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:
“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.”