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A "Britishness" test that fails to score

Hasan Suroor

Is this sort of a test the best way to judge a person's eligibility for citizenship?

A TEST designed to judge whether an immigrant is sufficiently "British" to be trusted with that coveted Burgundy passport had an embarrassing start when a preview of the questions earlier this week had even well-informed native Britons stumped.

Political leaders, civil servants, media pundits, teachers, and instructors, who will run citizenship classes, were among those who blinked as they saw the test "paper" launched on Monday.

Even Home Office Minister Tony McNulty reportedly got at least one answer wrong and promised less "rigorous" questions in future.

From November 1, the test became compulsory for anyone applying for a British passport. They must score 75 per cent marks to pass but there is no bar on the number of times they can take it, though each attempt will cost 34.

Although it is seen as the ultimate test of "Britishness" some of the questions caused confusion even in quarters regarded as quintessentially British.

"The question who is the head of the Church of England produced much head-scratching at Buckingham Palace, the headquarters of the Church, and Lambeth Palace, official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury," said The Times in a hilarious report of the confused responses to the question both from Buckingham Palace and the Church of England.

It is being asked whether this sort of a test, which many existing citizens let alone foreigners are likely to flunk, is really the best way to judge a person's eligibility for citizenship.

One English-language teacher said that at a recent workshop only one of the 20 teachers was able to pass the test. Connie Hancock of the University of Chester, who is associated with the test project, said though she had two university degrees she did not know the answer to a question about which of the courts used a jury system.

Certainly, it helps to have an awareness about the country you want to settle in, but it will be more useful to know things which you need to navigate your way around in a new place everyday — things such as public etiquette, your own rights and duties, local customs — than whether it is the crown court or a county court which has a jury system.

One commentator said that some of the questions in the citizenship test were as absurd as being "asked about the history of motoring, rather than about rules of driving, in a driving test."

Indeed, as Tory shadow home secretary David Davis said, questions about British history would be more relevant.

Arbitrary questions

More controversial is the notion of measuring a person's "Britishness" on the basis of a set of arbitrary questions when there is so much confusion over the meaning of the term. A debate on what constitutes "Britishness" has been raging ever since Bhikhu Parekh and his colleagues, in a report five years ago, suggested that the term was loaded with racial overtones. But five years on, there is not even a broad agreement on how to define the idea of Britishness.

"The essence of Britishness remains elusive ... it defies definition, being a compound of such variables as inclement weather, peculiar food, noble history, and ignoble dentistry," wrote Ben Macintyre, a leading commentator.

Britishness means different things to different people. A recent survey showed that it ranged from a nostalgia for warm beer and cricket to such supposedly British characteristics as a self-deprecating sense of humour, "eccentricity" and a "fondness for queuing." One Indian respondent defined it as "tolerance, justice and fair play and practice of religion without harming others." But he also chided the British for not always practising what they preached.

"The problem is for indigenous population in accepting dark-skinned people as Brits even if they are born, bred and brought up in Britain," said Sridhar Rao responding to a Telegraph/YuvGov survey.

The former British Prime Minister, John Major, defined Britishness as "long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog-lovers, and pool fillers" but another of his party colleagues, Liam Fox, believes that being British is "a mindset as much as anything else."

One view is that there is no such thing as Britishness and, as broadcaster and writer Jeremy Paxman argued in his book The English: A Portrait of a People, it was an imperial construct invented to give the empire a sense of unity.

Assuming, however, that the term denotes something it is still impossible to measure the degree of Britishness in simple mathematical terms on a scale of one-to-10 as proposed in the citizenship test. People will pass the test (what are Guides for?) and qualify for British citizenship, but what about the shared "values" that the idea of Britishness is supposed to represent?

Will that automatically follow a pass certificate?

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist a survey by the Commission for Racial Equality shows that a sense of Britishness is stronger among immigrant groups who are more likely to describe themselves as "British," compared to white Britons who see themselves more as English, Scottish or Welsh than British.

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