If I soften the “Z”s of my name, Zuzanna, into “S”s I can convince people I am British – a trick I often employ when first meeting someone. Having attended school in West Berkshire since I was seven, I have developed a southern English accent, with the only “tell” being my pronunciation of “three”: I roll the “R”, a habit that arose from trying to differentiate between “three” and “free” to my eastern European parents. I moved to the UK in 2007 from a town in the Beskid Sądecki valley of southern Poland, minutes from the Slovakian border. While my parents never explicitly told me why they chose to leave, they were most likely influenced by the increasing number of Polish people moving to Britain at the time and by the prosperity the country promised. Growing up, I fully immersed myself in UK life and have lived here more than twice as long as I ever lived in Poland. Yet only in July could I legally call myself British.
After passing the multiple-choice “Life in the UK” test, a requirement of becoming a British citizen, and paying the £1,330 administration fee (plus £50 to take said test and £132 for my biometrics appointment, at which they took my fingerprints and a headshot), a crumpled letter from Ealing Council arrived: my invitation to a British citizenship ceremony. In a small, poorly lit hall in London’s Ealing Brentham Sports Club, I and 11 other new British citizens swore an oath to Crown and Country, and sang the national anthem beneath a limp Union Jack. After 16 years of feeling othered in my own country, and another six months of going through the application process, I expected to feel a profound sense of my British identity. Instead, I found that while my citizenship gave me a level of security – in my right to vote in the UK, or to continue to live and work here – I had gained no great understanding of what it meant to be British.
Rather than making me feel proud, the mayor’s crimson ceremonial robes, the antiquated oath and the forced singing of the anthem filled me with discomfort. I felt no connection between this display of supposed Britishness and the country I knew. Most of the information I was required to learn for the Life in the UK test was unknown to my British friends – none of them could tell me when the Sikh festival Vaisakhi falls, or which king ruled during the signing of the Magna Carta (King John), or that most Vikings settled in Scunthorpe – nor do they know the words to the national anthem. None of this rote learning seemed to answer my question: what is Britishness?
Given that the archaeological record dates the first human activity on the British Isles to 900,000 years ago, Great Britain as a country is a relatively modern invention, created by the uniting of England and Wales with Scotland in the Act of Union in 1707. (Ireland joined nearly a century later.) Each nation brought to the Union its own distinct heritage. By the start of the 18th century, the concept of Englishness had only existed for around 800 years: Aethelstan was recognised as the first king of the English in 927; the process of gradually unifying the Heptarchy (the kingdoms, such as Mercia and Wessex, among which the land was previously divided) took nearly a century. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the 21st century, war and constant ebbs and flows of migration brought many foreign cultures, customs and languages to Britain. It was only with the 1905 Aliens Act that any concerted attempt to legally separate out who did and didn’t belong in the UK was made.
A national identity is a shared set of values, languages, traditions and behaviours, often strongest when its energies are funnelled into a common project: the British identity, for instance, was at its strongest during the world wars. Britain has a long history of welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees; their influence is not counter to but a valued part of British identity. Britishness is multicultural and multiracial, able to contain multitudes.
Perhaps this is why the citizenship process felt so at odds with my understanding of Britain. Rather than accepting the expansiveness and pluralism of British identity it presented Britishness as something rigid and easily defined. I will continue to intertwine eastern European customs with the ones that I have acquired in the UK; I will celebrate Christmas on 24 December, yet I’ll also enjoy a roast on the 25th; I will use metric measurements over imperial. Britain is full of people who hold such tensions within themselves – having two, or even more, national identities. Perhaps I didn’t feel a surge of Britishness after my ceremony because I had for years embraced the two as one, and was already British because of it.
[See also: What does it mean to be British?]