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

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution