'Club Government' confirmed for publication!

I've been busily revising the final manuscript of my first full book, Club Government, which will be released by I.B. Tauris in February 2018. It's a major work, which has taken me 7 years of research and editing - the first study of its kind to look at the nineteenth century phenomenon of "Club Government".

In the Great Fire of 1834, the old Palace of Westminster was burned down, and the next 35 years saw the parliamentary estate reduced to a noisy building site, while the present House of Parliament were constructed. Consequently, many of the functions of government were moved into the space of private members' clubs. And this had long-term ramifications for the way we do politics in Britain today: electioneering, party finance, candidate selection, party identity, whipping MPd, parliamentary architecture, MPs' entertainment - all of these had abiding, long-term influences from 'Club Government'. Meanwhile, the whole of British politics was in a state of flux after the 'Great Reform Act' of 1832, and "Club Government" helped fill the void of what the new "Victorian" politics would look like. It's a "lost" chapter in British political history, and the book draws on a unique range of archival and print material to tell an important story. 

Copies of "Club Government" can be pre-ordered through Waterstone's here.

Public Service Award

I'm delighted that the WhoTargetsMe plugin which I worked on has won an award at the CogX Artificial Intelligence conference 2017.

The WhoTargetsMe plugin for Google Chrome was created for the 2017 UK general election, and compiled data on how different political parties and politicians have used targeted adverts on facebook. A full report of the findings is in progress. CogX gave WhoTargetsMe an award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Services Use of AI.

I served as Political Advisor on the project, helping to refine what meaningful data the plugin was seeking to capture; and advising on legal and regulatory compliance.

How the Lib Dems Lost Their Think Tank

A piece I've written for the new issue of Liberator (#384):

Last year, there was much surprise when CentreForum, the liberal think tank, announced that it would be abandoning its political mission in favour of a much narrower focus, as the renamed Education Policy Institute. This culminated a decade-long transformation from one-time Liberal Democrat-affiliated think tank, to billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Marshall’s plaything. And with Marshall having severed his links with the party in 2015 around the same time he came “out of the closet” as a Brexiteer, CentreForum soon followed. But it didn’t have to end this way. 

One might raise the question of what any think tank is for. There is a very real, urgent place needed in public debate for the overlap between rigorous, in-depth academic analysis, and an appreciation of the topical urgency of political issues. Unfortunately, many think tanks struggle to do both — or either. The Tax Payers’ Alliance, for instance, hires more press officers than researchers, making it clear where its priorities lie. Or if you visit the Henry Jackson Society’s website, you will see staff biographies routinely place primacy on “Media Profile” over “Publications”. Today’s UK think tanks are usually poor at filling the very space they are supposed to occupy. 

Liberals like ideas. It’s often been one of their biggest weaknesses as well as their biggest strengths. And as a way of refining and communicating ideas, the old Liberal Party had a vibrant pamphlet culture, from its eighteenth century roots to the merger with the SDP. From Ramsay Muir to Michael Meadowcroft, pamphlets continued to act as a vehicle for ideas among twentieth century Liberals. Yet this fell by the wayside, a victim of the 1990s demise of print culture, before the internet started to (partly) fill the void a decade later. 

In the meantime, there were the think tanks — a curious, mostly post-war invention, born out of frustration at university thinking being too theoretical, and encouraged by successive leaders of the “big two” parties, not least as a way of circumventing the formal party policymaking apparatus. The old Liberal Party conspicuously lacked a think tank (though the SDP had the Tawney Society) — and I would suggest the reason for this was the vibrant print culture; liberals didn’t need such an organisation to outsource their thinking to, when they had pamphlets to think aloud and respond to one another. And Liberal pamphlets weren’t an exclusively “elite” activity — activists and councillors up and down the country would pen them, comparing reflections on campaign strategy and tactics as well as philosophy. 

The mid-1990s had become an age of think tanks — lobbyists desperate for an entrée into both the Conservative government and resurgent New Labour frequently found that funding a think tank was a perfect vehicle to getting inside access; and the Lib Dems felt a noticeable lack of heavy artillery on this front. Additionally, by 1997, the growth of the Lib Dems to 46 MPs meant that it was felt they would benefit from such resourcing.

Early in the merged Liberal Democrats’ existence, there were some attempts at unofficial Lib Dem think tanks — the much-missed LiNK (Liberal Information Network) pre-dated merger, and did much to bridge the thinking of the merged party and the breakaway Liberals. Other laudable but under-resourced attempts, like the John Stuart Mill Institute, or the Liberal Institute, regrettably seem to have become dormant. 

