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The price of Citizenship: The inherent britishness of bureaucracy

Vlad Popescu considers the obstacles put in place of those seeking British citizenship.

January 19th and I’m standing outside Lambeth Town Hall in Brixton. It’s pouring with rain on us as we’re queuing outside, waiting to go in. I check I have all I need, trying not to get my documents wet. I need my Romanian passport and my invitation to the ceremony. It’s the Citizenship Ceremony, where we will swear oaths to declare our loyalty to the Queen and all her heirs to the throne. We also swear we’ll be good, lawful citizens, but my impression is that there is less emphasis on that part. We go in, and although there’s less pomp and ceremony owing to the pandemic, we do our oaths, listen to the anthem and shake hands with the Mayor of Lambeth. I am now a citizen of the United Kingdom. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to go.

In reality, this ceremony was digital. They announced this change from an in-person affair only a few days before, as the winter coronavirus surge was still going strong at that time. Even so, my citizenship saga came to a happy end. Anyhow, I’m not sure shaking hands with the Lambeth Mayor was such an occasion. I was not even aware my London Borough had its own ceremonial Mayor. Several months later, there is a British Passport in my hands. It’s blue and it’s my own. What has been a very long journey has come to an end. It’s been well over a year since I’ve started the process of becoming a British Citizen, and the total cost has been some two thousand pounds. But the price of citizenship is not just time and money – it’s submitting yourself to a strange and tiring process, the saga of immigration bureaucracy wearing you out. Along the way I’ve also learned several things about the British government and how it treats prospective citizens – I’ve also learned very few people here at Oxford seem to know anything at all about it.

There was once a time when our greatest worry was not a killer virus. During my first term at Oxford, the focus was on the 2019 General Election. A typical conversation involved being asked who I would vote for, explaining that I’m not a citizen and what followed was usually shock that I was not a member of the electorate after living in Britain for ten years. At the time I found it quite strange that the UK’s academic cream of the crop would seemingly be so unaware of what is a reality for millions of people in this country. According to a House of Commons Library report on migration statistics, in December 2019 some 9% of the UK population was recorded as having a different non-British nationality. In other words, out of a 9.5 million born-abroad population, 6.2 million were non-citizens, a group I belonged to until recently. Voting in local elections is generally allowed, but general elections not so much. For a general election, along with age and other requirements, you must be a British or Irish citizen. A common theme in 2019 was then: ‘Oh, but you’ve lived here so long you might as well be a citizen!’. But it doesn’t quite work that way. If part of the Labour Manifesto in 2019 was allowing residency rather than citizenship-based voting, the story is currently and has been for a long time,t very different. Who could apply to become a citizen, and who can actually carry it out is under very strict controls with a wide array of obstacles to go through. The reality is that millions are left without a direct say into a government whose policies have a pervasive effect on their lives. From dictating the rights to work, access to social services, designing the process around visas and acquiring an indefinite leave-to-remain, and even the potential looming threat of deportation; representation in such matters is a more fickle process. And ultimately more slippery than that is acquiring British citizenship. Considering this university produces so much of Britain’s elite, I thought it would be worthwhile to try and inform Oxonians of what it takes.

In December 2019, the number of EU nationals in the UK was estimated to be around 3.7 million, however by December 2020, there were nearly 5 million applicants to the EU Settlement Scheme, which shows the European population has been underestimated. I bring this up, because it is with the Settlement scheme that my citizenship process began, and indeed a process quite different for non-citizens with origins from elsewhere. Ever since the Brexit referendum in 2016, European migration to Britain has slowed down, and many have returned to Europe. I cannot speak for immigrants everywhere, but an enduring sense of anxiety looming in the back of my mind has been fears of a recalcitrant government revoking residency rights. What would follow would entail deportation to a country I feel rather distant from and would struggle to adjust to. A sense of dread set in on that fateful morning on June 24th 2016 as I heard the results and then set off to school to finish my GCSEs, which felt like an omen. At that point I had been living in the UK some six years, and to be sent packing would have felt like being uprooted. But this fear was alleviated when news of the Settlement Scheme came out – ‘settled status’, or an indefinite leave to remain, would be available for application providing a continuous proof of residency for at least five years could be established. My family’s application in thist was quite straightforward – filled with delays and complicated online forms, but straightforward. The scheme has been criticised in its own right, from lacking a physical certificate to prove a settled status, which produces its own problems at the borders. As part of possessing settled status, application for citizenship becomes legible for those who meet the five-year residency requirement. From there a whole other host of other conditions, tests and bureaucratic hurdles lie in the way.

