A foreigner, once again

October 2016

Charles Hecker, Senior Partner, Control Risks

I was a foreigner when I arrived in this country in 1997. Five years later, I became a British citizen. I preserve my naturalisation certificate carefully, in a safe place. I come across it from time to time, when I look for other important documents prudently set aside in the same cautious corner.

A naturalisation certificate is impressive, to be sure, but let’s be honest: it’s nothing compared to a passport. Naturalisation certificates sit in folders covered (lightly) with dust; passports fly on airplanes. Your passport shows the world who you are and where you’re from.

When my British passport came in the post I first held it like a thing of marvel. I examined the watermarks. I held the hologram at an angle under the lights in my kitchen, watching it flicker in 3D. I read and re-read the passage that began with “Her Britannic Majesty’s…”

Some of the cover’s fresh gold embossing rubbed off on my fingers, literally marking me as British.

It was a good day, mostly for the novelty and the practicality of it all. I felt great relief at the prospect of using the (somewhat) shorter queues for UK citizens at Heathrow.

But that ironically-named burgundy passport meant more. A lot more. I envisioned myself finally whizzing through passport control booths in Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Stockholm – to name a few – with little more than a ritual wave. That passport made me a citizen of the European Union.

Buy one, get 27 free. It was like winning the lottery. I began harbouring thoughts of opening a gelato stand on Sardinia in my retirement, a red bandanna tied loosely around a wrinkled, perma-tanned neck.

And now, maybe not. Brexit.

Citizenship is a funny thing. Your initial citizenship is, more often than not, something you have no control over. It happens to you. Second citizenships are – under the best of circumstances – an issue of choice.

Yes, taking a second citizenship should often be treated like a luxury, a privilege. That said, these days, acquiring British citizenship involves an awful lot of time and a significant amount of work. I wonder if it won’t get a lot more difficult. That would be discouraging. There is something important about respecting the ability to make that choice, to harbour that aspiration and to invest that effort. It seems closely related to concepts of freedom.

On those rare occasions when I stumble across my naturalisation certificate – usually I’m looking for some ancient document from a bank – I remember the citizenship process. It was a long time ago and as a result, a much – much – easier affair than it is now. No written test. No memorising “God Save the Queen.” Stay here five years, watch your work permit morph into leave to remain, pay the fee, visit the notary, raise your right hand, repeat after me and you’re in.

I exaggerate, but this was a time when the UK seemed open, and increasingly so. The Eurostar’s carriages still had a bit of gloss on them. EasyJet was a novelty, not a utility. British shoppers at the London foodie playground, Borough Market, contemplated buying burrata.

My particular process had its nervous moments. At the very beginning of this adventure, I recall the considerable time I spent waiting to hear if a UK citizen would get the job I wanted so badly. In the end, I was fortunate. Speaking an extra few exotic languages and having on-the-ground experience in a lot of different places worked in my favour. I mention this because there have long been additional hurdles for foreigners wanting to live and work in the UK. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it’s important to remember that the safeguards are there. 

As to the future, it’s all up for grabs. I wonder how long it will take for the UK to settle into a new place and a new role globally. I think it will take a very long time. I wonder if, by then, it will matter that much to me. It seems so important now.

On the most basic level, we’ll all be okay, as long as we’re healthy, surrounded by friends and loved ones, and have something compelling to do during our waking hours.

My concerns reside on a different level. The lights seem a bit dimmer in London now, the sweep of the city just a bit constricted. The promise of inherent and effortless worldliness that British citizenship promised – no, promoted – feels gone. This matters to me. I chose to become British. Converts are always the biggest zealots. And something I once regarded with marvel now seems diminished.

So in the meantime, I’ve reduced my gelato consumption. This is mostly to preserve my suit size, but also to prevent myself from growing too accustomed.

I am no longer a foreigner in Britain.  I will become a foreigner everywhere else.

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