Citizen Sutherland

I have lived in the United Kingdom for 12 1/2 years now, nearly all of my adult life. I have, however, always held myself a little apart from the people around me, partly because I am an American and they are British. And I am distinctly American – my accent betrays me every time I speak, and I have a very American political philosophy. (This is in reference to the idea that sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, for instance, and the idea that liberties rest with the citizens unless those citizens consent to surrender them for the greater good. It does not mean I think that politics should be spiteful, mean and rude.)

I have lost a little of that separation today. I have become a British citizen.


The whole process started with an immigration official in Stansted Airport when we were coming back from France last summer. After querying me about the terms of my residency here, he suggested I look into naturalisation and handed me a leaflet with the Home Office URL. I was a bit staggered – wasn’t his job to keep people out?

An EU passport would be handy, though, because we are talking about a move to the Netherlands in 2007. Right of abode throughout Europe is not to be lightly set aside.

Why Not?

My major concern was with my American citizenship, because I am not keen to lose that. But a little research, including the US consular site, revealed that the American government does not deem the taking up of a non-exclusive foreign citizenship as the renunciation of one’s American citizenship. (It’s different if one’s new citizenship requires one to renounce all previous allegiances, like the Japanese – and the Americans themselves – do. But the Brits do not require that.) They don’t like it, but they allow it.

A minor, but still persistent, point was the requirement to swear allegiance to the Queen. The full text of the things I had to say today is:

I (name) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to 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.

The second paragraph is fine. Absolutely. The first took some thought, both because of a profound discomfort with the notion of personal loyalty to the sovereign, and because I am not naturally a monarchist.

But the way I parse the oath (there is an alternative “affirmation” version for those who do not wish to swear, or do not wish to mention Almighty God, but it parses the same) is that the last clause (“according to law”) modifies the entire sentence. That’s why there’s a comma before it. So my true and faithful allegiance is limited by, and defined by, the law. The Queen is an office-holder, even if she is born into it rather than elected into it.

But what of the office itself? Americans are as wholeheartedly monarchist as, say, ancient Romans. But remember what happened to them – they ended up with Augustus “restoring the republic” by turning it into an Imperium. And, watching the current Executive Branch grab at primacy in the US system, I’m not sure we Americans don’t yearn for some sort of monarch to tell us what to do as well.

As monarchies go, the British one is remarkably powerless. In theory, the sovereign can dismiss a prime minister or dissolve Parliament. In practice, she can do that once, and the next day the UK will be a republic. But while Queen Elizabeth is on the throne, no one else can be. She is an effective blocker of any claim to absolute (political) power, while simultaneously excercising none herself. (Thanks to my university friend James for pointing this one out.)

Practical Considerations and Tests Evaded

So, having assuaged my moral qualms, I sent in my application for citizenship in October. My timing was close – had I sent it in in November, I would have had to sit a test on British life. I was one of many, too – 57,000 others wanted to avoid the test as well. Despite reports of slow processing, with some responses expected to take till June, I got my reply back within the 4-month pre-rush average.

Then I booked my “citizenship ceremony” by ringing up the City Council offices. As an American, I was bemused by the reaction, or lack thereof, of the staff. Had I called an American local government office to book the US equivalent ceremony, someone, somewhere along the line, would have said “congratulations.” Here, it’s like booking your car in for a service.

Martin, in deference to my American-style emotional engagement in this whole process, took the day off and took me out to lunch before the ceremony. We showed up in good time and sat in the city chambers till about 10 minutes after the hour, when Edinburgh’s Lord Provost (a woman, as it happens, but the title does not change) came in. She gave a wee speech, the chief registrar gave a wee speech, and then we all stood up and mumbled through the oath and pledge. We were each then called up to shake hands with the Lord Provost, get our certificates, and get our pictures taken. Then we all had tea and biscuits.

But What Does it All Mean?

The British government introduced these ceremonies to try to give a stronger sense of identity to the new citizens. I think it does that, a little, but I am not convinced that the Brits are really interested in an American-style citizenship model. I encounter a lot of bemusement among my British friends about the test of British life, for instance – no one is sure what would go on such a test, or whether they themselves would agree with the “right” answers. And this lack of enthusiasm, which I first really noted in booking the ceremony, pervaded the whole event. The oath and affirmation were murmured rather than proclaimed, and the Lord Provost had to prompt people to applaud each new citizen as she presented the certificates.

Basically, the Brits aren’t entirely sure what citizenship means to them. For instance, the Lord Provost’s speech made no reference whatsoever to anything expressed in that oath I agonised about it. She spoke almost exclusively to the Pledge about upholding the UK’s traditions of rights and freedoms. The Registrar was a little more forthcoming, managing to mention the “sovereign” twice, and there was a picture of the Queen looking benevolent in the room. But the monarchy was clearly not the heart of the ceremony. The ideas of respect and inclusiveness, both much mentioned in the speeches, didn’t ring true either (they are neologisms in the political discourse), though the very ethnically and religiously mixed crowd needed to hear them.

In the end, I don’t know what being British means to me, or to anyone there. I thought it would sum up something of these last 12 years for me, give me a label for that half of me that is not American, but it doesn’t. There is no summary, no single easy definition, apart from that gentle, mild unease with the pretense of certainty that an easy definition would give.

Picture here. I would also like to express my gratitude to Jules and Fiona, who told the Home Office I was a good person despite the evidence to the contrary.

4 thoughts on “Citizen Sutherland”

  1. I’m glad that you covered a little bit of the why, and especially the non-exclusivity bit regarding your American Citizenship. I can’t help but feel a bit of the anti-climax in there.

    But strangely enough you’ve already encountered the modern British reluctance to make a real ceremony or fuss about anything!

    Good on Martin for making it an event. Are Jules and Fiona under surveillance now ? 😛

  2. Do I congratulate you like the groom, or wish you happiness like the bride? I am sure I would have done just as you did if I were in your shoes, but lacking the years of living abroad I would find it a difficult step. (Would I have to give up my guns? My right to say “*@!#*?%”? My “Question Authority” bumper sticker?) It seems that nationalism is softening, making room for something more inclusive and global. A change for the better, overall.



  3. Welcome to the club Abi and congratulations.

    I’m glad to see you have entered into the spirit of things by being mildy confused, this seems an entirely appropriate start to being a bit more British.

Comments are closed.