The questions in the proposed UK nationality test are bizarrely random.
The new UK citizenship test, launched on Tuesday, represents the latest government venture to guide and control immigration. It also revives the nagging question about what it means to be British (in spite of immigration minister Tony McNulty’s claim that ‘This is not a test of someone’s ability to be British or a test of their Britishness’). This exercise proves yet again that searching for the meaning of being British today is akin to sticking a hand in an empty box.
The proposed questions are at first glance trivial, at second perplexing. The test appears a random pick’n’mix, giving no coherent sense of what a UK citizen is. Even the professedly educated struggle to answer them. For instance, the London daily the Metro, in its sample set of questions, failed to answer correctly ‘How often are elections held?’. (It said eight, the answer is five.) As a recent history graduate with joint British-American nationality, I found some of the questions baffling. It seems that the government, so keen to celebrate cultural difference, is creating its own minority group: a band of new immigrants skilled in expounding the origins of the myth of Father Christmas.
The test attempts to follow two paths of logic. Firstly, it tries to provide practical facts preparing immigrants for life in the UK. Secondly, it also attempts to determine a foundational knowledge common to all who call themselves ‘British’. It fails in both endeavours.
The attempts at practicality are particularly ridiculous. Former home secretary David Blunkett determined that the test should educate immigrants in ‘practical knowledge about the United Kingdom’. Due to the brevity of the test (only so much can be covered in a 45-minute exam), immigrants can only address the most crucial of areas. These areas apparently include answering ‘where are Geordie, cockney and scouse dialects spoken?’ and defining the term ‘MP’, presumably in case any applicants were considering a career in parliament. Even when the test does touch important areas, such as emergency telephone numbers, the applicant is asked to name two (because one is apparently not enough).
Blunkett’s original proposals for the test suggested British history as the exam’s fulcrum. Perhaps frightened that any such history would challenge the average Briton, the test lost its historical focus. The history left in the proposed test is of the most useless sort. Central to British identity, apparently, is the memorisation of the patron saint days. How exactly will this ‘raise the status of becoming a British citizen’?
These tests came out of the government’s desire to further the integration of immigrants in the UK. In order to relieve racial and cultural tensions, the 2003 report – ‘The New and the Old’, written by Sir Bernard Crick’s Home Office Advisory Group – called for a foundational knowledge common to all. Crick also drew upon the 2001 Denham Report on community cohesion, which asserted that ‘it is essential to establish a greater sense of citizenship based on common principles that are shared by all sections of the community. This concept of citizenship would also place a higher value on cultural differences’. The theory is that every citizen holds basic principles in common, thus highlighting the differences remaining.
This theory seems to want to have it both ways – appealing for some common values, but in actuality only being able to celebrate diversity. What, after all, does St George mean to Englishmen today? It is little more than a name given to a flag waved at a football ground. Meanwhile, matching dialects with geography is all well and good, but it’s hardly a basis for citizenship.
Comparing this new test with its US counterpart finds striking differences. The US test centres around the fundamental national symbols. It asks: ‘How many stars are there in our flag?’ and ‘What date is the Day of Independence?’ Founding American leaders created these symbols to give form to an emerging national identity – and they retain central relevance for even cynical US citizens.
The test presents the nation as superficial and bewildering, a conglomeration of random facts. Far from illuminating the bedrock of Britishness, it reveals the emptied box of national identity.
Donald Winchester is working as a spiked intern.
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