The Centre for Reform was launched in March 1998, a spinoff of party magazine The Reformer which had launched five years earlier. It was primarily the brainchild of ex-SDP Lib Dems close to Charles Kennedy, keen to reach out across the political divide to other progressive politicians. It enjoyed modest funding of an annual £50,000 from former Liberal MP Richard Wainwright, and was headed up first by Dr Richard Grayson, then Anthony Rowlands. Grayson recalls Wainwright being “very much” at arm’s length, with their only ever meeting twice, and Grayson being given a free hand at the Centre. Despite its strong party links, the Centre’s original incarnation promoted genuinely independent and radical ideas. Publications like Francis Wilkinson’s The Leaf and the Law (2000) made the case for cannabis legalisation in the context of wider European drugs policy, followed by a look at Heroin (2001). Meanwhile, Ross Laird’s Education Outsourcing: A Privatisation Too Far? (2002), inspired in no small part by the author’s experience shadowing education on Labour-run Haringey Council, one of the first British authorities to outsource education, took a position it is hard to imagine later CentreForum pamphlets taking. Not all publications were so subversive — many, like Ed Davey’s 2000 pamphlet on the mechanics of budget scrutiny, took a more technocratic, even “safe”, approach. But by and large, the old Centre for Reform was creative, bold, left-leaning, and yes, occasionally bonkers. (It memorably published a 2002 “State of the Union” address by Tony Blair, as edited by Norman Baker. Yes, you read that right.)

All this changed after its fifth anniversary. With the death of Richard Wainwright in 2003, the Centre found itself desperately in need of a new “sugar daddy”. Enter Paul Marshall. Marshall, though politically involved since the days of the SDP, as Charles Kennedy’s one-time research assistant and the 1987 parliamentary candidate for Fulham, had until this point been a relatively marginal figure in Lib Dem politics, but this was about to change with his de facto acquisition of the Centre. Guaranteeing three years of funding from 2004, he rapidly set about transforming the think tank in his own image. Moving from a room rented from the Wildlife Trust on Horseferry Road to a large suite of penthouse offices on Dartmouth Street, the Centre’s politics noticeably shifted to the right, matching Marshall’s own free marketeering instincts which at times seemed to border on fetishism.  Staff were recruited from unlikely quarters such as GoldmanSachs, and Thatcherite think tanks like the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute. As reported by Lib Dem Voice in 2009, and recounted in Donnachadh McCarthy’s The Prostitute State (2014), the Centre became “the source of opposition in the party to the Tobin Tax”, and a slew of publications started to make the case for slimming the state. There was also a noticeable rise in the Centre’s longer-standing technocratic tendencies. 

Even the name changed — in 2006, Centre for Reform became CentreForum, a conscious effort to stress an ideology of the centre rather than the more left-leaning, radical direction of Charles Kennedy’s party leadership. Predictably, it was swiftly lampooned in the pages of Lib Dem News as the Centre For, Um?

The changes also coincided with Marshall co-editing the controversial Orange Book of 2004 — not the cogent articulation of a shift to the right often argued, though its editors sometimes claimed it to be precisely that, despite the rather bland collection of essays largely failing to match such ambitious goals. 

The newly renamed Centre undoubtedly professionalised its operation, but arguably at the expense of the quality and innovation of its output, which became formulaic, even predictable. The impression given was of a think tank that spent the next decade going through the motions: the obligatory fringe events at conference, a slew of publications which no doubt generated ongoing employment for the Centre’s staff but which seemed light on new ideas and, in some cases, appeared to simply be reiterations of the Centre’s pre-existing publications. 

CentreForum did have some successes. In its final years, it became a model of transparency— a “Who Funds You?” assessment of think tanks gave them only a C-rating in 2012 after they initially refused to list their donors; but by 2015, the think tank had achieved a coveted A-rating for transparency over whom they received funding from. Such welcome transparency unfortunately made it all the more obvious what was going on: Marshall had only guaranteed funding for the first three years, and while he continued to play a dominant role through its Advisory Board, it would be wrong to characterise the Centre as having been “owned” by him, as was sometimes claimed. Instead of depending on Marshall for money, as the Centre had done in 2004-7, the think tank increasingly funded part of its output by providing producer-interest pamphlets funded by the very bodies they were analysing. Examples included Access and Equity: Positioning Alternative Providers in Higher Education Provision (2014), co-published with Bimm music academies and the private HE college GSM London; The Liberal Case for Aviation (2015), which acknowledged “generous support” from Gatwick and Heathrow Airports, Let Britain Fly, Heathrow Hub and GTMC; and Reforming Retail Energy Markets (2015), supported by comparethemarket.com. Such publications were not always as one-sided as their titles might suggest, sometimes offering balanced lists of the pros and cons of issues. And of course, this was all standard practice across the think tank sector, and funding from an interested party was fully declared. It was no worse than any other think tank. But that was the problem — it had ceased to be a think tank seeking distinctively liberal solutions, and the whole advantage of being a genuinely independent think tank had been forfeited. The cumulative effect was to give it an increasing air of a “hired gun” agency.

