A Government commission set up by the Prime Minister and convened by Lord Goldsmith has just published its findings on the question of British identity. Is there a loss of sense of identity and cohesion in the country ('country' being UK and Northern Ireland), and if so, what is to be done? Radio 4's 'Today' programme, true to form, attempted to twist the whole thing into a debate about 'Britishness' (as opposed to 'citizenship') and focus exclusively on the idea of people swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen. No doubt the papers will follow suit, and the opportunity for a serious discussion will again be lost.
Despite John Humphreys best efforts, Lord Goldsmith did manage to get through that the issue is citizenship not Britishness, and that the idea of an oath of allegiance to the Queen is only one of a number of different possibilities. As to why there is a concern at all, he didn't make a very good case, focussing as he did on people's mobility around the country (do I feel less British because I've lived all over the UK?) and the impact of the internet and television. He mentioned how major football teams no longer draw their support locally - a significantly *un*revealing fact, I'd have thought.
He managed to steer it away from a discussion about the impact of immigration - although did cite the success of civil ceremonies introduced by the government for people taking British citizenship. I've been to one and it was, in a curious and rather ramshackle way (in true British style??) moving - very clearly so for many of the participants.
There seemed to be a tacit agreement 'Don't talk about the War' - yet I'd have thought the bonding experience of the Second World War played a major part in welding a sense of national cohesion for my parents' generation. Maybe that's why the media has been so interested in the story of servicemen in Peterborough being advised not to wear uniforms when off duty in public for fear of abuse. Just goes to show that embarking on unjustifiable wars with no popular support can't be guaranteed to work for national cohesion, especially if it tarnishes large numbers of your own citizens with the 'potential terrorist' brush.
However, there is a big issue underlying all this. We live (as Archbishop Williams pointed out) in a country where people have multiple allegiances. I guess I feel (in order of priority) Christian, British, European (significant ancestry is German), English, a Londoner. And also, to some extent, I feel like a 'person of faith' in a country where religion is often patronised, marginalised and insulted. (That's not to say it doesn't sometimes deserve it).
Swearing of oaths is not on, to the Queen or anything else. Not only is it unacceptable for many Christians, but I suspect for Muslims too. However, a public ceremony at which young people coming of age take on the responsibility of citizenship, accept for themselves their obligation to the laws and institutions of the (secular) State - and, perhaps, their responsibility to work for their continued reform (which for a Christian has to be part of the package) - sounds like quite a good idea. Apart from anything else, it might create some pressure to do some real citizenship education in schools. Things have improved a bit since I first emerged as a graduate in 1973 knowing absolutely nothing about how the country is run. Patriotic symbols and myths take on a dangerous tone when they become a substitute for knowledge about how the State actually operates.
Citizens are less likely to participate actively in the continual reformation of our State through the democratic process if they are isolated individuals. Belonging to religious institutions and political parties where some serious thought can (and does) go on about what constitutes good government, where character can be formed and experience gained has to be part of the story.