Lord Goldsmith, who has headed up the government citizenship review, walked into an instant backlash today over proposals that school-leavers should be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country.
The suggestion is not a formal proposal, but Lord Goldsmith gave it his personal backing this morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. He summarily dismissed the idea that 2 million republicans might object, and faced swift denunciations himself.
Unlock Democracy, the joint campaign of Charter 88 and the New Politics Network promoting democratic renewal and active engagement in the political process, said that while the review commissioned by PM Gordon Brown was welcome, the proposals were often weak and amounted to ‘IKEA democracy’ – referring to the popular self-assembly furniture store.
Ex-attorney general Lord Goldsmith said a ceremony of this kind would give teenagers a “sense of belonging”. He said that there had been a worrying diminution of “national pride” in Britain.
The government also wishes to encourage more volunteering – something which critics will argue is as much about its desire to save money on public services as it is to encourage more civic responsibility.
Rebates on Council Tax and student fee are recommended for those who volunteer. There is also a call for a "Britishness" public holiday, starting on a date to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games in 2012. .
Other proposals include 'language loans' for newcomers to help them learn English and the scrapping or reform of Britain’s ancient treason laws.
A new "Deliberation Day" may be held before each General Election to encourage political debate and other events.
Ministers are being invited to consider withdrawing Commonwealth and Irish citizens' right to vote in UK elections.
At lunchtime today a Prime Minister’s spokesperson said he welcomed the "interesting" review, adding that it had sparked "quite a lively debate".
But others were scathing. John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders said that the citizenship ceremony was "a half-baked idea".
A Scottish Government spokesperson said it did not support the plan and did not believe it would find favour with parents or school pupils.
Labour peer and leading civil rights lawyer Baroness Kennedy said: "I think this is a serious mistake - I think it's puerile and I think it's rather silly… The symbols of a healthy democracy are not to be found in empty gestures and I'm afraid I see this as an empty gesture."
“Education for civic participation and reform of the constitutional system to encourage democratic accountability is a much more meaningful way of encouraging common purpose than questionable nationalistic gestures,” said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.
“Making loyalty to the nation state our primary identity also raises deep questions for those who belong to communities shaped by global ethical commitments that go well beyond national or geographical attachments,” he added. ‘Good citizens have a wider vision than flag-waving.”
Barrow continued: “If you get children to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, you are also getting them to pledge allegiance to the Supreme Governor of an Established Church, the Church of England. This will be difficult for many secularists, humanists, free church Christians and those of different faith backgrounds.”
“If the government wants to promote citizenship it would be better to look at how we can work more effectively together to promote social justice, human dignity, equality, civic participation and peace-building,” says the religion and society think-tank.
Graham Smith of the campaign group Republic, which works for the abolition of the monarchy, told the BBC: "It's offensive to people who do actually cherish democracy and who actually cherish the sorts of liberties we've fought for centuries."
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said there were "far better ways" of creating a sense of belonging for teenagers than asking people to swear allegiance to Queen and country.
Welsh Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones said: "I don't think that's appropriate myself."
Unlock Democracy has attacked the proposals to remove voting rights from citizens of Commonwealth countries resident in the UK on the grounds that it would disenfranchise more than 6,000 soldiers currently serving in the British Army.
The number of Commonwealth soldiers serving in the British Army has risen sharply over the past decade, from around 400 in 2000 to 6,000 in 2007. Lord Goldsmith is proposing that their right to vote in the UK as Commonwealth citizens should be removed.
Commenting on the review, the director of Unlock Democracy, Peter Facey, said: "It is a gross insult to expect soldiers to die for this country while removing their right to have a say. We should not be so quick to pull up the drawbridge in the way that Goldsmith suggests but should instead treasure our history and rich cultural links with Commonwealth countries around the world."
Encouraging people to commit to social justice, human dignity, equality, civic participation and peace-building is the way to create good citizens, says Ekklesia, not attempts to impose symbols of state allegiance and inflated rhetoric about ‘national pride’.
“The disastrous war in Iraq, the growing gap between rich and poor, threats to civil liberties, fear of cultural difference, and growing hostility towards people seeking asylum in Britain send out messages about the kind of divisions that require far more than anthem-singing to overcome,” points out co-director Simon Barrow.
The think-tank says that, while the Church has often colluded with oppressive power historically, a right understanding of allegiance to the way of Christ – which is the primary loyalty for Christians – questions all attempts to limit human solidarity by means of race, gender, nationality and ideology.
The full citizenship Review document is available (*.PDF format) here: http://www.justice.gov.uk/docs/citizenship-report-full.pdf
See also: Which citizenship, whose kingdom? - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6883