With Marshall’s increasing estrangement from the party after the fall of the coalition, and with the influence of his long-term interest in education (he runs ARK Academies — whose top team is beginning to resemble a JobCentrePlus for former coalition policy wonks), it is therefore unsurprising that the Centre decided it had limited mileage in its pre-existing model. Given the position it had found itself in, the move away from a party political think tank, and towards a niche education policy study group, made perfect sense — if one’s only concern was the continuation of a think tank, rather than the flourishing of liberal ideas. But it was an abandonment of the Centre’s original mission.

So farewell, Centre For Um. Good luck, Education Policy Institute — you’ll need it. What the EPI face is the same perennial question: “What is a think tank for?” If it is simply a device for party leaders and a circle of donors to circumvent a party’s policy-making apparatus, by deploying resources to develop alternative policy without wider membership input, then I don’t see much political ‘buy-in’ for that. If, on the other hand, it is to bring analytical rigour combined with topical relevance and political sensitivity, then think tanks would need to follow a very different model to CentreForum’s. 

 

Dr. Seth Thévoz of Nuffield College, Oxford is a political historian. He sits on the Council of the Social Liberal Forum.

Conservative MPs are becoming more, not less, Eurosceptic

The Evening Standard reports that business leaders see a large Conservative majority in the forthcoming election as a good way to “soften” Brexit. One can see why this sounds plausible. Unfortunately, it’s complete twaddle.

            With all due respect, business leaders are not exactly renowned for their political nous. Business leaders confidently predicted that “Remain” would win the EU referendum. Business leaders confidently predicted that Trump would crash and burn in a landslide electoral defeat. Business and politics are very different disciplines, with very different skill sets. History is full of politicians imagining that they will become geniuses at business, only to fail spectacularly (remember Reggie Maudling?); and of businessmen being brought into political office to give some much-needed business discipline to the woolly world of politics, only to find themselves left as fish out of water (a long list from Eric Geddes to Digby Jones).

            But one can see why the Conservative Party has gone into overdrive to assure business leaders that a Conservative landslide might mean “softer” Brexit. The Conservative Party has not been lacking in donations over the last two years of this Parliament. But it has had nothing like the £106 million in declared donations made in 2011-15, ahead of the last election. Accordingly, the Conservatives do not seem to have the large “war chest” available to them ahead of the last election; and funding this snap election will presumably depend on persuading a series of donors – mostly drawn from business leaders – to invest in the party’s machinery. Yet as the EU referendum campaign made very clear, Britain’s business leaders remain overwhelmingly pro-Remain – with the exception of those working in hedge funds or other forms of speculation that thrive on instability and fluctuation. So there is an all too obvious motive for the government to put some form of spin on events, as to why a large majority for a party embracing Brexit, which asks for a mandate to aggressively pursue Brexit, might not actually sound as harmful to the very business leaders who most fear Brexit.

            So how true is this? Conservative Party selection contests would suggest it’s something of a fairy tale. Byron Criddle’s landmark work on candidates and selection contests offers some clues on the Conservative Party’s direction of travel. Over the last 20-30 years, Conservative Associations have become increasingly Eurosceptic, with the result that any serious Conservative aspirant to a winnable seat usually needs to be a tub-thumpingly confident Brexiteer – or at least, to send out the right “dog whistles” to their selection meeting. It’s one of the reasons why several Conservative MPs like Alan Mak found themselves at odds with members of their associations last year, publicly coming out for Remain whilst party activists complained of having been distinctly assured of a Leave pledge at a selection meeting only a year earlier.

            Keen observers of the Conservative backbenches have watched each parliamentary intake since 1992 become steadily more Eurosceptic, with the result that some members of the Class of 2010 and Class of 2015 hold views on Europe that would have had them expelled from the party only a decade earlier. This pattern of increasing Euroscepticism in Tory candidate selections shows no sign of abating.

            Indeed, the European issue among Conservative MPs is very much a generational divide, with many of the most ardent pro-Europeans like Sir Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke being some of the party’s oldest and longest-standing MPs. It is no coincidence that the one Conservative MP to have voted against triggering Article 50 is now the Father of the House

            Of course, it is possible that with the Conservative Party’s central HQ taking sweeping powers to adopt last-minute candidates for this snap election, that they will somehow buck the trend of the last three decades, and install a run of pro-European candidates in previously-unwinnable seats, and will coast to victory, providing the Commons with a more rational and balanced approach, to replace the rabidly ideological “Leave at all costs” tendencies of the party’s right wing.  But I wouldn’t bet the bank on that. It sounds more likely that the government is hoping the political gullibility of business leaders will make them blithely accept that voting for what is increasingly looking like a hard Brexit will somehow magically deliver a soft Brexit. There is simply no logic to this – it flies in the face of all the available evidence from the last three decades.