According to the Home Office website, in the statistical year ending March 2020, here were 165,693 applications for British citizenship, with a marked increase in the proportion of European citizens applying at 27%, compared to 12% in 2016. It seems that Brexit served this push for citizenship, for those thousands as much as for my family. Although my actual application was submitted in August 2020, I had decided the previous summer, falling into the previous statistical year, and for good reason. Out of those 165,693 applications, 163,624 were granted. This seems a high proportion, but it’s important to give good consideration to your likelihood to succeed, because the hoops to jump through are many. In the end, my family decided only I should apply. In terms of money, this was already a high cost- for my parents to do as well would have been collectively very expensive for us. For many, the price of citizenship is prohibitively expensive. Since 2018, the naturalisation fee for adults has been £1,330. By comparison, in 2007 when Romania joined the EU, the fee was £655. Of course, this is only for the application itself – other fees, such as for booking the various exams and so on are not included, and the overall cost turns out much higher by the end. This is further aggravated by the fact that an unsuccessful application, including the costs, is thrown out the window. Re-applying carries the same price, to appeal the decision carries its own fees. Even the ceremony where monarchism is imposed upon you carries such a penalty. If you miss it, it may be re-booked, but otherwise without completing it your application is overturned – and there is a deadline to go through with it, typically three months in virus-free times. This points to a common theme already, of the hostility towards the wider groups of people not born here. And particularly, towards those lacking the thousands to spare or those filling the ranks of lower-income ‘essential workers’, which have been given so much lip-service during the pandemic. Telling a friend of the difficulties in applying, they remarked quite funnily that those migrants in occupations the economy would most require would find it very difficult to become citizens, as opposed to an Oxford undergrad like me. Reflecting on it, I find that the point is the government is happy enough to have them exploited for their labour, not to give them the vote.

Nevertheless, my journey began around autumn 2019, just before university began. One of the perks of a blue passport is not having to provide proof for your continuous residency in the UK for everything. From UCAS to other applications, I was a common fixture at my secondary school’s reception to ask for letters confirming that I had in fact been attending the school the whole of my secondary education, which fell in quite neatly with the usual five-year requirement. This is one of the requirements for naturalisation, assuming the application follows settled status. For an indefinite leave to remain granted to those from outside the EU, many of the requirements for such follow the same as for a citizenship application, with the addition that following the granting of the leave they continue to reside for a year before applying to become full-fledged citizens. I too, had to wait at least a year following my settlement under the EU scheme, but for the citizenship application I had yet again to prove my continuous residency. A letter from school could only provide for four of those years, so I had to get a letter from my College showing my years of attendance here. When I submitted my application in August 2020, I was told it could take up to six months to process it. Mine was processed within a few weeks, although my invitation to a ceremony took longer due to renewed lockdowns. I could not help but feel my being a student here helped in this – I can’t imagine many applicants come with letters from Oxford. At this moment of it being accepted, I could not help but feel that despite the costs and stress of the whole process, mine was still from a position of relative comfort. And looking back on all the other stages, I started to recognise this as well. 

An episode where I recognised this well was during the famous Life in the UK Test, coming with its own £50 fee for what is a very odd questionnaire. Announced in 2002 and introduced for naturalisation and eventually settlement in 2005 and 2007 respectively, the test is a very strange beast. It’s been constantly criticised again and again the newspapers as being factually incorrect, not actually providing any incentive for learning, containing questions on knowledge the average Brit would not know about, or just being plain ambiguous on the meanings of Britishness. The test is based off information in an official booklet, which is a jumble of various things from history, to cultural events, Olympics gold medallists, or the UK’s different nations structure. The questions are primarily British history, and by ‘British’ the focus is obviously on England, which meant that as a History student I found it very easy and no trouble at all, which I doubt many of the other applicants could relate to when there are such questions as who was declared Lord Protector, or just very outdated British culture such as who directed The 39 Steps. I doubt the next person on the street is well acquainted with the 1930s catalogue of Hitchcock films. But I could not help but find the history section fascinating in the narratives it created and the image of Britain it pushed onto prospective citizens that must learn the booklet inside out, people which probably lack much complex history education unlike snotty Oxford students. 

