On Diamond Jubilee's eve, diverse Britain seeks unity in Queen Elizabeth
Some say monarchy is a rare unifier in a land absorbing large numbers of immigrants. 'She will become my queen, too,' says newly minted Briton Youssef Siblini.
Flanked by the British flag and a portrait of QueenÂ Elizabeth, who marks her 60th year on the throne this weekend with a diamond jubilee, YoussefÂ Siblini poses for his first photo as a Briton and as a subject of theÂ crown.
Moments earlier Mr. Siblini and seven other immigrants swore an oathÂ of citizenship to be â€śfaithful and bear true allegiance to HerÂ Majesty.â€ť
For Siblini, an immigrant from Lebanon, the oath of fealty helps bring himÂ into the fold of his new homeland. â€śI think itâ€™s a good idea to makeÂ you feel that you are English now,â€ť he says. â€śShe will become my queenÂ too.â€ť
Starting tomorrow, Britain kicks off a four-day national celebrationÂ of the queenâ€™s Diamond Jubilee. The monarchy is riding high levels ofÂ public support even as Britons widely express unease with a sense ofÂ crumbling community spirit. Some link the two sentiments, arguing theÂ monarchy is one of the few unifiers in a country absorbing largeÂ numbers of immigrants.Â
Â â€śThe monarchy signifies the unity and diversity of the BritishÂ nation,â€ť says Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica, a think-tank inÂ London working on social cohesion. â€śSheâ€™s not white peopleâ€™s monarch.Â Sheâ€™s the monarch of all the British people and all the BritishÂ legacies and dominions.â€ť
Over the 60 years of Queen Elizabethâ€™s reign, Britainâ€™s overseasÂ empire finished breaking away, but the British Isles themselves grewÂ far more diverse. Net immigration, once as low as 48,000 in 1997, shot up to a quarter of a million by 2010.
Â Polls show the public has grown uneasy with the pace of immigrationÂ and its impact on social cohesion. A 2011 YouGov poll found 88 percentÂ of British respondents agreed that immigrants who are unable to speakÂ English or unwilling to integrate have created â€śdiscomfort andÂ disjointednessâ€ť in Britain.
As in many parts of Europe, multiculturalism is losing ground toÂ greater assertions of a national set of values and heritage.Â For many critics of the monarchy, the need for a unifying symbolÂ appears neither urgent nor best served by a hereditary office.
â€śPeople will find something to rally around whether itâ€™s the sportsÂ teams â€¦ or [actor] Stephen Fry,â€ť says Graham Smith, head of Republic,Â an anti-monarchy advocacy group. â€śWe donâ€™t need to allow these peoplesÂ [royals] to co-opt all that in order for their own personal gain.â€ť
His group advocates adopting the Irish model, where there is anÂ elected but largely ceremonial head of state. He points to formerÂ president Mary McAleese who, as the first president born in NorthernÂ Ireland, helped bridge sectarian divides and unify the Irish people.
â€śThe process of electing her helped the Irish citizens to reflect onÂ who they now were,â€ť says Mr. Smith.
British officials from across the political spectrum have increasinglyÂ encouraged reflection on what it means to be British. Under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the government created the group citizenship ceremony in 2004 from whatÂ had been a solitary bureaucratic process of saying an oath before a
â€śItâ€™s that idea that people from such different and diverseÂ backgrounds will have this in common, and to give people a bit ofÂ pride. Itâ€™s a life event to have this ceremony,â€ť says Bryony Aldous, aÂ local official in the south London borough of Southwark.
She officiates the short ceremony in a cozy hall that opens out onto aÂ garden. Before her stand the eight would-be citizens and, off to theÂ side, their families, holding plastic Union Jacks. She gives a shortÂ talk thatâ€™s explicitly British: noting that tea is waiting in theÂ back, the weather is uncharacteristically sunny, and sports fans canÂ rejoice in the Olympics coming to town next month.
She also talks of the rights and responsibilities of BritishÂ citizenship, including the right to vote and the responsibility toÂ take part in civic life. The eight â€“ from Swaziland, Zimbabwe, SierraÂ Leone, Russia, Nigeria, and Lebanon â€“ swear the oath together, thenÂ sing â€śGod Save the Queen.â€ť One by one the citizenship certificates â€“Â once printed on cardboard, but now just paper due to austerity â€“ areÂ handed out.
Smith, of the anti-monarchy group Republican, says would-be immigrants have been put off fromÂ citizenship by the requirement of swearing to the queen.
â€śPeople have come from countries where theyâ€™ve had to fight quite literally for democracy and then they get here and they have to swearÂ an oath to a hereditary monarch. Itâ€™s quite appalling,â€ť he says.
Sibliniâ€™s wife, British native Yolanda Hill, however sees value in theÂ ceremony. She says her husband is still struggling to find his place,Â six years after first coming to Britain. The recession has made itÂ hard for him to find work, and his childhood connections are inÂ Lebanon.
â€śAnd so I think this [ceremony] is a good way to get settled. And heâ€™sÂ starting studies in university, which I think is a really good way toÂ get integrated as well.â€ť