The government wants migrants who wish to settle permanently in the UK to 'prove their worth' before being given permission to remain. Some of the proposals announced today by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith are fairly uncontentious: few would disagree that would-be British citizens should be required to learn English and make some kind of contribution to the economy.
But other elements of the plan have a faintly sinister ring. Smith states that migrants 'would need to demonstrate their contribution to society beyond simply working and paying taxes.' Meaning what exactly? The Home Secretary elaborated: 'The rights and benefits of citizenship will be available to those who can demonstrate a commitment to our shared values and a willingness to contribute to our community. ' Apparently newcomers will find their route to citizenship 'accelerated' if they can prove they are 'active' citizens. According to the BBC report: 'This would include proof of charity work, involvement in the local community and letters from referees.'
There are several problems with all of this. First of all, what exactly are 'our' shared values, and how can you effectively demonstrate a 'commitment' to them? We don't have a written constitution or bill of rights, and even if we did, should those who disagree with elements of them not have the right to live here? What 'shared values' do members of (say) the SWP, the BNP, the Anglican church and the National Secular Society have in common? The only values that we currently expect citizens to adhere to are those enshrined in the law, and surely not breaking the law of the land is the only commitment to shared values that a free society can ask of its members?
Secondly, requiring prospective citizens to prove their worth by participating in 'charity work' or 'involvement in the local community' is a further example of New Labour's communitarian centralism which, like its oxymoronic plans for 'compulsory volunteering' by young people - seeks to impose a particular, currently-fashionable model of 'active citizenship' on the population by government fiat. It's behavioural micro-management of a particularly illiberal kind - and I write as a social democrat and card-carrying Labour supporter, not an anti-state libertarian.
Thirdly, requirements of this kind will be open to all kinds of abuse. Imagine the market that will develop in fake references 'proving' community involvement, or the hundreds turning up to 'volunteer' at charity shops or as school governors so they can get their 'active citizenship' stamp, then disappearing - or worse, signing on for such activities out of a sense of compulsion and creating headaches for the genuine volunteers. Finally, it's surely unjust to impose on new migrants demands that are not directed at existing citizens. As a British citizen since birth, I've never been called upon (thank goodness) to demonstrate my 'commitment to shared values' or to prove that I am an 'active' citizen.
I can understand the anxieties that have prompted these proposals, not least the concern, in the wake of recent terrorist plots, about the tiny minority of migrants who take advantage of our open, liberal society and use it as a base for plotting actions that undermine it. I'm certainly in favour of anything that would advance integration and break down the walls of ethnic or religious sectarianism. As I've said before, a bill of rights and written constitution would certainly help. But in a free society, it's not for the government to dictate the values or behaviours - beyond adherence to the law of the land - of its members.
For more on tests for prospective citizens, see Norm .