What is 'Britishness'?


That is the Question raised by today's announcement by the Home Office that the UK Citizenship test which all migrants must pass in order to gain British Citizenship will be re-written in the Autumn with a greater focus on the nation's history and culture, instilling 'traditional' values in the process.

While the current test focuses more on the practical aspects of living in the UK, such as how to access public services and deal with the more idiosyncratic features of being a UK citizen, the new test proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May will ask questions about the country's historical figures including figures from the nation's literary and musical past. Those taking the test will also be asked to memorise the opening verse of God Save the Queen.

A Home Office Official remarked:

It's a move away from the old one - stuff on rights, practical info that has little to do with British culture - to one that is clear about responsibilities and requires people to have a grounding in our history.

This new exam is said to be designed in order to foster integration into British society. While such integration and greater co-operation between diverse groups in this country is always something to be welcomed, these new plans raise a question, what exactly will these successful applicants be integrating into?

This question is borne out of fears that the test is being redesigned to deliberately make a test that most existing citizens would fail even more difficult, thus making it harder for new migrants to attain citizenship.

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says:

To make the test less practical and more historical will give migrants an abundance of knowledge they will not use. This is another measure to limit access to the UK.

Also of concern is the fact that the history and culture which would be a heavy feature of the new test could subscribe to a particularly narrow view of what it is that marks the UK out from other nations. This one-dimensional view - exemplified by press releases using as Florence Nightingale as an example with virtually no mention of Mary Seacole - may risk creating a state sanctioned view of 'Britishness' and British culture that only white English people could agree to (after-all, where were the references to Robert Burns or Dylan Thomas?)

By overtly relying on what can be viewed as a one-dimensional view of British history and culture in the test, the government may have forgotten one of the important things about British nationality and identity - it is, and always has been flexible. Generations of migrants, dating back to the Celts over 3,000 years ago have left their mark on the country, enabling the definition of what 'Britishness' is to evolve over time. As opposed to other European countries, whose identities have become rigid to the point of inaccessibility for their migrant communities, Britain's fluid identity has allowed migrant communities, including the ones in existence today, to make their own judgements about what makes Britain great, thus strengthening national identity in the process.

A recent survey carried out by the Institute of Social and Economic Research found that BME respondents were more likely to feel more British than their white counterparts, who were more likely to subscribe to identities that are more closely related to ethnicity such as English, Scottish or Welsh.

With this in mind, surely it is better for the government to focus on enabling integration through greater accessibility to public discourse and the community in which prospective citizens live, instead of making them sign up to a notion of 'Britishness' that is itself subjective.

Robert Austin

Archived Comments

We've changed to a new commenting system - comments below are preserved for archive purposes


I've always felt the most essential part of Britishness is being openminded and tolerant of difference as long as it allows you your own freedoms. I worry about this government's narrow view of history and culture. History has more than one perspective. Brought up as a Britsh Roman Catholic [Irish potato famine heritage] it wasn't until I was in my mid-20's I realised that my understanding of the celebration of November 5th wasn't exactly what the rest of my neighbours were celebrating. For me it was a valiant attempt of a revolutionary martyr against a tyrannical regime- something like our equivalent of the French Revolution. It never crossed my mind everyone else was celebrating the fact the regime had thwarted a terrorist attack in the middle of London. It will be interesting to see how many born and raised British subjects who can trace their roots back to before the Norman invasion will be able to answer any of the cultural questions. Now had they asked about lawnmowing etiquette, or how to split a restaurant bill I might have been a bit more sympathetic. Off to mow the lawn before my neighbours complain...