The case of Shamima Begum raises interesting questions about citizenship in general, and its links with other aspects of nationality.
Home Secretary Javid has stripped Begum of her British citizenship, though I’m not solipsistic enough to claim he was following my recommendation.
I did argue in favour of this measure (http://www.alexanderboot.com/welcome-back-miss-jihad/) a week ago, but I shan’t insist on a causative relationship.
However, some good men disagree with Mr Javid’s decision and by inference with my recommendation. One such good man is Stephen Glover, who sums up all the arguments contra in today’s article.
Its title is so long and so clear that the subsequent text seems almost redundant: “The Jihad Bride Is a Monster, But She’s OUR Monster And Must Return Home to Face British Justice”.
What makes Begum OUR monster is the little booklet that enabled her to travel the ISIS way: the British passport, to which she was entitled by birth.
“She is as British as I am,” writes Mr Glover in his typically thoughtful piece. “Mr Javid can’t change that.”
In arguing against this respectable but in my view mistaken position I may belie my earlier repudiation of solipsism. For Mr Glover touches on issues that involve me personally.
Like Mr Glover and Miss Begum, I’m a British citizen (or rather subject, which is my preferred term). Unlike them, I wasn’t born in Britain, even though I’ve lived here more than twice as long as Miss Begum, if not quite as long as Mr Glover.
Yet I maintain, perhaps presumptuously, that I’m as British as Mr Glover. More to the point, I’m British and Miss Begum isn’t.
That gets us back to the title of this article, implicit in which is the belief that the issue isn’t quite as simple as all that.
Now I have first-hand knowledge of four countries that can be divided into two groups: Britain and Russia in one, the US and France in the other.
In the second group, there’s no semantic distinction between ethnicity and political allegiance; in the first group, there is.
In the case of Russia, this distinction doesn’t come across in English, but it exists in Russian. An ethnic Russian is called russkiy, a Russian citizen is called rossiyanin. Both words are translated as ‘Russian’, but they mean different things.
One either is russkiy or not, that’s just an accident of birth. However, one can become a rossiyanin even if born, say, Scottish (although I can’t for the life of me imagine why any good Scot transplanted to Russia would want to be eternally mocked for wearing a ‘skirt’).
Similarly, one can’t become English – one either is or isn’t, and I’m not prepared to discuss every possible ethnic admixture an Englishman might have acquired over the millennia.
However, contrary to what Cecil Rhodes thought, one can become British and “win first prize in the lottery of life” even without being born in the British Isles.
In the US and France the semantic distinction doesn’t exist. The same word describes all Americans, whether native-born or naturalised, and this is the case in France too.
But connotations are just as important as denotations. The two words, ‘American’ and ‘français’ imply both political allegiance and cultural affinity, but that’s where the similarity ends because these nations put a different emphasis on the two components.
An American must hold not only an American passport but also American beliefs. The concept is thus defined mainly politically and ideologically, with culture a distant third and ethnicity even further down.
One often hears the phrase “Americanism isn’t a race; it’s an idea”. Therefore accepting that idea and pledging allegiance to its political embodiment make one an American even in the absence of any other qualifications.
Hence it’s possible to become an American and yet speak only rudimentary English, know next to nothing about American history or culture and prefer slow to fast food.
In fact, if memory serves, the US citizenship exam asks no questions at all about American culture. It’s all “How many states are there?”, “What are the three branches of government?” and “Who was the first president?”
By contrast, the French nationality test includes at least 60 questions on French culture and history. For the French, the linguistic and cultural aspects of their nationality are at least as important as the political one, perhaps even more so.
Thus, watching French TV one often hears described as français Francophones from, say, Senegal or Algeria who aren’t French citizens. However, one never hears a former British colonial, say a Nigerian citizen, described as British even if English is his mother tongue.
And a foreigner in America may sound like John Wayne, but, unless he’s a citizen, he won’t be regarded as American. The political component is much stronger in ‘American’ and ‘British’ than in ‘French’.
So let me reiterate that, while it’s impossible to become English, it’s possible to become British.
When that honour was bestowed on me by a magistrate who happened to be a friend, I pledged allegiance to the Crown and sang God Save the Queen in its entirety, including that egregiously reactionary verse (Oh Lord our God arise,// Scatter our enemies,// And make them fall// Confound their politics// Frustrate their knavish tricks,// On Thee our hopes we fix// Oh save us all.)
That was a deeply emotional experience, I’m man enough to admit, because I actually believed every word I sang, including the politically incorrect verse. I felt British, and I always will.
On that day I entered into a bilateral contract with Her Majesty’s realm, and so far both parties have followed its terms and conditions. Most of the other British subjects may enter into the same compact at birth, but they do enter into it.
Yet every contract includes, implicitly at least, cancellation terms providing for situations under which it could be declared null and void. Hence it stands to reason to suppose that, if British citizenship can be given, it can also be taken away.
In other words, there’s more to British citizenship than that little booklet – even if it’s not stated in so many words.
As I understand it, the implications go beyond political allegiance, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition. There’s also a raft of meaning hiding behind a simple personal pronoun: we.
Who’s the person’s ‘we’? Again speaking for myself, Britain is the third country whose citizenship I’ve held. Yet the British are the first people to whom I refer as ‘we’.
I won’t go into the numerous cultural, linguistic and family ties I have with Britain. Suffice it to say that I feel British – emotionally, intellectually culturally, linguistically. I pass the Tebbit test with flying colours.
Why, I’ll even go so far as to say that I’m as British as Mr Glover, if considerably less English than he is. And I’ll go even further and say that, while Mr Glover and I are British, Miss Begum isn’t – regardless of where she was born.
Would she include my wife Penelope, my friends Peter and Tony, or for that matter members of HMG into her ‘we’? No. Does she have any cultural affinity for Britain? No. Does she maintain political allegiance to Britain? No. Would she mourn the deaths of British soldiers more than the deaths of their enemies? No.
In Mr Glover’s eyes none of that matters. To him Miss Begum is British because she holds that little piece of paper. Sorry, but it takes more than that.