In which I remember becoming Canadian, and fail the UK Citizenship test…

What does it take to make a real citizen? For most of us, nothing at all. Our citizenship is arbitrarily assigned at birth by virtue of place or parentage. But immigrants have to earn their citizenship through naturalisation: there’s a competency test, an entrance exam.
Reading about the furore over May’s planned overhaul of the citizenship test brought back memories of my own citizenship ceremony. Born in Britain, I am also a Canadian. I was too young to take the test, but sometime back in 1993 I was asked to swear allegiance to the Queen (I remember thinking that this particular requirement hardly felt like much of a way to mark my“new” Canadian identity) and sing O Canada. I have a Canadian citizenship card I keep by my desk, a permanent reminder that my gap-toothed eleven-year old self spoke with a Canadian accent.
My parents were the classic middle-class transnationals who saw citizenship in largely pragmatic terms as a way of expanding our choices (which actually meant that in 1994 we returned to the UK). But what I also remember from that citizenship ceremony were the many other families for whom it was far a more significant marker of inclusion: Russians who’d left before the Iron curtain collapsed, Sri Lankans who had left behind civil war and poverty. So actually, I quite like the idea of holding ceremonies to welcome new citizens, as long as we can recognise all that pomp and circumstance says very little about the content of everyday citizenship. The real problem lies with how you determine who has the right to belong.
May’s proposed changes will see human rights and advice on employment law and welfare replaced with questions on the Great Historical Narrative of British Progress. This historical focus raises many questions in itself – not least about how those arriving from ex-British colonies (including Scotland and Ireland?) will now be expected to remember Empire. Citizenship isn’t a history book, a set of regurgitated learnt-by-rote facts (and history is nothing if not subjective selection of those “facts”). Plus there’s the issue of how useful a working knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo or Holst’s Planets will prove when trying to fill out a tax return.
But what these tests actually remind us above all is that these barriers faced by the immigrants who must “prove” their citizenship worth are in stark contrast to the entitlements of inherited privilege. British by birth and parentage, I consider myself a well-integrated citizen since my return in 1994 (despite a black hole when it comes to early 1990s UK pop culture). So I set out to take the UK Official Practice Citizenship test: does it really cover materials relevant to my life in the UK? And if I couldn’t pass it, how can it be considered a fair measure of integration?
I begin with immigration: were the largest groups arriving in the UK in the 1980s from the West Indies, Ireland, India and Pakistan? The Irish part seems reasonable – I tick true. But question 3 is tricky: how many parliamentary constituencies are there? All I can remember is that they’ve been talking for the past year about how to have fewer MPs. I plump for 646: though I’m not clear why it would really matter if I thought there were 664 instead. Does British democracy turn on having 646 MPs (clearly not, given Cameron et al.’s attempts to remove a few dozen)?
I can do the one on paying for school uniforms pretty easily (we lost a lot of gym kit between the four of us at school and my mother was not happy), and sail through the next few. But then we hit Question 7: In which year did married women get the right to divorce their husband? a. 1837 b.1857 c.1875 and d. 1882. I have no idea. I’m left wondering why it would matter if that answer is b or c? Surely the really important point is that married women do have the right to divorce their husband?
Question 8 is on Europe – I know the Parliament meets in Brussels and Strasbourg, though I do smile at the thought that quite a lot of the present regime would arguably seeing getting that one wrong as a sign of real British integration.
A little later, I am asked a series of questions about demographic statistics. How many children live in the UK – 13, 14, 15 or 16 million? I guess. I do not know because no one I know has ever needed to know this outside of a GCSE geography project. Similarly, guessing the percentage of Muslims in the UK (from 1.6% to 4.2%) may reassure those who think we’re being flooded by potential terrorists, but they’re hardly likely to be the ones taking the test. Plus, percentages do not cultural sensitivity make.
Question 16, and we’re on to where you can find out about training opportunities. I suspect one of the correct options is ‘your local library’, but reflect that given that many of these are now closed, this is not useful advice in practice. The next one asks me about who can vote in UK elections – I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that actually, Commonwealth citizens can do this anyway. Though if you’re going to become a UK citizen (surely the whole point of this delightful exercise) it does beg the question: why would you need to know? I have the same complaint about the next question, which asks me how many days per year schools must remain open. I am not a parent. I am not a teacher. And are any of them counting?
Question 19, and I detect an ideological bias: ‘if you have a problem at work and need to take further action?’, why can’t you go see your union rep (though you can go and see your employer)? Hmm. The final question is another EU one: What’s the EU’s governing body called?
The results are in. 17/24: I’ve failed (the pass mark is 80%). I’m embarrassed I got the immigration question wrong: in the 1980s, the largest immigrant groups were from the United States, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (something which a lot of British citizens could do with learning). But I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that you can be unemployed for 18 months before having to join the New Deal, although I can’t help feeling that’s painting a rosy picture given recent welfare reforms
 Oh well. There’s always Canada.
The serious verdict? This is the very worst kind of test: one in which you can memorise the answers, because they haven’t figured out the point of the question. There are far more intelligent multi-choice exam formats out there, which don’t lose all nuance, remove all context or reduce knowledge to pub quiz level. This asks would-be citizens to learn by rote fact and figures they’ll quickly forget because the communities they live in have never needed them in the first place.
This is testing as a form of bureaucratic exclusion. The reforms proposed are a further step backwards: navigating the NHS’ bureaucratic labyrinth is more useful than knowing about Florence Nightingale. It’s worth remembering that in 2006, Sir Bernard Crick refused to include history questions both in principle and on grounds of practicality: could any test for immigrants be devised that 80% of our fellow citizens would not fail?’  Testing would-be citizens on a historical narrative many Britons either don’t know or would reject is an absurdity: but surely the real question is, should we try to test citizenship in this way at all?

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