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4 July 2012

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.

By Mehdi Hasan

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.

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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.