What should a citizenship test be like?

[Reposted from earlier]

The following, we are assured, is no joke. From The Sunday Times (£):

IMMIGRANTS will have to learn the first verse of the national anthem and key historical facts about Britain before they can become citizens. Theresa May, the home secretary, is drawing up a patriotic guide to what foreigners must know before they can be considered British. She has torn up Labour’s version of the Life in the UK handbook, scrapping sections on how to claim welfare payments and the merits of the Human Rights Act…

A draft of the handbook, to be published this autumn, profiles characters from the Beatles to Byron, the Duke of Wellington and Alexander Fleming… Battles, including Trafalgar, are covered, as are cultural landmarks such as the publication of the King James Bible. The Home Office said: “It’s a move away from the old one — stuff on rights, practical info that has little to do with British culture — to one that is clear about responsibilities and requires people to have a grounding in our history.”

In a section on culture, new immigrants will be told for the first time that “historically, the the UK is a Christian country”. In an explicit attack on Islamic fundamentalism, it states that there is “no place in British society for extremism and intolerance”.

I’m not sure what’s worse: the fact that the government is going to decide on behalf of the whole country what art, historical dates and achievements epitomise the nation and are inextricably tied up with Britishness, or that it will do so whilst foolishly thinking that this will ensure potential immigrants are tolerant and know their duties. It’s bad enough that the litmus test for being a good immigrant will now be your knowledge of the Beatles and the Bible. That the Home Secretary gets to pick and codify something as slippery and subjective as a national identity in this way is a power, I suggest, we’d do well not to grant her. But how, exactly, is knowing about Florence Nightingale and the national anthem going to improve someone’s ability to respect others in British society?

The sheer inconsistency of the Home Office’s position is staggering. They want to move away from ‘stuff on rights’ and onto a test ‘clear about responsibilities’. They should at least explain the link between respecting free speech, paying taxes and voting on the one hand, and listening to Ticket to Ride and geeking up on Trafalgar on the other. And they should also tell us why learning about rights isn’t the ideal way of coming to appreciate what your legal duties are. What better way to understand what you owe your future fellow citizens than to see what you are all entitled to? And yet an emphasis on the Human Rights Act is to be scratched, only to be swapped for this trivial piffle.

I’m all for a citizenship test. In fact, I think all people born in Britain should join immigrants in having to pass one. Eric Liu explained this back in February, noting the hypocrisy in our standards. We require so much of those wishing to come to our country whilst allowing those here from birth to know nothing. Liu considers the American situation:

Today, public understanding of our past and our system of government is pitifully low: As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has archly observed, far more Americans can name a judge on American Idol than a justice of the Supreme Court. Only a third can name all three branches of government. One simple remedy would be to update the citizenship test now given to naturalizing immigrants – and administer it to everyone. That would boost knowledge in a hurry.

Is this illiberal? Not in my view. Or in Liu’s:

It is indeed contrary to the currently prevailing ethic of American life — an ethic of market fundamentalism and personal libertarianism. But were any of the founding generation to return today — or if Lincoln or the authors of the 14th Amendment  were among us now — they would ask what had happened to the civic republican tradition of citizenship as a responsibility. For this tradition is as deeply American as raw self-seeking.

And as I argued last month, a citizenship test need not necessarily involve the government championing controversial bits of a nation’s culture, even if that’s the depressing direction we’re now heading in. Fostering patriotism and a sense of citizenship is perfectly consistent with liberalism so long as we direct it towards the right things: namely, educating people about and celebrating the fact that everyone here has certain rights and freedoms. Shame on May for changing that, which has more to do with Britishness than the blasted Bible and national anthem.

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One thought on “What should a citizenship test be like?

  1. An interesting contrast is the test for a short term working Visa in the USA. I know they have a strict test for citizenship. But for my 4 month work visa the only requirement was that I read about and understand the rights I would have as an ‘alien labourer’ and know the resources I could demand from the state and my employer. It is interesting that even the patriotic USA think the most important thing for people living and working in their country are their social rights. Shame on May for removing this from the handbook we will have in britain.

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