Published on Wednesday, 04 July 2012 00:58 Written by Ketlan Ossowski
Home Secretary Theresa May is said to be anxious to introduce a new citizenship test for would-be Brits, with more emphasis to be placed on 'Britishness' and rather less on practicalities like reading a gas meter, getting a job or how to pay bills.
Those wishing to become British citizens will be expected, for instance, to know at least the first verse of the national anthem, which I suspect is all anyone knows anyway. According to a recent report in the Guardian, applicants could also be tested on their knowledge of Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Florence Nightingale and William Shakespeare, as well as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, before they qualify to call themselves British.
The Sunday Times reported a few days ago that a draft of the new handbook that accompanies the citizenship test includes profiles of historical characters including the Queen, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Alexander Fleming, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Emmeline Pankhurst, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and poets such as Robert Browning and Lord Byron. It will also inform applicants pretty pointedly that 'Britain is "historically" a Christian country, and will expect the reader to know something of British inventions and discoveries, such as the structure of DNA and the internet.
The idea that applicants should know something of the history of their prospective adopted country is not a new one. The Life in the UK handbook, which accompanies the current multiple-choice test, includes a 25-page, 11,000-word introduction to British history written by the late professor Sir Bernard Crick. Crick revealed in 2006 that he resisted pressure from the then home secretary, David Blunkett, to include history questions in the test, stating that; 'I refused, both in principle and on grounds of practicality: could any test for immigrants be devised that 80% of our fellow citizens would not fail?'
This is an excellent point and I've tested it a number of times (in an entirely unscientific way) by quizzing friends and family from the test itself - or rather, from the sample questions that are available online here. The sample test is nowhere near as complex as the real test and frankly I defy, for instance, any member of the EDL, to get through it with much more than fifty percent correct. And I know you want to know, so I'll tell you - I got 63%. Here are a few of the questions:
'In the 1980s, the largest immigrant groups were from the West Indies, Ireland, India and Pakistan. True or false?
How many parliamentary constituencies are there?
Ulster Scots is a dialect which is spoken in Northern Ireland. True or false?
In which year did married women get the right to divorce their husband?
Schools must be open on how many days of the year?
Children under the age of 16 can only work less than 10 or less than 12 hours per school week. Which is correct?'
If the test had gone more deeply into questions about the history of the UK, I would have got a lot fewer points. History was probably my worst subject at school with geography a close second. I can tell you that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, near Battle in Sussex, and that's about it.
Does it make me any less of a citizen because I know little of the history of my country? Not as far as I can see. It never stopped me working and paying tax, driving and obeying the rules of the road or being a local government councillor. Neither knowing nor caring why King This killed King That has never stopped me doing my duty, as I saw it, by the country I was born in, and has never stopped me being as patriotic as the average guy in the street.
And how patriotic is the average guy in the street? Not much, as far as I can see. Oh sure, the bunting comes out for a couple of days every few years - it was out around here for the Jubilee and stayed up in a few places right up to the point where England got booted out of the recent tournament. Some is still there, though looking a bit bedraggled after all the rain, and more will probably go up for the Olympics, but what does it all mean, if anything?
The farcical nature of the citizenship test was described in an article in last week's Independent on Sunday. Seth Alexander Thvoz is a Swiss immigrant who recently went through the naturalisation process, having lived here for twenty-five out of his twenty-seven years. He's no idiot, being a British history lecturer with two degrees (Cambridge and London).
As Thvoz put it;
'The most intellectually demeaning part of the whole experience was the Knowledge of Life in the UK test, which I can only guess has been compiled by someone who has never visited the UK.'
Thvoz had this to say about the test itself;
'The test takes the form of 20 multiple-choice questions, which one can only revise for by buying the official Life in the UK handbook from the Home Office (RRP £9.99) and the accompanying revision guide (RRP £5.99). One cannot simply take the test using common sense, because the Life in the UK book is so riddled with factual errors that if I were to give the correct answers, I would fail the test....From the Life in the UK handbook I learned many new and interesting things. Apparently, Magna Carta was signed in 1316, some 101 years later than is commonly thought, and Hitler invaded Russia in 1942 – which must have come as a shock to those Russians fighting the invading Wehrmacht in the summer of 1941. Being a political historian, I naturally homed in on the fact that every single description of who was allowed to vote at various times in British history was comically wrong. Had it been an essay I was marking for my students, I would have given it a Fail.'
So not only does the test ask a load of questions that are irrelevant to real life in the UK but the answers are probably incorrect anyway. So what's the point of the test and does it say anything about being British and/or patriotic?
Far more important than patriotism, as far as I'm concerned, is having some input into the community in which we live - ALL the community. One of the nicest events I've been to in years was a local cricket match on a broilingly hot day last year. At the end of my local cricket ground is a raised area of grass and this was covered with families from my estate and the local area cheering the players on. Kids were playing, good-natured staffies were running around nicking sandwiches, local sales of ice cream, soft drinks and cold lager had gone through the roof, and every time something dramatic happened on the pitch, there was a smattering of applause from an astonishingly diverse audience. About half the players were from the local Muslim community so a good many Muslim families were there, too, and THAT, to me, is a community, and THAT says everything about being British that I want to know.
To hell with questions about Holst and Byron and to hell with questions about the structure of DNA or who the fifth Beatle was, the real question to ask is if a would-be citizen will engage with our community and be a part of it in some way. As far as I'm concerned, if the answer to that is yes, they're in.