The Goldsmith review was widely mocked, but a modern idea of citizenship is no laughing matterby David Goodhart / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
The hoots of derision that greeted Lord Goldsmith’s citizenship review in early March revealed a continuing reluctance on the part of much of the British political class to think straight about national citizenship. Most of the media coverage got stuck on a single footnote in the review—the idea of a school-leaver oath of allegiance to the Queen (or to British society)—thereby providing an opportunity for leading figures on both left and right to disdain the modest reforms to the language and institutions of citizenship that this government is proposing.
Opposition from the left was to be expected. Since the 1960s, part of the western left has tended to see the “universalist shift” of the mid-20th century—the embrace of the moral equality of all humans, within countries and between them—as rendering national borders and traditions irrelevant. This was especially true of the British left, perhaps because of the country’s imperial history and the absence of a 1789-style “people’s” nationalism. An honourable internationalism got mixed up with a self-hating post-nationalism, with the result that, at least until recently, the symbols and language of the nation were largely ceded to the right.
Meanwhile, the right has been equally dismissive of the Goldsmith proposals, but on the grounds that if citizenship is not instinctive then it is valueless. Most people in Britain, especially from the white majority, tend to have a view of the nation that is a mix of the historical/ethnic (a loose sense of belonging to a “people”) and the civic (the rule of law, parliament, the rules of citizenship). To say “I don’t need a motto, I’m British” or “We don’t do flags on the lawn” may sound postmodern, but they are actually pre-modern, assuming the implicit understandings that come with ethnicity—we don’t need to spell things out because we know intuitively.
This convergence between the left’s post-nationalism and the right’s organic nationalism led both sides to pour scorn on Goldsmith and, implicitly, to embrace the status quo. But the status quo, especially in England, is fuzzy, overcomplicated and full of anomalies from the colonial era—for example, the fact that Irish citizens resident in Britain can vote in general elections. One point of the Goldsmith report was to sort some of these things out. He proposed, for example, simplifying the various categories of citizenship and introducing a presumption that people granted residency in this country should become citizens (an increasing…