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British citizen or other? Reflections on New Labour's reforms to the UK citizenship process

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The reforms to the citizenship process under New Labour were part of a policy of reinvigorating citizenship as a tool for fostering community cohesion. By requiring newcomers to learn English, take a test and attend a ceremony, the Government aimed to help them to integrate better into British life, thereby reducing problems allegedly caused by growing diversity in large multicultural cities. Several years since the introduction of these reforms, and in the wake of yet more changes by the Coalition government, it is important to reflect critically on their impacts. To do so, this article presents the results of a study which sought the opinions of non-EU immigrants and others with direct experience of the new citizenship process. The research found that, contrary to New Labour's promotion of British citizenship as a common bond, the process serves to reinforce ‘otherness’ and to encourage an instrumental approach to ‘getting nationality’. It is argued that, in modelling the process on those that operate uncontroversially in North America, New Labour forgot the most important ingredients: public support for multiculturalism and respect for newcomers.

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    We are aware that definitions of ‘integration’ and ‘cohesion’ are contested. We see them primarily as concepts of political rhetoric, and as such are part of the background arguments over how new or potential citizens relate to existing citizens and society. It is not possible, in our view, to measure the degree of a person's integration into a society. Rutter (2007) provides a helpful definition of what ‘integration’ might mean from the perspective of refugees and immigrants.

  2. 2.

    Prime Minister David Cameron has made known his intention to make changes to the Life in the UK test (not updated since 2007) to include more questions about British history and culture (Travis, 2011).

  3. 3.

    In the May 2008 local elections the BNP gained three councillors, making a total of nine across the city. After our research was conducted, the BNP lost four of its nine seats in 2010 local elections. It was then completely wiped out, losing all its remaining seats, in 2011.

  4. 4.

    Sherilyn MacGregor emigrated from Canada in 2004 and went through the citizenship process herself while working on this project. A blog of her experience forms part of the data on which this study draws (see Gavin Bailey was born in and has lived in Stoke-on-Trent all his life.

  5. 5.

    Not long after going public with her ‘My journey to British citizenship’ blog, SherilynMacGregor received two unsolicited email messages offering to help her to prepare for the citizenship test, for a fee.

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    By comparison, the fee in Canada is $100 (CND) and in Australia $260 (AUD) per application.

  7. 7.

    The Host Programme is a Canadian Government scheme that matches newcomers with a friend in local community members who meet for a few hours a week for up to a year. See


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Our research was funded by a British Academy small grant. We would like to acknowledge the valuable contributions of Andrew Dobson, Philip Catney and all those who participated in the interviews and focus groups. Extra special thanks are due to the teaching staff at Stoke College and the Community Partnership Learning centre in Shelton for their help in recruiting participants. Thanks also to the three peer reviewers and editors of British Politics for their helpful feedback and input into the final version of the article.

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Correspondence to Sherilyn MacGregor.

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MacGregor, S., Bailey, G. British citizen or other? Reflections on New Labour's reforms to the UK citizenship process. Br Polit 7, 365–388 (2012).

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  • citizenship
  • immigration
  • integration
  • cohesion
  • New Labour