’s when the option of becoming British surfaced in my conversation with my (British) wife. I applied for Permanent Residence a few months after the referendum and by spring 2017 I had all the documents required to apply for naturalisation. But I sat on it for two years, hoping that the countdown to Brexit could somehow stop. But it went on and on, and eventually I blinked first and paid my £1349 citizenship fee. Three months later I received my invitation for the citizenship ceremony.

Nothing less natural than naturalisation

I began to think of how I would mark such a momentous event in my life. One of those events, I remember thinking, that marks a before and after in one’s biography. Whilst I still think so, in truth it is the memory of the Brexit referendum day that is more likely to stay with me for years to come.

Sometimes, when I feel particularly melodramatic (a legacy of my southern Italian upbringing, perhaps), I think of that day as the transition between prehistory and history. A day of coming of age for many EU citizens like me, when one suddenly realises that the place they call ‘home’ is not what they thought it was. Most of the EU citizens we spoke to for the Eurochildren project referred to the referendum as a shock, one that produced a sense of estrangement and alienation. Ana, a Portuguese researcher living in London commented:

“from that moment I just started thinking, ok I can’t really predict anything anymore because I never thought that that would happen…[it] perhaps also made me realise that that I don’t really know Britain so well”.

We all knew that the UK had some ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ (to quote David Cameron). But we assumed there was a liberally-minded majority, more or less open to diversity, accepting if not actively supportive of the EU project. A cultural hegemony, as Gramsci might have termed it. The Brexit referendum result brought a sudden realisation for ordinary citizens and the ruling elite alike that this was no longer the case, that other cultural and ideological projects appeared to have the support of the majority of British people – even if these projects were not necessarily compatible with one another in all their elements (insular and parochial Little England alongside neo-Imperial Global Britain, for example).

Rite of passage

How do you prepare yourself for a Citizenship ceremony? I settle on the Sex Pistols’ God save the Queen for the soundtrack to my morning. For my clothing I consider a Gulf of Naples or Vesuvius t-shirt but in the end I didn’t source them so, after some wrangling with my wife who championed a tie, I went for my usual shirt and jacket combo – ‘if it is ok for when I give public talks, it will do for this too’ is my justification. In my pocket I take a ‘cornicello’, a Pulcinella good luck amulet that normally sits in my bedside table.

The preparation goes further. The ceremony is in the early afternoon but we head to the city centre well in advance. First, we go to visit ‘Last supper in Pompeii’ at the Ashmolean Museum. While the exhibition has nothing to do with the famed and almost contemporary ‘Last supper’ and its story of betrayal, the cataclysmic nature of the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption seemed to fit the spirit of the day. At the end of the day I am still Italian too, so we went for sourdough pizza at our local Franco Manca’s, the closest you can get to a Neapolitan pizza in Oxford city centre.

On the way to the county council we cross a group of protesters, they are shouting ‘stop the coup’ and holding banners against the British PM Boris Johnson accused of shutting down the ‘mother of all parliaments’. Slightly ironic for me that in a few minutes I will be standing pledging my allegiance to the Queen and the British democratic institutions. I have been given a choice between ‘swearing by the Almighty God’ and ‘sincerely and truly declaring’, I went for the latter but I found the equivalence somehow fascinating.

About thirty people attended the ceremony, twenty countries of birth, roughly half come from the EU. The EU contingent includes Bulgarians, Romanians, Polish, Portuguese, Belgians, Germans, Italians, Slovakians and a British-born young woman. The first part of the ceremony is dedicated to celebrating the great achievements of Oxfordshire and the contribution that people from abroad have made to them. It sounds a bit like a promotional brochure of the local tourist board, though no question that there is plenty to say about Oxford. But I can’t stop thinking about how more challenging it may be to put together a piece like this in other more deprived areas of the country. Once the swearing and pledging is done, one after the other we are called to shake hands with the person officiating the ceremony. The photo of the Queen and the flags complete the picture. The official photographer is positioned to capture the moment. She slightly dictates the pace of the ceremony, despite the fact that only a minority of those attending had booked her services. Most EU nationals didn’t go for the ‘formal’ photo.

The registrar waits for her OK before inviting the next person to come forward. This may take some time if the new citizen doesn’t strike the right pose according to the photographer. Some participants advance towards the officer with a degree of solemnity in their gaze, they look straight at the camera with a formal expression. The photographer checks the result, is unhappy with the outcome of the photo and asks them to try again with a smile. Most comply, but not a young Syrian who proudly insists on his preferred facial expression. People have different motivations for becoming British; for some it is the culmination of a dream, for others is a last resort, or anywhere in between the two. Moreover, for many of the people attending the ceremony, a smile is neither the expected nor the appropriate way for a person to behave in front of the state. Some of the people in the room had certainly not been met with a smile when interviewed by the Home Office when they first entered the country, others come from countries where the state demands deference and seriousness. This is why a smile may not be the appropriate expression, I would like to tell her.

And it is no small detail that the citizenship ceremony is mandatory for all new citizens. Attendance is compulsory, and you can tell this from the faces of some of the attendees. It is at the ceremony that new citizens are handed the official certificate of naturalisation. Despite being told it is a ‘joyous and uplifting occasion’ and ‘everyone is the same here’, participants generally left as they came, hardly acknowledging each other, a bit embarrassed about being there. Ultimately, ‘you say what they want you to say’, my wife comments, you get your certificate and leave. At the end comes the national anthem, the lyrics are printed out on each bench, the music begins to pour from the speakers, just loud enough for many like me to happily lip-synch undetected.

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