What does it mean to be a “British citizen”?

The Tories make heavy weather of wanting to cut down on immigration –– yet there seems little eviden

I went to a citizenship ceremony at the Weald and Downland museum, which showcases historic buildings from the 13th century onwards, dismantled and painstakingly reconstructed by volunteers. The buildings - a smithy, a Victorian schoolroom, a 15th-century farmstead and a working watermill that makes very good flour - nestle amid rolling downs, grazing farm animals and working shire horses.

To this most British of places came the 40 new citizens, from China and Slovakia, from South Africa and Bangladesh, in suit and dress, niqab and Monsoon sparkly top. From Gambia to Brazil, from India and Pakistan, they had travelled, via Worthing and Crawley, East Grinstead and Bognor Regis. The ladies wore jewels; all the little boys wore suit and tie. Everybody's shoes were very clean.

The Queen looked a little incongruous on her low easel, perched at the front of the cavernous Gridshell - a light, wavy shell constructed from oak laths, within which the old houses are rebuilt, like a giant Lego game. Down the Gridshell processed a deputy lord lieutenant and a county council chairman with dangly things on. There were speeches, a swearing of oaths, a cream tea. It was a fantasy of olde England: ". . . I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen . . ." As the three-dozen new citizens trilled along to the opening verse of the national anthem, I couldn't help thinking that these people are not the ones we need to be swearing citizenship pledges today.

Joyless jobless

The ceremony took place on the same day the unemployment figures were published, showing the numbers of economically inactive (those not even seeking employment) at a record 8.19 million high, more than a fifth of the working-age population. Among the unemployed, almost a fifth of 16-to-24-year-olds are jobless, and nearly 780,000 people have been out of work for more than a year.

So what had they been doing, these new citizens who had lived and worked here for at least five years, and passed difficult citizenship tests? (Sample questions: "At what ages do children take key stage tests in England?" "What are the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe?") There was a doctor, a taxi driver, an IT specialist, a man who worked in recycling, a woman from a tax office. What did they offer that the millions of unemployed and economically inactive Brits did not? Ambition, perhaps. When a local post office closed a couple of years ago, the villagers wailed and moaned, because the accompanying shop would have to shut, too. The post office was indeed just an expensive public subsidy for a crap village shop, so when it did shut, the dismal shop swiftly followed, despite the villagers' attempts to form committees and fundraise to keep it open.

Then a family from Sri Lanka arrived. They bought the lease, reopened the shop. The (generally white and wealthy) villagers patronised them, and the Sri Lankans smiled back. The shop is thriving. It sells fresh, locally sourced meat and fish, and good bread; it offers dry-cleaning, seedlings, fruit and veg. And the family is about to open a little café outside.

It's only one shop in one village, but it is a lesson in what immigrant enterprise can do. The white people just gave up on it when their subsidy was withdrawn. This is the other side of the currently fashionable, anti-immigration bleat from some Labour leadership candidates, and from the Conservatives.

The Financial Times of 18 June calculated that David Cameron's proposed cap on immigration will cost £9bn a year in lost tax revenue -
or £300 for each British family in higher taxes. The calculation is based on forecasts from the new Office for Budget Responsibility which assume that net immigration will remain stable at 140,000 a year - about 40,000 higher than the Tory estimate.

“It is just not possible to keep bringing more and more people into our country to work while at the same time leaving millions of people to live a life on welfare," Cameron said in a recent speech. The Tory policy assumes that all those jobs no longer taken by immigrants will be filled by British people; but why weren't they filled with British people in the first place? Why was an Indian man better placed to start his own taxi business, a Gambian woman best suited for the job at the tax office? Why did it take a Sri Lankan family to save a village shop?

Big scrap

I hope the government has an answer to these questions, because at the same time as it cuts immigration, it is ending the funding aimed at enabling the underqualified or underenthused British unemployed to fill those jobs. When the Liberal Democrats' Danny Alexander announced the government's first cuts to public-sector projects earlier this month, there was a huge fuss about Sheffield being hit hard, it being the political home of Nick Clegg.

There was little comment about the other constituency that was badly hit: the young and long-term unemployed. Four separate programmes aimed at helping one or other of the two groups were scrapped. I wouldn't automatically defend all these "back-to-work" initiatives - my experience is that such schemes can amount to little more than paper-shuffling - but I do wonder how ministers think a long-term unemployed young person morphs into something employable.

No such concerns disrupted the ceremony at the Weald and Downland museum, as the new citizens walked through ancient woodland towards a display of maypole dancing, the admonitions of the county council chairman ringing in their ears: "Welcome! Join in! Pay your taxes!" It wasn't necessary. They already do.