My first blog post was going to be about something profound and meaningful and relevant to my job. An essay on death, dying and intellectual disability, perhaps. Something suitably impressive. But I’m afraid I am going to have to introduce the B-word instead.
No, not Bereavement.
Brexit. (Or perhaps that’s the same thing.)
Yesterday, more than 32 years after first arriving in the UK, I became a fully-fledged British citizen.
Along with 20 other brand-new Brits, I promised to be faithful to Her Majesty the Queen. Lambeth Council generously threw in the gift of a free pen.
I’ve been married to a British citizen for 23 years and raised three British children, but apart from not being allowed to vote in general elections, it has never bothered me that I couldn’t call myself British. Those of you who have moved counties, countries or continents will know that the roots of your birthplace are never truly buried. I have always felt Dutch, and I have always seen that as an asset.
But when my son turned 18, we realised that it would be prudent for all three children to apply for a Dutch passport. The Dutch government is not keen on dual citizenship, and they keep changing the rules, so best to get this sorted before having a Dutch mum is no longer a passport to a Dutch passport. How lucky they were, I thought, to have two cultures and be part of two countries.
But hang on a minute. Aren’t I also part of two countries? Suddenly, being the only non-British person in my household felt a bit sad. I wanted to be British too! It was a positive choice – emotional, even.
(And expensive. Those Dutch passport applications came to around £150 each. Getting to the point of British citizenship has cost me more than ten times that amount. Thank goodness for free pens.)
Then Brexit happened.
Almost overnight, getting British citizenship no longer felt like an optional extra. I had never questioned my right to live in London, but all of a sudden, the future seemed somewhat shaky. What if I were to end up as an 85 year old widow with Alzheimer’s in need of nursing home care? Would I be sent back to Holland? I’m not dramatising things. In the toxic post-Brexit atmosphere, there have been enough worrying stories to make me feel acutely aware of the vulnerability of being an immigrant – something I had never felt before. Getting a British passport turned from a positive choice to a negative one. It was no longer a question of wanting a British passport, but of needing one.
The first challenge was passing my citizenship test.
Well, I thought, how hard can it be? You need to give the correct answer to at least 18 out of 24 multiple choice questions. Surely, I had lived here long enough to pass without too much effort? I merrily clicked on the online practice tests – and failed miserably.
Many of the questions were laughably easy.
Is Edinburgh the capital of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?
Is Christmas Eve on 23, 24, 25 or 26 December?
But too many were beyond me.
Are there 10, 12, 15 or 20 national parks in England, Scotland and Wales?
Was the Emancipation Act signed in 1807, 1817, 1833 or 1837?
Who was made a Dame of the British Empire in the year 2000 – was it Mary Peters, Kelly Holmes, Ellen McArthur or Jayne Torvill?
I had no idea. Clearly, some study was required before I could gain the right to be British.
My friends, many of whom saw themselves as Very British and Very Well Educated, were incredulous when they, too, failed the practice tests. Their Oxford University degree had not prepared them sufficiently for Being British, as they could not tell me whether the famous satirical magazine “Punch” was published in the 1820s, 1840s, 1860s or 1880s; nor were they aware of the exact height of the London Eye (125 meters? 135? 140? 152? Every citizen should know!)
Luckily, there is a book with all the answers to these crucial questions. I studied it carefully and passed the test first time (you can take it as many times as you like, but at £50 a go, I was glad I didn’t fail). At the time, I would have been your perfect pub quiz partner – but I fear that a year later, I have forgotten most of the detail and am struggling once again to pass those online tests.
The next challenge was proving that I could speak English.
It looked like I’d have to sit an exam. Having written articles, books and a PhD was no help. The PhD was at a Dutch university, so although it was taught, written and defended in English, it didn’t count as evidence. But wait! How about my BSc degree? That was at a London university. Yes, that would get me to bypass the test requirement. I couldn’t find the certificate and had to pay to get a new one, but at least it did the trick.
Right, on to the Citizenship application form – about 80 pages long.
“Submit your Permanent Residence Card”.
Surely, as a EU citizen, I didn’t need such a thing? Don’t all EU citizens have the right to live in the UK? But no, it transpired that I did need to supply the card as evidence of my right to be here. Who knew? Another 80 pages of application form, another fee, another wait.
This was perhaps the part of the process that upset me most, because to obtain the right to Permanent Residence in the UK, the main requirement seemed to be Well Paid Work. The Home Office was not interested in my longstanding marriage to a Brit, nor in my British children, nor in the many years of doing low-paid work supporting people with learning disabilities. Instead, they wanted to know exactly how much I had earned in the past five years. How many days have I had off sick?
(Quite a few, as it happens. Breast cancer and all that. My poor hard-working GP had to write a letter listing all the dates I’ve been signed off sick, and why).
Also, could I please fill in this page, listing all the days I’ve been out of the UK in the past five years, and why? Thank goodness I’ve kept my old Filofaxes, so that I was able to inform the Home Office exactly on which date in 2012 I stayed Belgium overnight for a work seminar.
I have passed all these hurdles with quite a lot of effort, but without too much difficulty. But had I been a stay-at-home mum, or had I spent more than two out of the past five years in the Netherlands (to look after an ill mother, say), this would have been quite a different story. There have been news reports of Europeans in exactly those positions, people married to British citizens who had lived here for decades, who were sent letters by the Home Office telling them to prepare to leave the country after their application for permanent residence had been refused.
All this has made me feel very uncomfortable.
Why should someone staying at home to look after an ill husband or a disabled child be any less welcome in the UK than I am? Indeed, if I myself had physical or intellectual disabilities, how could I ever pass all these hurdles? Hm. Do I really want to be a full member of a country that no longer welcomes new citizens equally, but screens them for economic power, disregards family bonds, and seems unable to exercise compassionate flexibility?
But I filled in the forms, paid the eye-watering fees, sent in all the documents, and after months of waiting, I received my congratulatory Home Office letter.
All I had to do now was turn up at Lambeth Register Office for that promise.
It was actually quite nice. Forget the Home Office. Here in South London, I felt right at home. We were welcomed as new British citizens by the deputy mayor of Lambeth whose Portuguese accent was so strong that I had to concentrate on his speech – he had moved to England two decades after I did. The young woman whose job it was to look carefully at our mouths, in case anyone failed to utter the correct oath, was wearing a hijab.
Here was a room full of people from all over the world, looking exactly like folks on an average London street. I wondered what all the stories were that have led my fellow Londoners to their free New Citizen pen.
And I remembered again why this city is, after all, the very best place to live.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the correct answers are…
Edinburgh: capital of Scotland
Christmas Eve: 24 December
National parks: 15
Emancipation Act: 1833
Dame in 2000: Mary Peters
Punch magazine: 1840s
London Eye: 135 meters