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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Labour must unite idealists and nativists to beat Ukip

The party has no coherent economic policy, says Labour donor John Mills. 

The heart of the dilemma faced by Labour is that, by and large, its working-class supporters think that you should look after your own first and everyone else afterwards, while its more idealistic middle-class supporters don’t share these nativist views. Add to this the fact that the Labour party nowadays is more middle class, more internationalist, more public sector-orientated, more metropolitan, more intellectual and less interested in winning elections than it has ever been before, and you can see why Ukip is a huge potential threat.

Ukip started by attracting mainly disaffected Conservative voters who thought their party was weak on the EU and who didn’t like David Cameron’s liberal approach to social issues. More recently, especially during the EU referendum, Ukip picked up a huge amount of Labour support. Of the 9.3m people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election, close to 3.5m of them voted for Leave – and half of these people say they are not going to vote Labour in future. Where are they going to go?

The crucial issue is whether Ukip, having gone through all its recent traumas, will get its act together to scoop up these footloose voters. Up to now, the glue which has held Ukip together has been hostility to the EU and distrust of the political establishment. It has lacked coherent policy. This leaves Ukip still essentially a protest operation rather than as a potentially governing party. But this could change. 

With Labour now increasingly idealistic rather than nativist, Ukip may pull together a string of policies that promise support for working-class solidarity, immigration restrictions, social conservatism and a reindustrialisation plan – very much the platform which won Donald Trump the US presidency. Such a manifesto could attract sufficiently widespread working-class support to make large numbers of Labour seats vulnerable. Ukip came second in 120 constituencies during the 2015 general election. There doesn’t have to be a very large swing for Ukip to start picking up enough seats to make the prospect of a future Labour government more and more remote.

Faced with this prospect, what can Labour do? Three key strategies suggest themselves. One is to avoid alienating potential Labour supporters by trying to persuade them that they should have voted Remain. On the contrary, the party must clearly accept the referendum result, and fight hard and constructively towards getting the best possible Brexit deal. 

Second, Ukip is weak on economic policy. It is all very well to promise reindustrialisation and better jobs, but how is Ukip going to fulfil them? Populism shades very easily into protectionism. There is a principled case for open markets to produce more prosperity - but this may only be possible if there are also changes to monetary and exchange rate policy to avoid unmanageable commercial competition. Ukip may, like the Labour party, find this a hard case to make.

Third, Labour needs to change its tone. There needs to be less talk of abstract universal values and more of concrete steps to improve people’s lives. Labour must celebrate working-class attitudes to self-help, trade unionism, mutual support, patriotism and solidarity. The party must build on the huge influx of members, not least because they are the cadres for the future, but it also must avoid alienating old supporters with many years of experience and commitment. It is up to the party leadership to create such a change.

As it stands, too many Labour people are still trying to derail Brexit. The party has no coherent economic policy and it still looks too London-centric, divorced from its working-class roots. Not a good place to be if Ukip pulls itself together. 

John Mills is a businessman and a Labour donor. He founded the group Labour Leave ahead of the EU referendum and has recently published the pamphlet "Why Trump Won"