I’ve just tried – and flunked – the British Citizenship Test. I’m far from alone in this; pretty much everybody who tries it fucks up. I got fifteen questions out of twenty four correct, which means I scored 63%. The pass mark is 75%. Most of my correct answers were guesses: I had no idea how many young people in the UK are below the age of nineteen or how many Parliamentary constituencies we have, but I hit on the right answers by fluke. (15 million and 646 respectively, if you are interested.) I didn’t know that schools have to be open for 190 days in a year, or how long you have to be unemployed before you will be required to join ‘New Deal’ – whatever New Deal is. Women got the right to divorce their husbands in 1857. My guesstimate was thirty years too late, but at least in the right century.
According to www.responsiblecitizen.co.uk, the test is about ‘life in general in the UK’. The compilers’ idea of what constitutes knowledge of ‘life in general’ is pretty damn weird. How many Brits know, or give a toss about, the number of people under the age of nineteen in the UK? Should it make any difference to your eligibility for citizenship if you don't know the exact date when ladies were finally allowed to kick their husbands into touch? The precise number of parliamentary constituencies is surely a fact that belongs in life’s reference sections: in the unlikely event that you might want to know, go look it up. It would be better to ask people if they know where and how they could find this information if they needed to.
There is a booklet you can buy to swot up on this ragbag of useless odds and sods, though. If we had read the manual, those of us who screwed up would have passed. See? We could do it any bloody time we wanted, we just didn’t feel like it, OK? Reading the manual equips you for the test, and passing the test proves you have read the manual. It doesn’t prove an awful lot else. The following is not one of the questions, but it might as well be:
You wish to travel from Stamford Lincs to Leicester. Which train company will you use?
A. National Express
B. Cross Country
Either you know this, or you don’t. If you do, it might mean you have made the journey at least once and noticed the name on the train's livery, or you are a member of the peculiar fraternity of train-spotters, or some other unremarkable reason, but it doesn’t affect your ability or otherwise to make the journey, or have any relevance to anything much. If you have no clue, you might be tempted to go for C, which stands out as the shortest word and possibly the most emotive. Never allow one option in a multiple choice test to look very different from the others. Actually, the answer is B.
If we must have a citizenship test, could it not be part of a written and/or oral test that would simultaneously assess the candidate’s language level? If there were a content and language-based test, focussing on real issues of rights and responsibilities rather than on Trivial Pursuit questions, we could end up with some very clued-up people who have escaped from some pretty horrible regimes, and then get them to teach citizenship to some of our own ghastly citizens.
A letter here from guardian.co.uk last Wednesday:
So ministers are proposing tough new measures to deny UK citizenship to those who "have active disregard for British values". As one of these foreigners who has lived and participated in the activities of this country for over 40 years, I watch with dismay one initiative after another generated by the Home Office. Why would anyone wish to leave their own country and move to another whose people, language, culture and traditions they fundamentally detest?
Over the years, I have certainly witnessed what seems like the systematic undermining of, and disrespect, for "British values", but mainly by the British themselves. Recently, my local bus journey was halted and seriously disrupted by three separate incidents of young, white English teenagers attacking the bus driver and passengers. In what was once admired as a society with good manners, consideration for others has been abandoned as some old-fashioned idea. Perhaps the Home Office should not just focus on newcomers, but launch an initiative on "active citizenship" for all who live here, and promote notions of interdependence and community; that way, we might try to tackle the current wave of antisocial behaviour.
Of course, such a task would be complex and demanding, whereas jingoistic rhetoric and electoral point-scoring with the readers of the Daily Mail is much more appealing in a country where the government, through its increasingly bizarre policies, seems to have little respect for any of its citizens either.