I was recently at a graduation ceremony and something bizarre happened. Once the tedious formalities of white men wearing robes and handing out certificates was over, we were asked to stand. Then, from the soundsystem of the Barbican centre blasted God Save the Queen. My classmates looked awkwardly at each other as they attempted – in vain – to recall the lyrics of this centuries old national anthem. The result of this cringeworthy display of nationalism: an awkward silence.
Under new plans from the Home Secretary, Theresa May, overseas visitors seeking to work, study or even attend business meetings in the UK would have to demonstrate their respect for “British values” by undergoing a test for visas. According to the Financial Times, the document that outlines these plans states: “We want to make clear to those seeking to visit, work or study in the UK, and those granted protection, that they need to abide by and respect British values throughout their stay in this country . . . We will make British values an integral part of applying for a visa.”
But how exactly the Home Office plans to make overseas visitors display their respect for this abstract principle of “British values” is unclear. Will visitors form orderly queues at visa centres, while they wait in turn to recite God Save the Queen? Or will they be given a Q+A format card, styled on the United States’ homeland security questions – replacing “are you a member of a terrorist organisation?” with “on a scale of one to ten (one being ‘utterly detest’ and ten being ‘crazy in love’), how would you rate Queen Elizabeth II?” I can imagine terrorists quivering at such a prospect.
The coalition’s partners have branded the test a “ridiculous idea”. One senior Lib Dem said: “The Tories talk a good game about the global race and then come forward with preposterous ideas like this, which is completely at odds with the Britain we want, that’s tolerant and open for business and trade and investment. This just isn’t a proportionate response.”
Speaking to me today, Andrew WM Smith, a visiting fellow at UCL’s history department said that the plans seemed like an advanced move on the Tebbit test – a phrase coined after remarks in the early Nineties from the Tory grandee Norman Tebbit. The Tebbit test was used as a reference to the perceived lack of loyalty of immigrants to the England cricket team. Tebbit claimed that those immigrants, who chose to support their native countries team, rather than the England cricket team, were not significantly integrated into the UK.
“It’s more prescriptive than ideas we’ve seen in the past. There’s also a sense that people wouldn’t be able to pass a citizenship test who have lived all their life in Britain,” added Smith. Certainly the case for the students in my cohort.
Haras Rafiq, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, said that the proposal was “just not do-able.” “Do we get into the realm of thought police?” he asked. “That’s just not something that should be done in a liberal, secular democracy. We should be focusing on protecting the UK from those people who want and are able to do us harm.”
The government has previously defined “British values” as, “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”. But for once, I find myself agreeing with the controversial historian, David Starkey (did I just write that?), who branded the government’s definition as “banal”. He went on to add that the definition should include: “queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets and self-loathing”.
He has a point. The way the government frames the process of people coming into our country, dressing up restrictions with the label of “British values”, conjures up stale tropes about British society: cups of tea, the royal family and the Union Jack. Not only would this “British values” test undermine recent efforts made by the Home Office to simplify the visa rules for business visitors, it is against the tolerant society that Britain purports to be on the global stage.