3 September, 2003: Testing the rule?

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Perhaps predictably, Anthony has written something about the Home Office's latest gimmick, citizenship tests for people applying for naturalisation in the UK. I'm testing a new bit of my web log software which is intended to copy links to articles into a Live Journal (don't ask...), and this is as good a subject to comment on as any other....

(I should first say that my immediate reaction -- can we make some of our existing, more disagreeable, compatriots take the exam and kick them out of the country if they don't pass it? -- was (a) uncharitable, and (b) misinformed, since the test is not designed to test eligibility for residence.)

Anthony links to the report of Bernard Crick's panel, which summarises the curriculum in a way that the media have largely failed to do; the whole report is worth reading, especially the first part which summarises current immigration rates and policies in a way that those who are disinclined to look up statistics themselves might find useful. (I was unable to find the report on the Home Office site after a few frustrating minutes of searching. You'd have thought that, of all the government departments, they'd at least make the effort to have an accessible and easy-to-use site, but no, 'tis not to be. Here is a mirror of the PDF file for your convenience....)

I'm divided on this idea. Superficially the idea that new citizens should speak English and know something about our history and culture (and `the NHS' and `how to get electricity') is fairly reasonable and perfectly compatible with an open and tolerant immigration policy.

I'm more troubled by the antecedents: the use of qualification tests like this has, historically, been subject to grave abuse (e.g. voting qualification `literacy' tests in the southern US, which for a century were used to implement the racial discrimination which had been banned after the Civil War). But there's no concrete reason to see the Crick ideas as the beginning of a slippery slope, of course.

The other Big Idea -- a public `citizenship ceremony' in which new citizens make their pledges of allegiance to the Crown -- is superficially appealing; as Blunkett said,

Becoming a British citizen is a significant life event. The Government intends to make gaining British citizenship meaningful and celebratory rather than simply a bureaucratic process. New citizenship ceremonies will help people mark this important event.

... but then again, such a ceremony isn't really very British, is it? We're not Americans, we don't salute the flag, the National Anthem is for when programmes on the wireless finish and we don't, I think, really need

a periodic civic ceremony in which the Mayor or Provost should make a speech of welcome to the new citizens and their families stressing the rights and duties of citizenship, and in the presence of invited local dignitaries such as Members of Parliament, candidates, councillors and leaders of community and religious groups. The Mayor, Provost or a local dignitary or celebrity should then present newly designed certificates of naturalisation individually (which we understand will be far more impressive and suitable to be framed than the current certificate) as the applicant takes the new Citizenship Oath and Pledge.

-- a quiet, bureaucratic ceremony in a registry office would set the right note of understatement and unfussiness by which we should all aspire to live our lives. (On the other hand, a public citizenship ceremony might serve as a welcome humiliation for any future BNP mayor obliged to preside over it. Every dark cloud has, if not a silver lining, at least the possibility of bringing some black humour into our lives.)

Anyway, the report is well worth reading -- especially the bit in the appendix which describes why people want British citizenship:

``Becoming British it elevates my status and I m part of a country that is existent in the map of the world now internationally. If I go to other countries with a Somali passport I might face a lot of difficulties because people do not recognise my country and they associate Somali with corruption and other sort of things but by becoming British I get VIP status when I go to other countries.'' -- Somali man

It's nice to know that, as a country, we're still on the map a little bit. The idea that Brits abroad are accorded VIP status will be met with frank astonishment by anyone who's had the misfortune of visiting a Mediterranean holiday resort, of course....

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.