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To stay here after Brexit, scientists are swotting up on Morecambe and Wise

Passing the UK citizenship test – complete with questions about classic comedy duos – might be the only way to stay in Britain after we leave the EU. 

On Saturday night, William Watkin and Barbara Montanari were sitting on their sofa having a cosy night in at their home just outside Wallingford, south of Oxford. Watkin is a professor of contemporary literature and philosophy at Brunel University, and Montanari is a research physicist working in a chemistry department. A married couple in their forties with eight-year-old twins and full-time jobs, their quiet evening was well-deserved.

But it wasn’t as restful as it should have been. Montanari, who is originally from Italy but has worked and lived in the UK since 1999, has been preparing to apply for British citizenship. That evening, she was reading the Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents handbook, an official government publication applicants must read before taking the citizenship test. Flicking through it, she asked her husband about Morecambe and Wise – one of the example questions in the booklet asks readers if they know who the British comedy duo are.

This was when Watkin felt a wave of anger on his wife’s behalf, and sent a public message on Facebook decrying the fact that a theoretical physicist – who works, lives and pays taxes in the UK, who has a British husband and whose children are British citizens – feels compelled to sit in and learn about dated double acts.

His post was shared widely online:

It reads:

“My wife, a theoretical physicist who was one of the first to model graphene which eventually won the Nobel prize for the team that made it in the lab, is spending her Saturday night reading Life in the United Kingdom and asking me who Morecambe and Wise are so she can pass her citizenship exam. Then it struck me, people think we are a great and unique nation because of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials. And they are forcing the intelligentsia of Europe to concede this or get the hell out. My wife modelled graphene, she should be changing the world some more, not thinking about Morecambe and Wise. Bring me sunshine someone.”

There are three million EU nationals in the UK. They are unsure about what Brexit will mean for their future. The government has not guaranteed their rights, and ministers were furious last week when the House of Lords voted down the government’s Article 50 bill, urging ministers to guarantee EU nationals’ right to remain in the UK after Brexit.

This has led to a spike in those applying for British citizenship or permanent residency, in case being an EU national will not be enough to allow them to continue their lives in Britain. There has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of EU nationals applying for permanent residency since the day of the EU referendum on 23 June.

 “I just got really angry for a moment that someone with her skills was being required to read the book and know about Morecambe and Wise,” Watkin tells me. “I thought it was a strange juxtaposition that somebody like my wife – who worked in graphene, which eventually was a Nobel prize-winning project – at the same time was having to learn about Morecambe and Wise rather than doing what she does best, which is developing science which makes the world a better place.”

He adds: “It immediately seemed to touch a nerve with many people who also seemed to find the juxtaposition just ridiculous.”

The future of EU citizens who have built a life in the UK hangs in the balance – mirrored in the precarious position of British citizens living and working in EU countries.

The European Parliament is investigating the UK government’s treatment of EU nationals who have applied for citizenship or permanent residency in Britain since the Brexit vote. This follows the accusation that EU migrants are hitting a “bureaucratic wall” when attempting to apply.

“After Brexit, it became quite clear early on that they [the government] were not going to vouchsafe the three million citizens,” says Watkin. “Our life is here, we have a big mortgage, our kids live here . . . Now she’s applying for citizenship simply because if she doesn’t get it and has to leave the UK, then we will all leave the UK.”

Watkin believes his message was so widely read because of people’s “anxiety” about the government measuring our Britishness – “that if circumstances changed, and they were forced to take that test, they actually would find out that they weren’t really British or couldn’t qualify as British”.

Other subjects he and his wife discussed in the booklet include the names of forts on Hadrian’s Wall, the founder of the first curry house, Edinburgh’s dry ski slope, the traditional food of Wales (answer: Welsh cakes), and, ironically, the original make-up of the EEC.

“Although it is British that we have Morecambe and Wise, it’s not a very British thing to test people on their knowledge of Morecambe and Wise,” Watkin reflects. “A lot of people found that incongruous. It’s kind of against the whole Morecambe and Wise ethos – which is anarchic and rule-breaking and self-deprecating – to demand that people know we are the world’s greatest when it comes to comedy. British people responded to that – they could see that this isn’t who they are.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.

“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.

It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:


Applause, cheers, and even some tears.

But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.