Thursday, 7 March 2019

British Citizenship

On the 13th of February 2019 I attended my citizenship ceremony, the final step in becoming a citizen of Britain.

There were also two new citizens from Bangladesh, one from India and a married couple from Rumania. Bill and I both envied the Rumanians their EU citizenship. That relates to why, after 23 years, I finally decided to apply for British citizenship. 

Between the Brexit vote and the election of Trump as President of the US I felt the world had become a strange place that didn't feel quite so secure. As an alien with 'indefinite leave to remain' - an amusing British phrase, it began to feel too...indefinite. 

The wooden thing on the table is a holder for the Mace.

I had looked into citizenship years before but, other than the vote and right to live and work in Europe, I didn't see much gain. I already could leave Britain for up to two years and still return, but not for more than two years, and that condition remains even with naturalised citizenship. We talked about living the US at one point but health insurance costs changed our minds. It's cheaper to just visit for a month every few years. So becoming a dual citizen became more attractive, giving me that vote. 

Of course Brexit continues to stumble along towards who knows what end. I told Bill getting my citizenship at this point feels like running to catch the Titanic.

It took me about a year to complete the process, no doubt someone could do it much faster. Surprisingly it cost more than twice that of obtaining US citizenship. One of Bill's Asian friends hearing my plans, sent the name of a solicitor (lawyer) who specialises in this sort of thing. I wasn't excited about paying the legal fee in addition, given I'd be doing the work. Besides, it all seemed mostly straight-forward and do-able on my own. 

The first step was to buy a book about 'Life in the UK' to study (£11.95). It was so 'rah-rah, Britain is great' I couldn't believe if was written by an actual Brit. Nor could I believe I needed to know about the popular culture and sports heroes as well as the usual government and history questions. I did like that it spelled out my responsibility to look out for myself, my family and my environment. 

No English proficiency exam was required of me, but I did have to pass a citizenship test based on the book. I found this very helpful website for study and took the exams and tests there repeatedly. I copied any questions (with their answers) I wasn't sure of into a document that I studied in between taking the tests. When I could get at least 90% pass rate on all of these tests I booked my citizenship exam. 

This part didn't go smoothly because the private company that had the contract for administering these tests was moving offices and was appallingly bad at communicating with clients but at least efficient in refunding money. The first test was cancelled 30 minutes before it was to be held in a building with only construction workers removing rubble. They kindly directed me and an also anxious young man to another building, this one with an accessible receptionist - for an unrelated company. She informed us that people had shown up for the past few weeks for tests cancelled without notice. One poor woman came up from London for nothing. The receptionist kindly gave us a phone number from the internet, which of course was answered with a recording. I went home and drafted a letter to the Member of Parliament for our area and rescheduled the test for a couple of weeks later.

The second test was at least cancelled a few days before the exam and with that email I found a live person to check with about booking future tests. I sat the exam on the third attempt. The actual test took about ten minutes to answer 24 questions. It cost £50 (when booking, not refundable if you fail.)

Next, I had to complete a 31-page application, get two references to complete portions of the form and have a proper passport photo taken (£20). The application asked for ancient history: the names, dates and places of birth for each of my husbands and for my parents. It also required provision of documents: birth, marriage and divorce records, not to mention the pass certificate for the exam. Fortunately I already had all those. The other fun part was digging out information about where I had travelled in the past three years. Had I not been married to a British citizen that period would have been five years. As it was I used Bill's emails, my diaries and this blog to compile a list of travel locations for the required time period to show I met the residence requirements for application.

The local authority in Newcastle runs a 'National Checking Service' which allows one to submit documents and have them photocopied and certified, to send with application rather than sending off originals. This service costs £80. The application fee was £1,330. 

Soon after officialdom received the application I was sent for biometric testing (£20). That was a bit fraught as the website gave different information than the checking service about which Post Office I should attend in South Shields, across the river. Bill kindly drove me down, which resulted in a traffic ticket for using a bus lane. Not even he could figure out how to navigate in South Shields without breaking the rules. I don't count his £30 ticket as part of my citizenship expenses, though it just goes to show there are many obstacles to overcome!

I went to one place only to find it shut. A bit perplexed but not out of ideas, I asked a lady where the other Post Office was and she directed me around the corner. Sadly when I arrived their machine wasn't working. There were a number of other applicants on the same mission though they hadn't the benefit of English as their first language nor, I would guess, two decades of experience in Britain. One large man was being lectured by a stern woman in a suit that he could not threaten their staff and it wasn't their fault the machine was malfunctioning. He did seem quite agitated and I couldn't blame him, though I gather he had left things to the last minute, thus adding to his own stress. I wanted to assure him it wasn't at all personal - Britain does this malfunctioning thing to everyone including its own native born. I think it, in addition to the practice of queuing, accounts for the level of national stoicism.

