Do you know why there was a fall in the number of people migrating to the UK from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in the late 1960s? Or how many independent schools there are in the UK? Or how many members there are in the Northern Ireland assembly? Actually, the question should be: How on earth is it relevant to know these facts? I assume most people would reply: not very. However, despite not being pertinent, these questions form a part of Britain’s citizenship test; if you did not know the answers and you were an immigrant hoping to obtain British citizenship, you could not be classified as a Briton – fine criteria upon which to base one’s citizenship.
There is a clear problem with the test’s line of questioning: it is mildly irrelevant. As important as immigration policy was in the ‘60s, its relevance for people today, and for the test, is not great; mainly due to the fact that knowing such information does not make someone more worthy of being regarded as a British citizen, and also because native Britons have struggled to get any of the questions correct, as has been shown by trials carried out by the Manifesto Club. If indigenous Brits do not know their Protestants from their Roman Catholics, why should new settlers?
However, according to the former Immigration Minister, Tony McNulty, the relevance of the test is not of primary importance: “This is not a test of someone’s ability to be British or a test of their Britishness. It is a test of their preparedness to become citizens, in keeping with the language requirement as well.” For McNulty, the aims of the test are clear: it assesses people’s knowledge of the English language, determining whether they could feasibly live in the UK, and also scrutinises their willingness to obtain such a life.
Even so, the test seems to have missed a trick; I believe, perhaps naively, that some of the information which the test examines, is slightly immaterial. Sure, most of it has had a huge bearing on British history and culture, but when the majority of native Britons do not know from where Charles II was exiled, why would immigrants need to know this? Instead of pursuing this line of questioning, it would be more beneficial all-round to fuse historical fact with British idiosyncrasy, including questions about topics such as wars and politics, but also incorporating features of British character that would test potential citizens’ grasp of English and also help, in some ways, for naturalisation to occur – after all, it is easier to start a conversation moaning about queuing and the weather, rather than musing upon the percentage of the UK population that have used illegal drugs at one point or another.
Even if it is only arguable that the test would benefit with some modifications to its content, its editors definitely need to be rebuked for their shocking historical inaccuracies. They showed great attention to detail, misquoting Churchill’s famous “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” speech, and suggesting that Northern Ireland was a part of Great Britain. Perhaps the saddest thing about this is the entire irony of the situation: marking people on whether they have answered the questions correctly when the writers have got them wrong themselves.
My reservations about the test are sincere, mainly because of my personal experiences with it; to describe them as humiliating would be an understatement: five out of five attempts failed, with an awe-inspiring top score of forty-one percent, I clearly either do not belong in the country, or need to brush up on my knowledge of the exact origins of the myth of Father Christmas. However, it was after getting this question wrong I wondered whether the people setting the questions had ever looked back over their work and thought Actually, who would know where the myth is from? And who cares? In what way is this a good question?
There are clearly merits in attempting to assess somebody’s linguistic skills and willingness to become a citizen of a country; however, these criteria need to placed alongside other, equally important specifications, and cannot be the sole focus of the test. Nonetheless, there is one criterion that the test cannot gauge, one that would benefit society more than the aforementioned: in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “the first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his own weight”. Certainly, knowing what “shanked” and “merked” means is helpful in attempting to naturalise in the United Kingdom, but you will get much further, and gain far more respect, if you are willing to make an honest living, positively contributing to the economy. Do this, and soon, you will find, nobody cares if you know about the Northern Ireland assembly or not.