Official: society exists after all

Observations on citizenship ceremonies

I do not join those who decry Charles Clarke's ambition to hold citizenship ceremonies for everyone who reaches the age of 18, and not just for new immigrants. Indeed, I believe that the citizenship ceremony - denounced as "another new Labour gimmick" - was one of the best legacies of Clarke's predecessor at the Home Office, David Blunkett. Like Mr Toad, the man was capable of doing good. When the ceremonies came in, Rochdale's deputy superintendent registrar, David Roney, said he would refuse to officiate at such a "xenophobic" event and sneered that even the Conservatives were against them. Now, having attended my first citizenship ceremony - for my Hungarian wife and son - I understand why the Tories might indeed dislike them.

The ceremony was held in the council antechamber at County Hall in Oxford. It began with a welcome from the deputy superintendent registrar. She introduced HM representative in Oxfordshire, a friendly, snowy-haired gentleman who earlier, on hearing that my wife and son hailed from Esztergom, told of how he and his wife had spent a day there in the summer, while cruising the Danube.

He talked humorously and informatively for ten minutes about the history of Oxfordshire and of the positive role immigrants had played in its development. Then my wife joined roughly 20 of the 25 or so applicants on the platform in swearing an oath before God. My son, his Christian faith having taken a knock by seeing how Christians had voted in the US elections, joined a smaller number in making an affirmation. All the applicants then repeated the pledge of allegiance before going up individually to receive their certificates of naturalisation and a Home Office pack on "being a British citizen", to loud applause from all present. The ceremony finished with an enthusiastic rendition of "God Save the Queen".

The ceremony lasted about 45 minutes, but the feelings of goodwill and friendliness it imparted will last with my wife and son for much longer. Far from promoting xenophobia, the service celebrated the potential strengths of a society that, while honouring its own traditions, relishes the cultural diversity that immigration can bring. Those of a republican persuasion would resent the oath of allegiance to the Queen, the singing of the national anthem and the large portrait of HM on the platform. But the monarch is our head of state - and I would rather pledge allegiance to a 78-year-old figurehead who reads the Racing Post than to a politicised president.

But what struck me most was the use of the words "society" and "community"- mentioned ten times in the ceremony and seven times in Blunkett's message at the front of the citizenship pack. So it's official: there is such a thing as society. Government acknowledgement of this after all these years should surely be welcomed.