The lady behind the counter said I had the choice to wait for the computer guy to come or to go down to Sunderland. I chose the latter. It was in trying to reconnect with Bill that I realised I'd never yet answered my mobile phone in the years  I've grudgingly carried it. I've only ever texted a few times so  Bill and I had several failed attempts nearly worthy of a digital age slapstick before I managed to find him and the car. 

It all went swimmingly in Sunderland: I made Bill park in a car park and walk the pedestrianised street with me to the Post Office and their machine worked fine. After a short wait I entered a booth where I had a facial scan and my fingerprints taken, a rather surreal experience. After that it was just a matter of waiting from three to six months for the official verdict. 

When I got the acceptance letter I had to phone my local authority, this time North Tyneside, to book into a citizenship ceremony - that was free. 

A drawing of the Registry Office that hangs in the lobby. I'm rather sentimental about the place.

The ceremony took place at the North Shields Register office where Bill and I got married eight years ago. I wore the same dress and shoes. It did sort of feel like getting married again, pledging allegiance to the Queen and to the laws of the the United Kingdom. The latter was second nature, I would live by those laws anyhow, but the Queen? Well, I think of her as a symbol and perhaps a wise little old lady. I've been fascinated with her family since I was twelve years old and in any case there wasn't a republican oath on offer, only the choice to 'swear by almighty God' or to 'affirm'. 

The ceremony began with a few tunes on the Northumbrian bagpipes. He didn't wear a kilt, just a shirt and trousers but with a large scarf, perhaps called a plaid, I'm not sure. I recognised the Northumbrian tartan, a black and white check. This was historically quite fitting as we were part of Northumberland until 45 years ago. I noticed piper's cuff links were buttons covered in the same tartan.

The mistress of ceremony was a deputy registrar I'd spoken with on the phone. A registrar's job is sort of a records manager: births, deaths, marriages...and citizenship.  There were also two official gentlemen who gave fairly similar speeches: the Chairman of the North Tyneside Council and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant (pronounced lef-tenant, you know) - sort of a deputy deputy as it were (as in lieu).

The Chairman of the Council, Tommy Mulvenna, was wearing his Chain of Office and was accompanied by a mace-bearer (also a casual civic driver, according to the job advert) who was...carrying a mace. We examined this interesting object later and found the emblem of the Tynemouth Borough Council, one of four and a bit councils amalgamated to form North Tyneside. According to this website about a film made by a local school in 1950:

  The Mace which is now recognised as a symbol of Royal Authority and Civic dignity, was originally a weapon of offence, capable of breaking through the strongest armour. It was carried into battle by Mediaeval Bishops instead of the sword.

The Deputy Lord Lieutenant was there as a representative of the Queen herself. I didn't catch his name but he kindly came up for a chat when the ceremony was over, explaining that we were 'nearly neighbours'. That gave me pause that he knew the name of my street but then I realised that the Queen's representative probably got to see my paperwork. 

The Queen, probably in about 1995, the year I came to Britain.

I asked the Leader of the Council what I might read to help me choose a political party and make an informed vote in May's local elections. Funny enough, he said it was 'all down to how you feel' and didn't recommend any study at all. He said he was once a Lib Dem (Liberal Democrat) but now was with the Labour party and suspected his wife of being a Conservative. I think he was serious, but I'm not positive. 

The speeches themselves were pretty interesting. They touched on the need for us to abide by the laws of the United Kingdom but mostly seemed to welcome our different contributions to the diversity of Britain. 

After the speeches and the pledges came the dirge-iest (that surely should be a word) version of a national anthem I've ever heard. I knew the words from my study. They are fairly amusing in a way. Think My Country Tis of Thee and sing along if you like: 

God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen. Send her victorious, happy and glorious, Long to reign over us, God save the Queen. 

It implies that so long as the Queen is happy, it's all good, but then she is a symbol of the country, right? Like I said, the words were no problem but it was s-o  s-l-o-o-o-o-w, when I wanted something a bit more upbeat to fit the cheerful occasion. Never mind.

After all that we had our photos. Shame the Queen got cut out, the photographer doesn't seem to have planned well, though it wasn't his fault the curtains wouldn't shut and the room was set up wrong for photos. Still, I'm content - it was free!

Then we all gathered for a nice cup of tea and a biscuit or a bit of cake. I went around to each of my new fellow citizens to shake their hands and congratulate them - very American of me, I know. They were all pretty pleased with themselves just as I was, and shook my hand, smiling. Except for the Rumanian man. He bowed and kissed my hand instead. 

I do wish Britain could stay in the EU.

We had a G&T at the Grand Hotel before going home to change and attend the Tynemouth Historical Society meeting.


Gam Kau said...

You can leave for more than 2 years if you are naturalised!
I did my naturalisation ceremony in London and there were many people at the ceremony, it was quite touching.

Shelley said...

Gosh, I will have to double check that. I was sure I read that stipulation still applied. I would fee happier if you are right - not that I want to go anywhere. I barely like to live my house these days.