The UK is a country with people from many places. We have no choice but to try to get on with each other. Brexit may enable the UK Government to have greater control over immigration, but lots of people are going to continue to come to Britain from Europe and elsewhere. This is a good thing. We need them. We have an aging population and our economy depends on being able to attract skilled workers from abroad. I didn’t vote for Brexit in order to prevent anyone living here, nor indeed to prevent anyone coming here. I just wanted the issue to be controlled by the UK Government and the UK electorate. But given that the UK is and will continue to be a country with many languages, faiths and identities how are we going to create the necessary sense of unity that enables us to have an identity we can all share?
We all remember the tragic story of the Glasgow Muslim shopkeeper who was murdered because he wished his friends a Happy Easter. In response to this Khalil Yousuf a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community has suggested that “Not only should we raise the flag, but everybody in the Muslim community should have to pledge loyalty to Britain in schools. There is no conflict between being a Muslim and a Briton.” He is of course correct. Muslims in fact are statistically more patriotic than UK citizens in general. One of the great things about the UK is that everyone who is a citizen is equally British. It doesn’t matter at all where your parents came from.
But how about the idea of children pledging loyalty to the Union Flag? There are a number of problems with this idea. Clearly it would be wrong if this only applied to Muslim children. It has to apply to everyone or no-one. There is a difficulty also in what these children would be pledging loyalty to. In the United States children repeat:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
A variant on this no doubt could be devised for the UK. But what of the idea of our being one nation indivisible? This is something that I absolutely agree with. But lots of people who live in the UK don’t agree with me. Who are these people? Well obviously all those people who want a part of our country to become independent or to join another country. Also people like David Cameron who were in favour of giving Scotland a referendum on independence. Likewise Scottish politicians like Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale, who think the SNP should be allowed to have a second independence referendum if they want it, clearly do not think that that the UK is indivisible. These people may hope that the UK is not split up, but their attitude is quite different to that of an American.
It’s worth remembering that the Pledge of Allegiance was written quite shortly after the United States had fought the Civil War. Children repeated every day that the war was over and secession was no longer an option. There is a case for us in the UK doing the same. Our country was never closer to breakup than in September 2014. If the SNP had won they would have done what no one else could have done in the course of our 300 year history. No-one else could have broken the bonds that until the independence referendum campaign began, most of us had considered to be indivisible. The very act of having such a referendum was to introduce instability into our country and to imply that it faced an existential threat. It did. If the SNP had won, we would no longer be what we are now a United Kingdom. How could we even have used that name?
William Faulkner famously wrote that every Southern schoolboy got to replay the Battle of Gettysburg with the chance of winning. But he only got to replay it in his mind. He didn’t get to replay it in reality. What the Scottish nationalists want is to replay their “Lost Cause” whenever they please and until whenever they win. But how can we maintain a United Kingdom and a common identity under those circumstances? Better by far, of course, that we settle these matters with a ballot box than with a box of bullets, but no country can live with the perpetual threat of dissolution.
The difficulty we have is this though. Imagine that a UK Government thought that it would be a great idea to have such a pledge of allegiance. I can imagine lots of children being encouraged not to repeat such an oath in certain parts of the UK. But this is our problem really. The UK is nation of people with complex and mixed identities. Most of us have family from other parts of the UK or other parts of the world. What unites us is that I can say that I am Scottish and British. Someone else can say that he is Polish and British while someone else can say he’s Jamaican and British. Our shared identity depends on the fact that we are all British. Without it we don’t even have a shared country let alone a shared loyalty.
Everyone who becomes a UK citizen in fact does have to take an oath: “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.” But why should this oath only apply to those who become UK citizens? Should it not apply to everyone who is a British citizen? It is clearly discriminatory to expect a promise from someone who comes to live in the UK that we would not expect of someone already living here.
What do you call someone who makes a pledge to a country and then breaks it? What do you call someone who is not loyal to their country? The UK Government in requiring new citizens to pledge an oath is trying to maintain the cohesion of the UK and trying to show that such people are equally British as anyone else in the UK. It is only in this way that we can forge a common identity amongst people from many places. The problem is that these attempts are being continually undermined by those British citizens who deny that they are British and who have no loyalty whatsoever to the UK.
Anyone who pledges to give his loyalty to the UK who subsequently campaigns to break up the UK is obviously a liar. But if we think this through then this oath really applies to all of us. How can an oath be expected of one set of British citizens, who happen to come from elsewhere, that is not expected of others, who happen to have been born here? The condition for receiving a UK passport ought to be that everyone has to make this promise. Anyone who can’t pledge allegiance to the UK or who feels no loyalty to our country would of course be free to renounce their UK citizenship. If you don't feel British, then why should you expect to receive any of the rights that go along with being a British citizen? Accepting those benefits under those circumstances makes you a hypocrite. Campaigning to destroy the UK while accepting its protection is an act of perfidy that simply would not be tolerated in most countries of the world. Try threatening the existence of the United States or insulting their flag and you'll quickly find out how Americans respond to that sort of behaviour.
We live in dangerous times and our country needs unity in order to face together the challenges and the threats that we all share equally. It is right and proper that the Government requires people who arrive in the UK to be loyal to our country. It is dangerous if they are disloyal. But the problem is not so much with those who have come to Britain. Most of them do feel British. They love the UK and are just as loyal to our country as someone who can trace his ancestry back generations. But those hundreds of thousands of people who have always lived in the UK but refuse to accept that they have a dual identity ought to reflect on the sort of example they are giving to those who have just arrived. How can someone who denies that he is Scottish and British expect someone from Pakistan to say that he is Pakistani and British? How can such a Scottish nationalist expect a British citizen who has just arrived from Nigeria to respect the Union Flag when he himself doesn’t respect it?
It is in this way that the various nationalisms in the UK undermine the cohesion that we so desperately need. How can we expect new arrivals to be loyal to our country if those who have been here for centuries have no loyalty, no patriotism and in the end no honour. Whether it is a good idea to have children, or indeed the whole population, recite an oath of allegiance is another matter, but Scottish nationalists could certainly learn a lot from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.