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.

Sang Tan/AP
An office building by the river Thames in London is decorated with British flags in preparations for the weekend celebrations to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, Thursday, May 31. The capital is preparing to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne.
Arthur Edwards/AP/File
This December 2008 file photo shows Britain's Queen Elizabeth II speaking from the throne in the House of Lords, during the State Opening of Parliament in London.

Flanked by the British flag and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, who marks her 60th year on the throne this weekend with a diamond jubilee, Youssef Siblini poses for his first photo as a Briton and as a subject of the crown.

Moments earlier Mr. Siblini and seven other immigrants swore an oath of citizenship to be “faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty.”

For Siblini, an immigrant from Lebanon, the oath of fealty helps bring him into the fold of his new homeland. “I think it’s a good idea to make you feel that you are English now,” he says. “She will become my queen too.”

Starting tomorrow, Britain kicks off a four-day national celebration of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The monarchy is riding high levels of public support even as Britons widely express unease with a sense of crumbling community spirit. Some link the two sentiments, arguing the monarchy is one of the few unifiers in a country absorbing large numbers of immigrants. 

 “The monarchy signifies the unity and diversity of the British nation,” says Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica, a think-tank in London working on social cohesion. “She’s not white people’s monarch. She’s the monarch of all the British people and all the British legacies and dominions.”

Over the 60 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Britain’s overseas empire finished breaking away, but the British Isles themselves grew far more diverse. Net immigration, once as low as 48,000 in 1997, shot up to a quarter of a million by 2010.

 Polls show the public has grown uneasy with the pace of immigration and its impact on social cohesion. A 2011 YouGov poll found 88 percent of British respondents agreed that immigrants who are unable to speak English or unwilling to integrate have created “discomfort and disjointedness” in Britain.

As in many parts of Europe, multiculturalism is losing ground to greater assertions of a national set of values and heritage. For many critics of the monarchy, the need for a unifying symbol appears neither urgent nor best served by a hereditary office.

“People will find something to rally around whether it’s the sports teams … or [actor] Stephen Fry,” says Graham Smith, head of Republic, an anti-monarchy advocacy group. “We don’t need to allow these peoples [royals] to co-opt all that in order for their own personal gain.”

His group advocates adopting the Irish model, where there is an elected but largely ceremonial head of state. He points to former president Mary McAleese who, as the first president born in Northern Ireland, helped bridge sectarian divides and unify the Irish people.

“The process of electing her helped the Irish citizens to reflect on who they now were,” says Mr. Smith.

British officials from across the political spectrum have increasingly 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 what had been a solitary bureaucratic process of saying an oath before a

“It’s that idea that people from such different and diverse backgrounds will have this in common, and to give people a bit of pride. It’s a life event to have this ceremony,” says Bryony Aldous, a local official in the south London borough of Southwark.

She officiates the short ceremony in a cozy hall that opens out onto a garden. Before her stand the eight would-be citizens and, off to the side, their families, holding plastic Union Jacks. She gives a short talk that’s explicitly British: noting that tea is waiting in the back, the weather is uncharacteristically sunny, and sports fans can rejoice in the Olympics coming to town next month.

She also talks of the rights and responsibilities of British citizenship, including the right to vote and the responsibility to take part in civic life. The eight – from Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Russia, Nigeria, and Lebanon – swear the oath together, then sing “God Save the Queen.” One by one the citizenship certificates – once printed on cardboard, but now just paper due to austerity – are handed out.

Smith, of the anti-monarchy group Republican, says would-be immigrants have been put off from citizenship by the requirement of swearing to the queen.

“People have come from countries where they’ve had to fight quite literally for democracy and then they get here and they have to swear an oath to a hereditary monarch. It’s quite appalling,” he says.

Siblini’s wife, British native Yolanda Hill, however sees value in the ceremony. She says her husband is still struggling to find his place, six years after first coming to Britain. The recession has made it hard for him to find work, and his childhood connections are in Lebanon.

“And so I think this [ceremony] is a good way to get settled. And he’s starting studies in university, which I think is a really good way to get integrated as well.”

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