In a year when Britishness is celebrated, the citizenship test makes a mockery of it. Photo: Getty Images
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The citizenship test makes a mockery of Britishness, says Mehdi Hasan

In a year when Britishness is celebrated, the citizenship test makes a mockery of it.

Britishness “is a complicated and enormous thing –what different people see as meaning different things”, the historian David Cannadine once remarked. Ministers in the Conservative-led coalition, however, beg to differ. They think Britishness revolves around knowledge of William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, of the national anthem and Christianity. After all, that’s what foreigners who apply to become British citizens will now be tested on, according to sources close to the Home Secretary, Theresa May. “Know the Bard . . . or you’re barred”, proclaimed the headline in the Sun on 2 July.

The questions in the current “Life in the United Kingdom” test, which was introduced by Labour in 2005, range from the New Deal for the unemployed to trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en. But this is now going to change. A Home Office spokesperson told the BBC that “putting our culture and history at the heart of the citizenship test” will help improve community cohesion and integration.

There are three objections at least to this approach. First, who decides what is and isn’t relevant to British “culture and history”? Theresa May? The Bible-bashing Education Secretary, Michael Gove? Civil service bureaucrats? These are deeply contested concepts. Take the national anthem. Republicans and atheists should be deeply suspicious of the idea that it somehow defines being “British”. It  doesn’t. One in four Britons supports an elected head of state; one in three doesn’t believe in God. I vividly remember how, as a truculent teenager, sent by my parents to study at private school, I often joined my geography teacher and a few other republican pupils in obtaining a special dispensation not to have to stand and sing the anthem in assembly. God save the Queen? I was convinced from a young age that He has far more important things to do with His time.

History rewritten

It is also worth bearing in mind that the questions posed in the current citizenship test are based on the Home Office pamphlet Life in the United Kingdom: a Journey to Citizenship. This is a deeply disturbing document that rewrites British colonial history and presents a skewed and reactionary view of the past. Consider the following passage:

For many indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere, the British empire often brought more regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order than many had experienced under their own rulers, or under alien rulers other than Europeans . . . Public health, peace and access to education can mean more to ordinary people than precisely who are their rulers.

Long live the Raj!

Second, there is a danger the citizenship test is being deployed as a weapon in the battle to cut net migration, rather than in the battle for greater community cohesion. Those who are well off and well educated can afford to take the test, which costs £50, and spend time and money preparing, reading, memorising. Those who are less educated and less well off, however, struggle.

The government wants migrants to show their command of English at the same time as it is cutting funding for English lessons. Is it any wonder that, in 2009, nationalities with a pass rate below 50 per cent included Iraq, Bangladesh and Turkey, while migrants from Australia, Canada and the US had a pass rate of between 96 and 99 per cent?

Third, if this is about strengthening British citizenship, shouldn’t we all, natives and migrants alike, be put to the test? Or is the burden of integration on new arrivals only? While writing this piece, I decided to take the existing test. I scored 17 out of 24, which means I failed. Narrowly. The pass mark is 75 per cent (that is, 18 and above). Every member of the New Statesman editorial team – writers, editors, sub-editors, bloggers – I asked to take the test online also failed. Miserably. (The person with the lowest score in the office got nine. She shall remain nameless.)

I have, on the basis of my score, “insufficient knowledge of the English language or of life in the UK to remain”. On this absurd and arbitrary basis, swaths of UK-born citizens would have to relinquish their red passports and head for Heathrow; they haven’t a clue how many members of parliament there are (646) or what percentage of the population is Muslim (2.7), to cite just two of the random questions that appeared in the test.

You cannot inculcate a shared civic identity or teach common values through a multiple-choice, pass-or-fail test of 24 questions. Memorising answers to questions has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one will be a good citizen or a good neighbour. Whether those questions are about Hallowe’en, as they are at present, or about Shakespeare, as they will be in the future, is irrelevant. To put citizenship to the (multiple-choice) test is to debase to the very idea of it.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

Photo: Getty
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Is Britain about to leave the European Union?

A series of bad polls have pro-Europeans panicked. Are they right?

Is this what Brexit looks like? A batch of polls all show significant movement towards a Leave vote. ORB, a phone pollster, has Leave up four points to 46 per cent, with Remain’s leave cut to four points. ICM’s online poll has Leave up three points, putting Brexit ahead of Remain by 52 per cent to 48 per cent once don’t-knows are excluded. ICM’s phone poll shows Leave up six points, a Brexit lead of three points.

That two phone polls are showing advances for Leave are particularly significant, as telephone polling has tended to show lower figures for Brexit. There is a lively debate over which method, phone or online, is likely to be more effective at predicting the referendum, although no-one knows for certain at the present time.

In any case, whether on the telephone or the Internet, the latest polls have pro-Europeans worried, and Brexiteers jubilant. Who’s right?

There are reasons to start trusting the polls, at least as far as voter ID is concerned

So far, the performances of the political parties in local elections and by-elections has been about par with what we’d expect from the polls. So the chances are good that the measures taken post-2015 election are working.

Bank holidays are always difficult

I would be deeply cautious of reading too much into three polls, all of which have been conducted over the bank holiday weekend, a time when people go out, play with their kids, get wasted or go away for a long weekend. The last set of bank holiday polls gave Ed Miliband’s Labour party  large leads, well outside the average, which tended to show the two parties neck-and-neck.

Although this time they might be more revealing than we expect

One reason why the polls got it wrong in 2015 is they talked to the wrong type of people. The demographic samples were right but they were not properly representative. (Look at it like this – if my poll includes 18 actors who are now earning millions in cinema, I may have a representative figure in terms of the total number of Britain’s millionaires – but their politics are likely to be far to the left of the average British one percenter, unless the actor in question is Tom Conti.)

Across telephone and online, the pollsters talked to people who were too politically-motivated, skewing the result: Ed Miliband’s Labour party did very well among young people for whom Thursday night was a time to watch Question Time and This Week, but less well among young people for whom Thursday is the new Friday.  The polls had too many party members and not enough party animals.

But the question no-one can answer is this: it may be that differential turnout in the European referendum means that a sample of hyper-politicos is actually a better sample than an ordinary poll. Just as the polls erred in 2015 by sampling too many political people, they may be calling the referendum wrong in having too many apolitical people.

These three polls aren’t the scariest for Remain released today

IpsosMori released a poll today, taken 15 days ago and so free from any bank holiday effect, without a referendum voting intention question, but one taking the temperature on which issues the British public believe are the most important of the day.

Far from growing more invested in the question of Britain’s European Union membership as the campaign enters its terminal phase, concern about the European Union has flatlined at 28 per cent – within the margin of error of last month’s IpsosMori survey, which put Britain at 30 per cent. The proportion who believe that it is the biggest single issue facing Britain today also remains static at 16 per cent. Evidence of the high turnout necessary to avert Brexit seems thin on the ground.

Pro-Europeans should be further worried by the identity of the groups that are concerned about the European Union. Conservative voters, the over-65s and people from social grades A (higher managerial, administrative and professional workers) and B (intermediate managerial, administrative and professional workers), are more concerned about the European Union than the national average. The only one of those three groups that is more likely to favour Remain over Leave are ABers, while Conservative voters and the over-65s are likely to vote for Brexit over the status quo.

Among the demographics who are least concerned about the European Union, the only pro-Brexit group that is significantly less concerned about EU membership than the national average are people from social grades D (semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers) to E (state pensioners, casual workers and jobseekers). The other groups that are least concerned with the European Union are people who live in urban areas and people aged from 18 to 24, the two most pro-European demographics.

The prospects of a Brexit vote are rather better than the betting odds would suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.