Citizenship tests were introduced in the UK in 2005, as part of a raft of innovations in the area of citizenship and naturalisation. But are these tests requiring immigrants to the UK to become ‘super-citizens’, before we allow them to have full citizenship rights? Dr Bridget Byrne, author of recent research into the test, argues for a closer look at the views of those taking it, and considers how and why it fails to pick up on people’s genuine attachment to, and understanding of, our society.
Citizenship tests are part of a Europe-wide shift in raising the barriers to naturalisation. In the UK, debates about what it means to be British have been a regular feature of policy and public discourse which are often framed by a sense of threat from migration in general and a fear of Muslims in particular. This can be seen in the new requirement of schools to ‘actively promote fundamental British values’ through the curriculum. In terms of naturalization, dual-nationals are also often regarded with particular anxiety. These concerns have a long history – including the infamous ‘cricket test’ suggested by Norman Tebbit in 1990, whereby supporting the English cricket team (rather than that of a country of origin) was seen as a test of integration.
Since 2006, the Home Secretary has the power to remove British citizenship from dual nationals if it is perceived to be in the public interest, and there are moves to extend this power over those with no other citizenship, thus rendering them stateless. If we take these two policies – the requirement for new citizens to pass knowledge tests and the power to remove citizenship from naturalised citizens, new citizens are being offered less-than-equal citizenship.
The tests have attracted considerable media attention in the UK. Notably, much more than the more celebratory citizenship ceremonies which were introduced a year before the first test was published. Whilst the first citizenship ceremony in the London Borough of Brent (attended by Prince Charles and David Blunkett in 2004) did get national media coverage, after this there has been very little discussion of the ceremonies in the media, or public awareness of what are officially private ceremonies. In contrast, the introduction of the test promoted widespread coverage (including many chances for readers or viewers to see if they could pass the actual tests or spoof versions). This attention has been repeated whenever the test has been changed or updated.
However, very little attention is given to those who are required to actually take the test. In my research, I consider the experience of 30 new citizens who have successfully taken the test. Some new citizens did appreciate some of the knowledge they’d gained in preparing for the test. However the majority did not find that it contained useful information. Passing the test required the memorisation of information (for example around percentages of different groups in the population) which doesn’t have much practical use and can safely be forgotten. In addition they were well aware that most citizens-by-birth would fail the test if they had to take it without any preparation. At the same time, the design of the test does not recognise how those who are required to take it already have a good understanding of British society and culture, as a result of having lived for several years in the UK before being eligible for naturalisation or permanent leave to remain. It positions potential new citizens as what one interview described as the ‘dumb foreigner’ rather than as long-term residents.
Those taking the test had a high level of awareness of the wider political and policy context of a climate of hostility to migration and a raising of the barriers to migration, settlement and naturalisation. Many had experienced hostility and racism at first hand, as detailed in the book Making citizens. Some saw the tests largely as a means for the state to reassure its existing citizens that it was making it more difficult for immigrants to gain rights.
Whilst talking about the test, some new citizens asserted their claims and attachments to the UK based on their experience and also a sense of shared histories and culture. In particular, those originally from countries which were part of the British Empire, stressed their close cultural ties with the UK and their sense of themselves as already part of the citizenry. As a respondent originally from India put it ‘People should know the past. We have to teach the younger generation the past… it’s all migration, people moving around.’ In this statement we see a re-working of the post colonial contention that ‘we are here because you were there’ a sense of history which is lacking in the tests.
- Testing times: the place of the citizenship test in the UK immigration regimes and new citizens responses to it, by Bridget Byrne, is published in Sociology (2016)
- The author’s research on citizenship has been used by artist Laura Malacart in developing her artwork for The Little book of Answers at Tate Modern in the short film: Questioning the answers
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE)