Thursday , June 20 2024

Why I value being British

When I decided to move back to Britain I had to make sure my husband could come too. If he could not have come, I would have stayed in Russia. Now some years later it may finally be possible for him to obtain a British passport. It seems such a little thing, a small maroon booklet that sits in a draw. I wonder how many people reading this quite realise how difficult it is to obtain.

If I had lived in France in the 1930s, met and married someone there, it would have been a quite simple matter to bring my husband to the UK. It would simply have been my right. But eighty years later it’s an altogether more complex story.

Firstly it was necessary for me to have a job. It wasn’t enough that both of us were well qualified and had the potential to look after ourselves without state support. It wasn’t enough also to just have any job. I had to have a job paying above a certain amount per annum. You try looking for such a job while you are in Russia. It’s not a straightforward matter to go to an interview for instance.

I was fortunate. I had some contacts. I had some help. I got a job. But even then the process of applying for a visa was both nerve-wracking and expensive. We had to go to the British embassy in Moscow. We would have had to travel there even if we had lived in Vladivostok. There was a process of taking biometric information. There were questions to be answered. There was a period of waiting and finally we obtained the visa. It cost over a thousand pounds. At every stage in the game you pay over a thousand pounds.

After a time living here, we applied for indefinite leave to remain. To obtain this you have to pass a test. This test is called “Life in the UK”. What it involves is obtaining a booklet called “Life in the UK” studying it and then doing an exam. I couldn’t pass the “Life in the UK” test without reading the booklet. I would be surprised if one in a thousand British citizens could. It contains all sorts of obscure and irrelevant questions that no-one could reasonably be expected to know. Do you know for instance when forced marriage protection was introduced into Scotland, or how many local authorities there are in London? Passing this test was both tedious and stressful for my husband. We then had to fill in another detailed form, pay another thousand pounds and travel to Glasgow to obtain my husband’s leave to remain.

Most British citizens are completely unaware of how useful a British passport is. It enables us to travel almost anywhere. A Russian passport is rather less useful. Whenever we wanted to go on holiday, my husband would need a visa, which frequently required travelling to Edinburgh or sometimes even to London. Moreover if we ever decided to live abroad again, after a time, my husband would lose his leave to remain in the UK. This would even happen if Scotland were to become independent.

There was therefore an incentive for us to obtain a British passport for my husband.

To obtain a British passport you first have to pass an English language test. Luckily my husband was chosen while a child to be part of a special language learning programme. The Soviet Union needed some citizens who could speak English to a near native standard. In some ways he speaks better English than I do. Most people in Scotland think he is British, only they can’t quite work out where he’s from. The odd vowel doesn’t sound quite right. We were very lucky indeed that his English is as good as it is, otherwise he would not have passed the test. The standard required is such that you would not expect an adult learning from scratch to be able to reach it.

It is obvious from the job that my husband does, that he speaks fluent English. He has certificates to prove it also. But none of this was good enough. There was no avoiding the test, which, once more, cost rather a lot of money. The whole process of obtaining a British passport in the end costs many thousands of pounds.

Do I resent that we have had to pay so much and overcome so many challenges. It is only human nature to resent difficulties and to not like paying money. But I understand it. I am in favour of immigration. How could I not be when my husband is an immigrant? I too have been an immigrant. Who knows I may be one again. I have a dream of living somewhere warm and cheap. But although I’m obviously in favour of immigration I also accept that it can neither be unlimited nor uncontrolled.

The reality is that the UK already has strict controls on immigration. Every time my husband enters the UK he has to show his thumb-print. The journey he has been on to obtain British citizenship has been difficult and expensive. Russians cannot come to the UK without limitation, nor is immigration from Russia uncontrolled.

Why then is there is a perception that immigration into the UK is unlimited and uncontrolled? The reason is this. The rules and regulations that apply to Russians and others who want to come to the UK legally do not apply to those who wish to come here illegally.

Practically speaking anyone who arrives in the UK by whatever means whether legally or illegally can remain here. If someone arrives on a tourist visa and chooses to stay beyond the date on the visa, there is almost no chance that they will ever leave. If someone arrives on the back of a lorry they too will get to stay. The number of people who are deported for failing to follow the rules is vanishingly small. On the other hand if at any stage of my husband’s long journey, he had failed one of the tests or even made a mistake on a form, he would have been denied entry or ceased to have the right to live here. This situation which rewards those who arrive illegally while being strict with those who arrive legally is, of course, grotesquely unfair.

So long as we remain in the EU we cannot legally limit immigration from EU countries. I think, on the whole, this is a good thing. We have benefited massively economically from people coming to live and work here from Eastern Europe in particular.  But we can limit immigration from anywhere other than the EU, by applying exactly the same rules that applied to my husband. Why allow some people to break the rules, while forcing others to conform to them?

If my Russian relatives want to visit the UK, they have to show that they have a relatively large income, own property and have a good job. The condition for the possibility of a Russian visiting the UK is a level of income that few in the rest of the world could reach. Strangely however the rules that apply to Russians don’t appear to apply to anyone from the rest of the world. People from countries far poorer than Russia, who don’t have good jobs and don’t have property, can still obtain visas to come to the UK. Why be strict with the one while being lax with the other?

While immigration from the EU has been beneficial to the UK, this obviously depends on immigration to the EU being limited and controlled. This is because someone who has the right to live in and work in, for instance, Germany will eventually have the right to live and work in Britain. Uncontrolled immigration into Germany therefore amounts to uncontrolled immigration into the UK.

At present we are in the absurd situation where some people can enter the European Union without visas in an unlimited and uncontrolled fashion, while others are forced to jump through ever more complex and expensive hoops. It’s like trying to stem the flow of water from bucket by putting your finger on one tiny hole while the bucket is ruptured in a dozen other places. Why be strict with those who wish to come to the EU legally while at the same time being lax with those who don’t?

The concept of having a border, the concept even of having a country implies that immigration is neither unlimited nor uncontrolled. If you wish to do away with all borders, by all means argue for that, but accept that there will be consequences and it is unlikely that most voters will agree with you. In the meantime, if we are to have countries, we require that there is a common culture and a common identity. It’s only by putting limits on immigration that we can absorb new arrivals, make them feel welcome and a part of our country. It needs time to melt down difference in the melting pot. This is needed if we are all to live together in harmony. I understand therefore why the UK Government requires people like my husband to perform tests and fill out forms. I understand why the process is strict and demanding. What I don’t understand is that it only applies to those who chose to come to Britain legally. That is both unfair and pointless.

If everyone arriving in Britain from outside the EU were treated as strictly as my husband, the UK Government could achieve its goals with regard to limiting immigration with ease. The rules already exist, but they quite simply are not applied in a fair way. Why discriminate against Russians, or rather why discriminate against those who want to come here legally?

British citizenship is something I hugely value. It was something I was born with, but I don’t take it for granted. It gives me rights and I also have responsibilities. We should welcome those who choose to take on our identity. Above all the British identity should unify everyone in the UK no matter where we are from. It might be the only thing we have in common. Don’t reject it therefore. But just as my husband accepts that his family, his friends and his fellow Russian citizens cannot all come here, so too must all of us place limits on our kindness. Not everyone can come to Britain, not even all of those who have a well-founded reason to do so.

This post was originally published on the author’s personal blog on 2 January 2016.

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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