Facebook Citizenship

So there’s these new government proposals set up to turn migrants into citizens. I always thought that if people are willing to spend days in the back of a windowless fruit lorry to get into Britain – hell, I say they’re British. Many migrants demonstrate courage, endurance and old-fashioned pluck to get into this country but apparently more is required.

Specifically: ‘earning potential, special artistic or scientific talent, qualifications, shortage skills, better English, living in area of population decline, eg Scotland’. There will also be extra points for ‘[t]hose who take part in voluntary work such as becoming a school governor, or ‘contributing to the democratic life of the nation’ through trade union activities, or by actively campaigning and canvassing for a political party’. There will be ‘compulsory ‘orientation days’ where [migrants] will be taught British values, social norms and customs – and be charged for the privilege.’

This is a signature New Labour policy with an array of classic weaknesses. The first thing to note is that the scheme is presented as a threat rather than a proposal. In Sunny’s words:

But here’s my biggest concern with the government’s latest lot of initiatives: if we really want people to be proud of this country, and for new citizens to value what it can offer, the tone around citizenship has to be positive and inspirational.

But instead it’s always positioned as: look, we don’t really want you here, and while you face continual demonisation obstacles will constantly be placed in your way. If you manage through all that – we still might find ways to get rid of you if we don’t like you.

That’s hardly going to attract the best and the brightest.

He goes on to imagine wider implications where UK citizens are ‘rewarded or punished for arbitrary behaviour outside of criminal law… working for points to bolster our Community Points (TM), for health benefits or just to keep the police off our backs.’ It’s the logical endpoint of rights and responsibilities culture and I can see the logos outside newsagents and council offices already.

But, as with so many Labour policies, the problem is one of enforcement. As the Guardian‘s editorial points out, ‘the authorities do not have the resources to start monitoring the community activism of every would-be citizen, or to start fighting test cases over the definition of what counts as voluntary work.’

It’s great when people get into democratic engagement but isn’t there a double standard here? Among the indigenous population, political engagement is dying. Voter turnout, membership of political parties and trade union membership are all going through the floor. The British electorate is happy to abandon politics even if it leads to a fascist victory in the Euro elections. A tiny percentage do voluntary work. 

The points system would penalise potential citizens for failures of integration and ‘active disregard for UK values’. (Going to antiwar protests is also a form of engagement, but you get marked down for that.) Is it fair to punish Mr Ahmed from Karachi for the same lack of participation demonstrated by Mr Smith from Walsall?

Part of the problem is that the concept of  ‘British values’ is so weak and nebulous that it’s hard to tell what they are. The picture or sense-association in your head is made up of plastic pint glasses, weak jokes in a posh voice and, of course, having a go at the foreigners. It would be easier if we had some kind of written constitution that people could buy into. But that would mean the guarantee of rights as well as responsibilities.

Let’s be cynical and say that the idea is a load of nonsense scrawled on the back of a fag packet to get some decent press for once – because, after all, it’s not like the present government will be in power if and when this legislation is ever implemented. Saying we will deport people for shouting antiwar slogans (the Luton Islamists were British-born, by the way) might win positive headlines from the Tory press. It might peel off a few racists from the BNP vote. Or it may not. These people are never satisfied, will make no concessions – and why Labour would want to court such a constituency in the first place is beyond me. But then, I’m not a politician.

What’ gets me is the underlying assumption that universal freedoms can be granted or taken away by the swipe of a barcode. It’s this sinister paradox that is the heart of so much thinking on immigration.

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(Image: GlobalVisas)

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