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Teenagers to swear allegiance at Citizens Day

Scotland Today | August 10 2005

EVERY youngster in the UK will be required to take part in citizenship ceremonies under a radical government plan to boost "Britishness" and combat extremism, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

Ministers are considering the controversial move following the bomb attacks in London by UK-born Muslims, which have placed unprecedented focus on the question of British identity.

Experts have warned that the bombers are the product of Britain's ghettoised urban culture, which has failed to provide national symbols around which to unite.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that Britain's first 'Citizenship Day' has been pencilled in for this October, to celebrate the value of community and volunteer work.

Ministers are also consulting on plans to copy citizenship ceremonies in Australia and Canada, where citizens are encouraged to take part in ceremonies pledging their allegiance to their country.

Among the plans under consideration is a "rite of passage" plan in which all 18-year-olds would be forced to take part in a ceremony marking the fact that they are able to vote.

But the ceremonies are likely to be resisted by some young Britons, who are naturally wary of what they regard as flag-waving patriotism.

Even so, the bombings have led to a reassessment of how to create a new sense of Britishness which it is hoped may help to prevent future attacks.

The debate over Britishness has long been a fraught one. It is best summed up by the anger which is still felt, 15 years on, following Norman Tebbit's infamous "cricket test" which declared that only those 'Britons' who backed England over their ancestral homes in Pakistan, India and the West Indies could genuinely be described as British.

Tebbit's formulation was derided from the start, but the greater error, according to experts, has been the failure of British governments and political leaders to come up with anything better to encourage a sense of Britishness and combat the extremism so devastatingly displayed by the Leeds suicide bombers.

Quelled by political correctness and a sense of embarrassment of British history, the government has instead focused on celebrating the 'diversity' within British society, rather than emphasising Britain itself.

This, say critics, has simply helped create ghettos.

Mark Leonard, director of foreign affairs at the Centre for European Reform, who has written a book on renewing British identity, said: "There have to be proper integration policies. At present, people of different ethnic mixes live in a series of walled, gated communities."

Ted Cantle, chairman of the Community Cohesion Panel - an independent body which looked at ways to create common British values - added: "What we have at present is an Afro-Caribbean day and a Black History month which do a good job but at no point do we find things which bring people together.

"We are celebrating separateness and that is a real problem. It means we haven't found a way of celebrating Britishness across the divide."

Rachel Briggs, the head of international programmes at the think tank, Demos, adds: "There has to be a personal sense of attachment to Britain. If we don't get that right you could employ as many police officers as you like but you will still have communities that feel excluded and marginalised."

It is a complicated task, made all the more difficult because of the nebulous concept of what exactly Britishness is, and by whether many people genuinely relate to it.

One recent poll, for example, found that only 27% of Scots said they were British, 35% of Welsh people and 48% of English. Even experts find it difficult to define what Britishness is about, often retreating to the negative. "It is not about being English, white or Christian," says Leonard.

But while it may be difficult to pin down, it is clear that ministers and policy-makers are increasingly keen to assert a sense of Britishness as a way of repairing the torn social fabric of urban Britain.

The new focus on British identity began four years ago following several race riots in northern England.

The then Home Secretary David Blunkett appointed a so-called "Britishness chief' - Sir Bernard Crick - to set up Britishness tests.

One government-backed study, the Life in the UK Advisory Group, has even attempted to define Britishness.

"To be British seems to us to mean that we respect the laws, the democratic political structures, and give our allegiance to the state in return for its protection," the group declared.

"To be British is to respect those overarching specific institutions, values and beliefs that bind us all, the different nations and cultures together in peace and in legal order.

"To be British does not mean assimilation into a common culture so that original identities are lost."

The drive to create a clearer national identity is also backed by religious leaders who are likewise concerned about the Balkanisation of the country.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs has spoken of how synagogues sing the National Anthem at services.

Mario Conti, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, added: "As a nation we do need to have a clear identity, not one that seeks to cancel out or homogenize the cultures and traditions of individual communities, but one that is recognisable and unifying.

"There has been a tendency in recent years to see any assertion of national identity as somehow jingoistic or not politically correct. The truth is that a clear national identity fosters the integration of ethnic and religious groups and gives them the opportunity to flourish and make their own significant contribution to society."

Ministers and policy-makers are now toying with the question of how to put this new consensus into action.

For immigrants, Blunkett's policies led to the introduction of citizenship ceremonies for new British nationals, conducted by local authorities, in which immigrants now swear loyalty to the Crown before they receive their passports. Blunkett also famously declared that Asian families should speak English at home in order to inculcate a sense of Britishness.

Many believe more needs to be done "Everyone who lives here should have to learn the language," declares Leonard.

The call is put into context by figures showing that there are more than 300 languages spoken in London alone. "There also has to be citizenship classes so that people can be properly integrated," he adds.

But those citizenship lessons should not be simply limited to immigrants. A Home Office consultation document, Strength in Diversity, reveals that the government is also looking to inculcate values in British-born citizens.

It states: "We want to identify lessons we can learn from the experience of countries like Canada and Australia where they place more emphasis on the symbolic nature of citizenship, for example through ceremonies or national events."

Cantle declared: "Everything is now back on the agenda. We were concerned that the citizenship ceremonies were only being targeted on newcomers but there are a lot of people who might be more involved in citizenship.

"This is a rite of passage for someone who is now able to vote to go through a citizenship course and a citizenship ceremony."

He added: "The trouble is that we are embarrassed by it. It is not what we do.

"We get very apologetic about our culture. We need common values and we need things that pull us together.

"At the moment, we are nowhere near that position. We have spent so long explaining differences that we have forgotten that we also have to deal with commonalities.

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