The St George’s Cross was flying above Southwark Town Hall as we filed into the waiting room to take our seats. About sixty people from all over the world – Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, France, Afghanistan, Uruguay, Colombia, China – were already there. I had come to watch my wife become a British citizen. She sat, like the other prospective candidates, holding her letter from the Home Office, wrapped up against the London weather. Although most of the assembled group already looked quite well integrated into British society – one was wearing the uniform of a Transport for London official – none of them seemed at home with the climate yet.
‘We are all here for a citizenship ceremony this afternoon, is that correct?’ the council registrar asked. A general mutter of assent. ‘This is a formal occasion so no jeans, no trainers. If you need to go home and change, you can do that now.’ No one had mentioned a dress code. Naturalisation is an arduous process that requires masses of documentation, costs hundreds or even thousands of pounds in legal and Home Office fees, and typically takes years: it seemed a bit tough suddenly to throw up this last hurdle. Fortunately the only inappropriately dressed person was me.
One by one, as the council staff called out the names, the participants filed up to a desk at the centre of the room decorated with a vase of red, white and blue flowers. On presentation of their photo ID and other relevant documents, everyone received a sticker with their name on, a welcome pack adorned with a picture of the home secretary and a plastic union jack on a stick.
After tea and biscuits, council staff ushered us all into the Town Hall’s main chamber. A gold-framed portrait of the queen was surrounded by more patriotic flowers and union jacks. The celebrants took their seats at wooden desks arranged in concentric circles before three thrones on a raised dais, while the friends and relatives were directed to the balcony.
The naturalisation ceremony itself is straightforward. All you have to do is say your name loudly and clearly and then repeat the oath of allegiance after the registrar. But the ritual cobbled together around it is an awkward mix of pomp and pantomime.
‘Your job,’ the registrar instructed the relatives in the gallery, ‘is to make as much noise as possible. This morning’s lot were really good so don’t disappoint me!’
Everyone stood as the mayor of Southwark made his entrance to the strains of canned trumpet music, looking rather spectacular in his red robe, black hat and heavy gold chain. He was preceded by a minion dressed in black, with a white lace ruff and gloves, bearing an enormous engraved silver mace, which he laid before the mayor’s throne.
The mayor and Southwark council’s ‘community cohesion co-ordinator’ made waffly speeches about the queen, her sense of duty and the rich mix of people found in Southwark. One by one the aspiring new Brits then stood to declare their names before taking the oath together:
I swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors according to the law. I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.
One by one or in family groups, the celebrants were then invited to come up and receive their citizenship certificates from the mayor, while Dave the council photographer snapped their picture in front of the portrait of the queen. The crowd cheered and waved their union jacks.
In the complex hierarchy of bureaucratic Britishness – which includes such sub-classes as British overseas territories citizens, British subjects and British nationals – my wife is now more British than I am, since she is a naturalised citizen whereas I, because I was born outside the UK, am only considered ‘British by descent’ which carries fewer rights although just as many – to use that favourite word of our new prime minister – responsibilities.