Brexit has raised some existential questions about national identity, with many Britons feeling their faith in Britishness eroding
Citizens of the world, or citizens of nowhere? Thousands of Britons appear to have answered the confrontational question asked by Prime Minister Theresa May by applying to other EU countries for citizenship before the Brexit deadline falls.
Irish officials report they are handling citizenship applications from the UK at a monthly rate equivalent to what was previously the annual one. Their counterparts across Europe – and especially Portugal, Denmark and Sweden – are all reporting big increases in inquiries about dual citizenship, and access to passports.
Most surprising of all is Germany. One of the most favoured destinations for general applications, it is also currently assessing more than 1,000 from Jewish people living in Britain. Descendants of refugees from Nazism, and often of Holocaust victims, they have turned to Germany as a safe haven in the face of Brexit. That total, covering less than nine months since the June referendum, is 40 times the number of such applications to be handled by the federal department in Cologne during the previous year.
One applicant is Baroness Julia Neuberger, a rabbi, high profile Jewish spokesperson and member of the House of Lords, English born to parents who both lost family members to the Nazis. ‘When Britain voted for Brexit, I decided to reclaim one part of my history: my German origins,’ she recalls. ‘I am a European as well as a proud Briton. I have many intersecting identities. I’m British, a passionate monarchist, a Londoner, European, female, Jewish, with strong Irish connections.’
Neuberger’s response was helped by her positive experiences of the ‘new Germany’, despite having been brought up only too aware of Nazi Germany’s dark history. She says she has ‘enormous admiration’ by Chancellor Merkel’s open-armed welcome to refugees, and that this was a factor behind her decision.
British Jews of German descent have special status under Germany’s Basic Law, which restores citizenship to all former citizens who were persecuted on political, racial or religious grounds between January 30 1933 and May 8 1945. Apart from Jews, the law covers other groups including members of the Communist or Social Democratic parties. Crucially, the relevant article also covers all descendants too.
It may seem strange for a people which suffered such cruelty to consider becoming ‘German’, and the big jump in applications has prompted debate within the Jewish community. But many applicants appear to have followed the logic that they are simply reclaiming a right taken from them or their forebears.
In less dramatic circumstances, the same may be true of the Irish diaspora. It has been reckoned that as many as 6m people in the UK can claim some Irish heritage. Any person born in the UK with an Irish-born parent or grandparent can apply for citizenship. The stepping stone to an Irish passport for British people of Irish heritage is a foreign birth registration certificate: Irish government officials are currently receiving applications at a rate of around 700 a month. During 2015, the year before the referendum, the total for the whole year was 689. Passport applications from Great Britain jumped by 70.95% in January 2017, compared to the same month in 2016. In Northern Ireland, the increase was even higher, 77.3%.
Ian Paisley Jnr, high profile Democratic Unionist MP, Leave campaigner and an opponent of a united Ireland, even recommended to constituents: ‘If you are entitled to a second passport then take one… my advice is to take as many as you can, especially if you travel to different world trouble zones.’
So what is motivating people to apply for passports even though it may be years until the UK actually leaves Europe, or reinstates the dark-blue ‘British’ passport as advocated by Brexiteers and reportedly already being planned by the Home Office, at a cost of £500m?
‘I would describe it mainly as an insurance policy,’ says Steven Purcell. A former Labour politician who led one of the country’s biggest local authorities, Glasgow City Council, he now runs a business consultancy. Scots-born Purcell has just received his Irish passport, having applied within weeks of last June’s poll result, and now enjoys dual citizenship, based on both sets of grandparents’ Irishness. ‘It is convenience mainly. I travel a lot, on business and pleasure, and I want an EU passport. It is also about who I am: I feel European. In Scotland we are living in a political situation that is moving in two different directions.
‘In a sense the poll has made me feel less British. Brexit has made me question my identity. I don’t want to be closed off from the rest of the world. I voted to Remain for many reasons and I feel hurt and confused by the result.’
His view may reflect that of many British-based citizens who have realised that their family circumstances – Irish grandparents, refugees from war – qualify them for a second passport, regardless of what happens during Brexit negotiations. In addition, there are an untold number of British people living abroad making inquiries about citizenship. These vary from pensioners in the sunshine who have retired to the sunshine of France and Spain to younger professionals working in European capitals.
They latter include banking and insurance executives whose careers have taken them to Brussels, Paris or Frankfurt and the thousands, mainly in creative media, attracted to Berlin by cheaper rents and a different ambience to Shoreditch. Now both sets of young, highly-mobile British workers find themselves sharing a possible Brexit limbo.
Do Leavers care about losing talented people in this way? It is difficult to work out the motivation in May’s comment that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ last autumn. This was a party conference speech where she shifted her Government’s position firmly towards a Hard Brexit. At a time when the Prime Minister is criticising nationalism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, she is endorsing a harder line of ‘British’ nationalism as a response to Brexit.
The truth is that the common purpose and sense of Britishness engendered during the Second World War and the 1950s has been in retreat ever since. As industry declined, and British sentiment fractured, the Conservative Party lost its voice in Scotland and parts of England.
This is the view of Professor Sir Tom Devine, noted historian at Edinburgh University. He points to two recent polls showing that Tory party members and Leave voters in England support Brexit even if it means Scotland leaving the UK.
Devine points to several long term factors such as the end of the ‘joint project’ of the British Empire, the decay of the Protestant faith, the decline of Britain as a great power. ‘Brexit has come about in large part because of the rise of populist English nationalism, which is also now being further fuelled by Brexit. May’s comment reflected her efforts to appeal to that constituency,’ adds Devine.
Leave supporters appear ready to brazen things out, rather than respond with concern about the potential disintegration of the UK, or thousands of compatriots scrambling to find alternative forms of citizenship, or other nations’ passports. The columnist Melanie Philips recently enraged opinion in Scotland and Ireland by arguing that neither was a ‘real’ country and that the true entity about which we should concern ourselves was the ‘British Isles’, whose proxy was – of course! – England. This historical nonsense served the purpose of the controversialist, but it also indicated a readiness among an increasingly triumphalist pro-Brexit lobby to face down criticism of the great Leave project.
The debate has centred on the position of EU citizens whose future status in Britain seems threatened by Leave politicians’ willingness to throw them into Brexit negotiations. Less attention has been paid to the erosion of many Britons’ faith in Britishness represented by the rush towards dual citizenship. Those passport applications to foreign embassies in London will continue to rise during the months ahead.
Maurice Smith is a journalist and award-winning documentary producer. Follow him on Twitter @mauricesmithtvi