On Saturday I sat the ‘Life in the UK’ test, a requirement for foreign nationals who want to apply for citizenship or permanent leave to remain. My nearest test centre was in a dingy basement off the Essex Road. The fluorescent lights weren’t doing very well. The invigilators were stone-faced, a bit rude. I’d been forbidden from talking to or looking at my fellow immigrants, about 20 people, mostly men. While waiting for the test to begin all I had to look at was the cover of my American passport.
The test questions are taken from a handbook produced by the Home Office, Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship, a perennial bestseller: read it or be deported. The exam I took had questions about England’s patron saint, Scottish bank notes, TV licences, the number of countries in the Commonwealth. I had to know what percentage of the population is made up of children, and whether Wales has more people than Northern Ireland.
Almost a quarter of the exam was about benefits, as if to make sure I knew that I was entitled to free healthcare, and under what conditions I could claim free prescriptions, dental care, sight tests and glasses. Other questions made sure I knew how to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance and how to make a complaint for unfair dismissal or to report sexual harassment. ‘A person cannot be refused work, training or promotion because of their sex’ – true or false?
We all passed.
Last week David Cameron announced that this wouldn’t do:
There’s a whole chapter in the citizenship handbook on British history but incredibly there are no questions on British history in the actual test. Instead you’ll find questions on the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe and the benefits system within the UK. So we are going to revise the whole test and put British history and culture at the heart of it.
The current chapter on British history hurtles from Stonehenge to New Labour (it was published in 2007), and ends ringingly:
The United Kingdom is perhaps more socially mobile and less class conscious than it was in the past… The UK is also a more pluralistic society than it was 100 years ago, both in ethnic and religious terms. Postwar immigration means that nearly 10 per cent of the population has a parent or grandparent born outside the UK. Racism remains a problem in some areas, although it is actively combated both in opinion and in law and most people believe that it has diminished. The UK has been a multi-national and multi-cultural society for a long time, without this being a threat to its British identity, or its English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish cultural and national identities.
The Home Office is presumably at work on a new version.