The booklet has gone through three revisions since its introduction, but it seems that regardless of whether Labour or Conservatives are in charge, there is little room for a nuanced look on Britain’s history, and even less room for its unsavoury aspects bar the occasional acknowledgement here and there. In a political atmosphere where the National Trust daring to inform visitors to country houses with historical links to Atlantic slavery causes a culture war and major backlash, Chapter Three, ‘A long and illustrious history’, fits in very well. Ireland is mentioned here and there, with some unfortunate rebellions and potato crops failing, the Ulster Plantation being glossed over, and no mention of illustrious England desolating the island in the Tudor and Stuart periods and causing famines – no mention of the laissez faire approach to famine relief during the Irish famine and maintaining grain exports from Ireland while millions hungered. Empire is treated much the same. The Boer War in South Africa gets mentioned, but for all the mentions of industrial innovations during the Victorian period, there are no references to Britain’s illustrious innovation in being the first to deploy concentration camps in the modern sense in the same war. Discussing the slave trade fares better, but the focus is on its eventual abolition from 1807 to 1833, with no mention of the plantation owners receiving major reparations for the “cost” of emancipation. Inventions, kings and queens and Empire nostalgia occupy the history section, making a clumsy but clearly triumphalist and glossy narrative with mentions of an atrocity here and there, those mentions muted enough to imply unfortunate accidents which British prowess can always overcome and otherwise don’t stain this illustrious story. I can’t help but wonder if future editions will just sing the Empire’s praise without any self-restraint at all. For historians, writing history is complicated stuff; for the government it isn’t.

An equally expensive but more amusing episode was proving I knew English. The requirement seems reasonable, but the conditions seem like another occasion for prospective citizens to be fleeced for their money. GCSEs and A Levels don’t count, and only a completed degree is proof. Instead, a certificate is required, a certificate acquired through a £65 speaking and listening exam which consists of a five minute chat with the examiner. You pick in advance what topic you would like to discuss, and deciding to liven up these bored bureaucrats’ conversations, I decided to speak about Oxford. The examiner was very surprised indeed and towards the end of those five minutes, she asked why I was having to do this test. I replied quite simply ‘Bureaucracy’. What else?

The most difficult episode in this saga was the naturalisation referees, where luck saved the day. A legal website I browsed at the time made note that the requirement for two referees seems more like being induced into a country club than the process for citizenship. Signing some forms and potentially being called by the Home Office, the referees must be British Citizens in an approved list of professions. That same website noted that this is usually the point of struggle for most applicants – the profession list. From teachers and doctors to CEOs and even MPs, the list is obviously exclusive for the professional, middle and upper-class sort. Essentially, I got lucky – one of my old teachers at school agreed to referee for me, while I discovered one of my friends’ parent fit the bill. They happily refereed for me, but it felt quite denigrating in having to bother them so they could confirm I would be a good citizen and not a terrorist. But otherwise, I would have been left in the dust, as are many with no personal acquaintance with anyone in these professions. And the point is clear in its favouring of those with connections and those with very high incomes. The citizenship process is designed to be as prohibitive as possible, to discourage and block as many applicants as possible. I can only see it as a wider extension of the Hostile Environment policy, which despite its stated aim of targeting those without leave to remain, denigrates and abuses all those with migrant origins, as the Windrush scandal has shown again and again.

As I finished my Life in the UK test, I was preparing to leave the examination hall. At the doorway I stopped and looked back around for a moment. I had finished in around ten minutes, while the other applicants were still going at it. Many were middle-aged and the only thing we seemed to have in common as we registered earlier was thick accents. I looked around and wondered what their occupations were, what were they doing with life as they lived here in Britain. And I left wondering why it was necessary they should know about Henry VIII’s wives. Would they not be worthy citizens otherwise?

Artwork by Rachel Jung 

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