Jumping over the citizenship hurdle

In testing immigrants on housing, banking and saints' days, the UK Citizenship Test sucks all the zest out of what it means to be a citizen.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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This week, the Manifesto Club is holding a mock version of the British Citizenship Test, in the form of a pub quiz in London. Josie Appleton, the club’s convenor, explains why.

Do you know what ESOL is? Do you know how the process of housebuying is different in Scotland than it is in England? Do you know the proportion of British people that say they have a religion, and how many attend religious services? Are you up to speed on the British cultural calendar, such as when saints’ days are celebrated?

These are all questions that immigrants will be asked before they can become full citizens of the United Kingdom. There is a notable gap between life in the UK and Life in the UK – the official government handbook to prepare immigrants for taking their British citizenship test. There is Britain as it is lived, in all the richness of work and play. And then there is this otherworldly version of Britain on which would-be citizens must be tried and tested.

It was in response to this gap between real life and government-imposed testing that a group of Manifesto Club members proposed holding a citizenship test as a pub quiz, that quintessentially British activity. They got the idea after overhearing a chance conversation in a pub:

‘A Japanese woman, who we figured had been living in the UK for about 10 years, presently studying for an MA, was recounting to her British friends some of the questions in the citizenship test she had sat earlier that day. She started recalling some of the questions to see if her friends knew the answers. Nobody seemed to have direct answers, a few guesses were offered, but the main response was further questions: “What’s that got to do with anything?” and “Why would you need to know that?” Towards the end of their conversation, the Japanese woman said, “It’s alright for you, you don’t have to do this…how would you like it?”’

The Life in the UK website tells would-be citizens that the test will ‘give you the practical knowledge you need to live in this country and to take part in society’. The Amazon version of the handbook is sold with the exclusive accolade: ‘Pass the Citizenship Test with Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship – the only official test book and study guide edited by the Home Office and members of the Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration.’

The test may be sanctioned at the highest level, but nobody could fail to notice that it contains a strange set of questions, part Trivial Pursuit, part Citizens’ Advice Bureau information. The questions have their origins in the strange political process that was initiated by then home secretary David Blunkett in 2003. This was an elite operation (Blunkett picked his former university tutor Sir Bernard Crick as the test-master), and it was motivated by particular elite concerns: the need to improve ‘social cohesion’, and strengthen people’s sense of connection and loyalty to Britain.

The citizenship discussion is restricted to a very particular group of people. Seminar rooms and political conference halls are alive with deliberation about the meaning of citizenship; the pubs and streets of Britain, however, are not. Politicians and think-tanks are constantly discussing how best to define British identity and how to make Britishness matter, and many will come up with their list of three or four values that they call their ‘British values’. And unluckily for migrants, they have ended up as the guinea pigs in this often quite desperate attempt to define Britishness.

There is something of an aristocratic bent to this fashion for ‘defining British citizenship’, or ‘making citizenship meaningful’. Citizens – as opposed to subjects – were supposed to be free men, a self-constituting body of people who came together in association with one another. Whereas subjects were an extension of the personality of the king or lord, citizens defined themselves. Most citizenship tests – in America, for instance – had their roots in some kind of citizens’ movement. By contrast, the new British citizenship test, full of dull and bizarre questions about buying homes and attending church, has its origins in the elite’s sense of confusion about what its nation stands for today.

Citizenship is increasingly an identity that is defined from above, rather than by your real relationships and contribution to society. So would-be citizens spend their evenings in classes learning about ‘Life in the UK’ according to the Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration, when they could be out on the streets really learning about life. Prime minister Gordon Brown recently said that new migrants would have to prove that they could speak English before they could enter the country. Yet surely living in a country is the best way to learn its language, in context and in response to real needs.

Brown is erecting a hurdle that immigrants must leap over in order to prove their commitment to Britain. Yet for decades immigrants have learnt and improved their English-speaking skills while resident in the UK – while building up real relationships of commitment at work, in communities, in social environments. As with the citizenship test, the demand that immigrants learn English before coming here looks like another attempt by our leaders to work out their own angst about what makes a Briton a Briton by imposing arbitrary tests on newcomers to our shores.

If you are in London this Thursday, join us for the Great British Citizenship Quiz, to see if you pass the test. It will be interesting to see who wins and becomes a ‘citizen’, and who fails…. And here’s to the rowdiness of a pub quiz showing up the sterility of the government’s citizenship test.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a pro-human campaigning network. The Great British Citizenship Quiz will be held at 7pm on Thursday 27 September, at the The Old Queen’s Head, 44 Essex Road, Islington, London N1 8LN. For full details, click here. Josie is speaking at the session Child protection: Has adult paranoia gone to far? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi said that citizenship education was corrupting the curriculum. Kevin Rooney argued that students wouldn’t buy a new citzenship textbook. Donald Winchester claimed that the questions in the citizenship test were bizarrely random. Wendy Earle examined a report which claimed that children were searching for citizenship online. Or read more at spiked issue Politics .

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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