The British citizenship test introduced in 2005 is about to be changed by the Home Secretary Theresa May who wants to include the national anthem  and a bit more about British history.  I am on her side.  Although the Home Office meant well I have always felt that they got the whole test badly wrong.     Before 2005 the acquisition of  British citizenship was an administrative procedure. When your application was approved they sent you an oath to sign before a notary.  You mailed it  back and after a time your certificate of citizenship arrived.  No muss. Definitely no fuss.

I remember thinking what a terrible shame it was that the British were missing an opportunity.  They complained that immigrants would not integrate or participate while not challenging would be citizens to master some knowledge about the country and then celebrate their achievement.  When my documents arrived I wanted a little more ceremony for an event that I considered a milestone in my life so I “americanized” it.  I asked a member of my church who is a magistrate to come to the house for the signing. Also invited were my two British character witnesses and other friends.  After the signing we had cake and I was both amused and touched by my citizenship gift from my next door neighbours – a volume of Shakespeare and an umbrella.  It was a very special occasion — as citizenship oaths should be.  

Finally, someone at the Home Office agreed.  Instead of an anonymous signing in an office they established citizenship ceremonies to be conducted by mayors. As of 2004 new citizens take their oaths in splendid surroundings (including the Tower of London!) often followed by a reception.  They did the right thing on ceremonies but I agree with the current Home Secretary that the test was disappointing.  That’s my attempt at British understatement. In fact I was furious.  This exam is proof that if you are going to test for something you had better understand it first.  Because the designers  did not have a handle on citizenship, instead of defining Britishness and citizenship the exam they created trivializes them.  Since I didn’t have to take it, I first learned about the content from a woman at the gym.  She told us that one  of the questions was “do British parents give weekly money to their children for nothing or for doing work around the house?” While we were still staring in wonder she said “I answered, ‘for doing work’ and I got it wrong!”  The fact that many of the British women in the room noted that it was an individual decision and that some did indeed pay for chores demonstrated how wrong headed the test was.  Lesson one in citizenship testing – the right answer must be indisputable.

We were floored and to fully understand why you had to be here.  For months the British media had been reporting that Home Office delegations were  scouring the earth for examples of citizenship procedures and tests.  We were told over and over that the one place they resolutely refused to visit was the United States because they not want the test to reflect “American style, over the top patriotism.” After I heard that woman describe the test I went straight out and bought the guide and there it was — a question about pocket money! Was this a better question than being asked to explain the separation of powers?? I was certainly angry about what I considered the knee jerk – “let’s not pretend the Americans do something better than we do.”  But I also came to the thudding realization that their concept of new citizenship was conformity not commitment.

Citizenship is a relatively new concept in Britain and no wonder, it has only had an official existence since 1948. Before then anyone born within the Empire (an Australian or Indian for example) was  a British subject and  others (like Americans)   were aliens.  But then British India, the jewel in the crown of the empire became the independent states of India and Pakistan and with the empire breaking up the British government enacted the Nationality Act of 1948. Among other things this act conferred citizenship upon  people with  British ancestors whose families has settled in British India. Many of them worked for the British government at the time and would probably have balked at taking up a new citizenship when they considered themselves British — if indeed such citizenship were offered to them.

When they lost their empire the British had to rework their national identity.   Without a written constitution and dealing with a minor identity crisis it is no wonder that the civil servant designers of the test chose to sidestep the issue of citizenship by devising what they called the “Life in the UK Test.”  You must pass it in order to become a citizen but as you can tell from the pocket money example citizenship has not been at its  core. The concept was apparently to be certain people absorbed the British way of doing things. This impression is actually supported by the reaction of the head of an organization for migrants rights who was reported as objecting to the new test on the grounds that learning about famous Britons is not the kind of practical information people needed. What is that practical information?  I found out when I took a sample test online and failed. Although I correctly answered questions relating to democracy and government structure, I did not know which agency to complain to if I have problems with my boss. Nor did I know whether unemployed people were required to sign up with something called the New Deal. And I did not know whether I needed a letter from my GP to go to the hospital.  It’s as if parts of the test were written  by the employees  at  government call centres.

If you are a migrant perhaps day to day call centre information is good enough but when you aspire to citizenship  it is important to establish a relationship with your new country  by learning some basic history as well as cultural factors that have shaped it.  And of course you need to know some civics in order to understand the democratic process.  The Home Office may not always perceive the psychological difference between being a migrant and a citizen but naturalised citizens do. However people may feel about immigration itself, they should be happy for people who are permanently settled in the UK to become responsible citizens. Sometimes all you need is the right inspiration.  One of my guests at my home citizenship ceremony was a longtime friend from India who had lived  in the UK for a very long time.  A few days later he called to say he had applied for citizenship.  I am sure one of the factors was the warm congratulations I received from the magistrate and other British friends.

Every once in a while I buy a new Home Office study guide just in case they have decided to ditch the trivial pursuit questions, but  nope!  A recent guide includes questions about gap years, paternity leave and Valentines Day.  No wonder Theresa May decided to trash it and begin again.  I for one hope that the Home Office will be more successful this time in identifying and testing for citizenship rather than for habits and the detail of government services.  Otherwise, they may as well take the advice of one of the commenters  on the introduction of the citizenship test back in 2005, who proposed the following very basic test.   Ask the applicants for citizenship to form a queue (line). Make them wait. If anyone  tries to jump ahead of others in the queue  – they fail.