I’m a little disappointed because I’ve just failed a sample paper from the Life in the UK citizenship test, even though I’m a British citizen. Despite the fact that I was born and educated in the UK and have lived most of my life in England, I now realise that I don’t really belong here, that I am probably incapable of integration and may even represent a danger to social cohesion and British national identity.
Of course some of the questions didn’t trouble me too much. I knew that Santa Claus came from the North Pole, that it wasn’t the Royal Mail that collects domestic waste. I suspected – correctly – that ‘ All the newspapers have their own angle in reporting and commenting on political events’ and that ‘There is concern in Britain over the age at which some young people start drinking.’
Being pretty sharp and generally well-versed in our social mores I answered ‘False’ for ‘The Monarch is not important and popular amongst most people in Britain.’ I knew that the traditional Christmas meal wasn’t ‘fish and chips followed by tea’. Asked ‘What does a dog wear?’ I naturally didn’t put ‘ Wellington boots for big puddles’, let alone ‘ A raincoat in wet weather.’
But how was I to know that the UK only offers a 50 percent discount on a television license to blind people? Or that the .04 percent of the population was of Chinese descent in 2001? That 5 percent of the population not 6 percent live in Wales? Or that 86 percent of young people took part in some form of community activity over the last year? Or that 70 percent, not 60 percent of the population ‘stated that they were Christian?’
I’m trying not to be too depressed about my ignorance, since I suspect that many British citizens, perhaps even the majority, would also fail the test. And History was always my best subject at school, so I may have another crack at the proposed new test which the government is planning to introduce later this year
Under the direction of George Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick, the new test will place less emphasis on informing migrants about practical aspects of dealing with British society. Instead they will be informed that Britain is ‘historically’ a Christian country with ‘ a long and illustrious history.’
To prove that they understand this, they will be required to learn the first verse of God Save the Queen and study ’historical characters’, such as the Queen, the Duke of Wellington, William Shakespeare, Emmeline Pankhurst, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and poets such as Robert Browning and Lord Byron.
Even the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are to be presented as emblematic icons of Britishness, in a test which one Home Office official quoted by the Guardian describes as a deliberate move away from ‘ stuff on rights, practical info that has little to do with British culture’ towards a model that stresses ’ responsibilities and requires people to have a grounding in our history.’
Quite right too. Why should migrants waste their time on all that meaningless nonsense about the Human Rights Act, and employment and benefits regulations when they could be learning about the Bard, Robert Browning and the Duke of Wellington and all the other people who have made our country great? How else are they going to integrate?
No wonder the tabloids – those great Shakespeare and Robert Browning lovers – are cock a hoop. Because the new test sounds a lot like the old ‘great men and dates’ approach to British history that once permeated the old O level History syllabus before it was corrupted by political correctness and all that namby pamby stuff about the negative consequences of empire and colonialism.
In fact the conceptual leap from the present test to the proposed rewrite will not be too great. The UK Border Agency website contains a sample page from the guidebook to the current test entitled ‘ A Changing Society’ contains the following formulations:
Britain is proud of its tradition of of offering safety to people who are escaping persecution and hardship. For example, in the 16th and 18th centuries, Huguenots (French Protestants) came to Britain to escape
religious persecution in France. In the mid -1840s there was a terrible famine in Ireland and many Irish people migrated to Britain. Many Irish men became labourers and helped to build canals and railways across
This is breathtakingly revisionist and dishonest stuff. Many, if not the majority, of historians agree that the Irish famine was exacerbated by British government policies such as the repeal of the Corn Laws and the landlord system resulting from English colonisation.
Yet prospective migrants are expected to believe that its victims were generously given sanctuary ‘in Britain.’ The booklet also incorporates late nineteenth century emigration from the Tsarist empire into Britain’s ‘proud tradition’, informing readers that:
From 1880 to 1910, a large number of Jewish people came to Britain to escape racist attacks (called ‘pogroms’) in what was then called the Russian Empire and from the countries now called Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.
A more rounded – and honest – version of history would note that such emigration was bitterly resisted and resented, that it led to the formation of the pre-fascist and anti-Semitic British Brothers League and resulted in the 1905 Aliens Act – the UK’s first piece of immigration legislation, which was specifically designed to prevent the entry of ‘destitute foreigners’ – a category that was always understood to refer primarily to Jews.
But honesty and history is clearly not the intention of this triumphalist Michael Gove-ish version of British history and culture. In the late nineteenth century, the British colony of Natal introduced a ‘dictation test’ in English for migrant ‘coolie’ labourers from China and South Asia.
The aim of this test was summed up in 1893, by Justice Milieus de Villiers of the Orange Free State, who justified the exclusion of Asians on the grounds that ‘every European nation or nation of European origin has an absolute right to exclude alien elements which it considers to be dangerous to its development and existence.’
The ‘Natal formula’ was subsequently introduced in Australia, where port officials confronted with migrants who spoke English well would simply change the language to another that they did not know, in order to justify refusal of entry.
All these tests were intended to limit immigration – from certain quarters – rather than facilitate it. Stripped of its talk of promoting integration, the current citizenship test has the same objective, and its revised version is clearly intended to narrow the threshold of entry still further.
So those of us who were born in the UK should be grateful that we don’t have to prove our eligibility to be here in this way. Otherwise we might have to leave and join the 700,000 British residents in Spain say, or the 500,000 in France, and hope that they don’t expect us to study their culture or their illustrious history.
But then, we can probably take it for granted that they never will.
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