In a year when Britishness is celebrated, the citizenship test makes a mockery of it. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

Why the 2017 election was much worse for Theresa May, and much better for Jeremy Corbyn, than it looked

To understand the 2017 result, you need to understand the 2015 one. 

There is a lot stuff talking about the election as if Theresa May did quite well – and a lot talking about what Jeremy Corbyn did right, focusing on his vote share rather than his more important gain, vastly increasing the number of winnable seats.

The 2015 election result was so bad for Labour, as I wrote immediately after, before Corbyn was even on the ballot, that they had lost two elections in one night.

Seats like North Swindon, Labour-held until 2010, had Conservative majorities in excess of 10,000. They needed a swing of 1997-proportions to get a majority of one, and to gain close to 100 seats. Their vote was badly distributed, going up in seats they held and retreating in seats they needed to win to form a government.

In 2017, the picture is very different. Labour needs a swing of just 3.5 per cent to win a majority of one, well within the reach of the possible. A swing of just 1.4 per cent from Conservative to Labour would gain the party 30 seats and put them in office in a minority administration – not one in which they could carry through all of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, but one in which they would be able to easily govern from a centre-left perspective with the help of the nationalist parties and the Liberal Democrats.  

In contrast, to get into minority administration territory after 2015, Labour needed close to a six-point swing. Just 15 seats would have fallen into Labour hands on a 1.5 per cent swing, well below the 33 seats that Labour gained on 8 June.

Vote share is not all that relevant under first past the post. What matters about Corbyn’s performance as opposed to Ed Miliband’s is that his vote is efficient under first past the post and he has created an electoral map where Labour can honestly talk about winning the next election. (Regardless of who had won the Labour leadership in 2015, their best case scenario was not victory but creating the conditions for victory at the election after that, as I wrote at the time.)

Nor is vote share that useful a metric to talk up May’s dire performance. Ultimately, there were four reasons why Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn got such a high vote share: 1) The collapse of Ukip following the referendum, 2) The failure of the Liberal Democrats to revive in a big way, 3) Voters who had never voted until the referendum continuing the habit in the election, and 4) First-time voters motivated by Corbyn.

Neither May nor Corbyn can take credit for the first three, and only Corbyn can take credit for the fourth.  The others were the result of decisions taken by, variously: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall.

Most of the increase in vote share was about what happened to the minor parties. Their collapse and failure increased the size of the marketplace for the big two.

And on this metric you get a better idea of Corbyn’s success and May’s failure. Corbyn took 48.5 per cent of the Labour-Conservative combined score, up from 45 per cent under Ed Miliband. Theresa May in contrast took 51 per cent of the two-party combined score, down from 55 per cent under David Cameron.

I will write in more detail about the 2015 result, and what the 2017 result has done for the prospects of the four major parties. But the most important thing to understand is this: while there are legitimate arguments that 8 June 2017 might be “peak Corbyn”, the election result was a very good one for Labour and a very bad one for the Conservative Party. That has nothing to do with their expectations before the exit poll – and everything to do with the actual pattern of votes and seats across the country. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496