'Britishness' and citizenship

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The concept of strong national identity as a key element to being a citizen was very much driven by the Labour government of 1997- 2010. They presented it as an option to cohere society, through the development of a shared civic identity. It was widely picked up and debated with for example, events such as the Future of citizenship conference held by the Fabian Society and our seminar in 2008. The popularity of this agenda was also manifested in the realisation of a number of policies: citizenship is now a subject that is taught in schools; individuals hoping to become citizens can take a citizenship test; citizenship ceremonies came into being on 1 January 2004.

To what extent is being British equated with being a citizen? The influence of the idea of ‘Britishness’ spread into policies such as those on multiculturalism and social cohesion, aiming to reduce negative public opinion towards increased immigration. But is it really as embedded in society today as it seems? With the welfare cuts planned by the coalition government and the development of the ‘Big Society’ idea, will the concepts of ‘Britishness’ and citizenship become a source of division or cohesion as society moves forward? 

Has the citizenship agenda influenced ideas of Britishness? How comprehensively has the previous government’s efforts embedded a sense of nationalism or pride? Has it spread to traditionally more marginalized groups, or do they maintain a separate sense of nationalism? This last question is particularly pertinent: it was out of the ashes of the Bradford tensions that the Labour’s 'britishness' drive arose, and new projections (pdf download 4.8MB) place ethnic minorities as a fifth of Britain's population by 2051, compared with 8% in 2001.

Cohering a society under a common sense of identity is tricky; regardless of differences in background, ethnicity, location (the list is long). Sense of identity is individual as well as ever-changing. And as Sunder Katwala, General Secretary of the Fabian Society says,

As a civic identity for a multi-national state, Britishness was inherently plural from the start.

So as a civil society organisation, there is a lot to grapple with here in terms of how this agenda might impact on you. In addition, how has the agenda of Britishness and citizenship itself, regardless of its impact on civil society, moved on? What are the longer-term resonances of this, and how can you respond to them?  

A government bill proposed the idea of active citizenship activities such as volunteering and community involvement, to contribute to an individual fastracking their citizenship application. Clearly the idea is that those who are full contributors to their society can become part of it more rapidly (see the first moving forward below for what this might mean for you). Does this link in with the big society view of more engaged citizens?

What are the implications?

  • A risk that the rights of those who aren’t categorised as British are restricted, especially if procedures like citizenship tests become conditional to receiving services. (See policies on active citizenship and volunteering).
  • Growing negative attitudes towards these individuals. (See attitudes towards ethnicity).
  • Ironically, a more polarized society as emphasising shared values comes at the expense of diversity.
  • Stronger civic engagement leading to more volunteering and possibly contributing to Big Society ideals.
  • Some of the prescriptions laid out by policies could be areas where you focus your work – for example helping potential citizens learn English.

Moving forward

  • Think about positioning your organization so it can help individuals achieve citizenship whilst benefitting itself from volunteers. Would this mean they weren’t that committed to your cause though?
  • Can your organisation influence the debate around what it means to be British, perhaps for the rights of those often marginalized?   
  • Does your organisation have a role in bringing together diverse communities that might be divided by such policies? Can you create space where people can meet however they relate to the britishness agenda?
  • Are your users at risk of not being defined as British? What impact might compulsory citizenship tests have on who your services are delivered to?

Want to know more?

Britishness Voices

Published by:Fabian Society


What is it? Thought provoking commments from speakers at the Fabian Society event on the future of citizenship.

How useful is this? Interesting insights into viewpoints on this, but the event does date from 2006 so they may be out of date. However, still useful to see how the agenda has changed (if you think it has) and therefore to kick off thinking about why it has changed.

A review of the civil renewal and active citizenship debate

Published by:NCVO



What is it? A report that reviews the civil renewal and active citizenship agenda and considers how it has changed since the first NCVO report was published in 2005.

How useful is this? This report provides a background and exploration of current debates around citizenship. The report analyses the key concepts on which the citizenship agenda is built on; de-mystifying some of the current rhetoric, jargon and policies being promoted by the main parities as well as analysing the government’s aims and looking at how these might play out in the future. The appendixsection summarises policies and practices that have been put in place since 2005 in order to explore whether they implement the aims of the agenda .The second part of the report considers how the agenda has shifted over the last three years, challenging the concepts on which the agenda is built and drawing out the tensions apparent in the agenda as a whole.P29 summarises some of the tensions and challenges linked to the creation of a British identify.

Audit of political engagement 6

Published by: The Hansard Society is a non-partisan political research and education charity which aims to connect public involvement with the democratic policy.

Date: 2009

Format: pdf

What is it? Sixth in the series of annual Audits of Political Engagement carried out by the Hansard Society to measure the nature and extent of political engagement and reveals where views have changed - and where they remain constant. It offers a yearly snapshot of political knowledge and engagement in Britain.

How useful is this? The audit series are quite dense text, so require time set aside to go through. The flip side of this is that it is comprehensive, covering a diverse range of areas such as public interest in politics; perceived knowledge of politics; reasons for not feeling influential in decision-making; and barriers to participation among potential participants, among others. There is a 10 page, more holistic, analysis towards the end of the report which is quite useful for identifying trends. The report concludes by thinking about the implications of the findings.

Citizenship: tool or reward? The role of citizenship policy in the process of integration

Published by: Policy Network, a centre-left international thinktank.


Format: pdf

What is it? A paper published as a response to a governmental green paper on citizenship.

How useful is this?

The paper proposes a different model of integration to that in the government green paper. This paper has value therefore in providing perspective on the green paper as well as putting forward alternative approaches. The paper argues that a participatory or “tool” approach to citizenship is likely to be more successful in integrating minorities than one which focuses on issues of identity, language acquisition and the need for citizenship to be earned as a “reward” for integration. It compares UK policy and situation to that in other countries, notably Estonia.

The paper presents context to the green paper and UK citizenship which is quite helpful as a potted history. The extensive references list also contains useful signposts for other reading material.

Young People and British Identity

Published by: Ipsos MORI/Camelot Foundation

Date: 2007


What is it? A report and executive summary of research into young people in Britain and how they view their identity.

How useful is this? Canvassing the views of 16 – 21 year olds across Britain, the research used qualitative and quantitative methods to assess their views of Britishness and its place in their lives. Issues such as social cohesion, multiculturalism, nationalism, and young people's future and life chances are central to the findings.  The paper investigates how British identity is constructed and how it operates in youth culture, and offers recommendations of ways to move forwards.

Last updated at 15:59 Wed 23/Feb/11.

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Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

An interesting piece I've just come across: A short history of the social rights myth. The author talks about how the contemporary view of rights has developed. Originally 'securities against misrule' - ie a form of protection against what a state could do to a citizen, Patterson writes that 'rights' are now seen as what the government 'must do for an individual'. Would you agree?

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