New publication: What can the Lib Dems learn from their past by-election gains?

British politics is at an unusually fluid time; and the recent run of strange by-election results has given much food for thought. I've just published The Richmond Park By-Election in Perspective: Lessons from Liberal, Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat By-Election Gains, through the Social Liberal Forum, putting Lib Dem election prospects in a longer-term context - this was mostly written over Christmas, but held over for revision in light of last week's Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent by-elections. In the event, I've only had to make the lightest of tweaks, and with a new by-election now due in Manchester Gorton, my thoughts on whether Lib Dems and Greens should stand down in favour of each other in a handful of ad hoc local agreements have just become even more topical...

 

 

Update!

A busy couple of months - but I haven't been keeping up with the blog! Just a couple of updates: 

The History of Cambridge's University Liberals

I've got an article out in the new issue of the Journal of Liberal History, on "Cambridge University Liberal Club, 1886-1916: A Study in Early University Political Organistion". 

Over a decade ago, I chaired the successor society to the Cambridge Liberals; and longer ago than I care to admit, I promised I'd write them an official history. It's not quite as arcane and self-serving a topic as might might seem; I've always been interested in the history of youth politics; and Cambridge's Liberals are one of the oldest university political societies in the UK, trialling many of the campaign techniques now taken for granted, from their pre-dating the Edwardian "society boom" by 20 years to harness student canvassers, to the early practice of "community politics" by such pioneers as Bernard Greaves in 1960s Cambridge. And it's a fairly star-studded cast of characters, with Liberals from John Maynard Keynes to the rather more improbable figure of Chariots of Fire's Harold Abrahams. Accordingly, I felt (and still do) that there's a really interesting story to tell here about how UK liberal politics evolved in its distinctive form in the twentieth century, and the surprising amount of influence exerted by a relatively small but well-connected group through the decades. 

I've still spectacularly failed to complete the manuscript of this history of Cambridge's Liberal Club - though I retain all my notes, I've written about half of it, and I still hope to complete it some day. What was originally envisioned as a short pamphlet is shaping up to be a 150-page book with detailed appendices; and it's a big, detailed project only likely to ever be of interest to a relatively small number of people. So it's slipped by the wayside in favour of some of my other work. 

Nonetheless, I thought the opening chapter, chronicling the first thirty years, had enough original "meat" in it to stand on its own two feat and be worth adapting into a standalone article, which is what I've written up for the JLH

11 Things That Are Worrying Me About Brexit

I was pretty surprised when the below - little more than a rant on Facebook - ended up getting over 480 shares in barely a day. So with Thursday's European Union referendum looming, I thought I'd share it here:

11 things that are worrying me about Brexit:

1. The near-certain collapse of the pound - which is likely to be lasting, and to have a devastating effect on the UK standard of living for a decade or more.

2. The removal of the protections on workers' rights afforded through the EU, with a relentless stripping away of these rights by the Tory right over the next four years (or sooner).

3. A massive "brain drain" of skilled workers out of the UK, with a massive knock-on effect to productivity and living standards for all in Britain.

4. The knock-on implications for the EU's ability to counter Russia. Brexit may well trigger nothing less than the disentangling of the European Union, which in turn would trigger a new phase of Russian expansion in Eastern Europe - Ukraine would only be the start of it. Whilst NATO exists as a military bulwark, it is the EU which is presenting an economic bulwark to Russia; and Russia's modus operandi today is in the far subtler forms of economic expansion, which NATO is not equipped to counter. The EU is.

5. The complete marginalisation of the UK by the USA. We would go from being the USA's vital link to the EU, to being on a par with Brazil or Canada - way back in the queue of influence, behind the EU, India, China, or Japan.

6. Even in the best-case scenario, we're looking at being locked out of any free trade deals with our major trading partners for the next few years, since these things take an *average* of two and a half years to negotiate (though far, far longer in any trade deals with the US), and Brexit would have to happen within two years of a 'Leave' vote. With the USA, it's highly doubtful we would negotiate any free trade agreement at all - with their congressional ratification system, they're only really interested in free trade deals with major blocs like NAFTA and the EU, not with individual nations. That's why they don't have any free trade deal with major economies like Japan, China and Brazil. Nations like Canada, Mexico, France and Germany only get free access to the US market as part of a bigger trading bloc like NAFTA or the EU. And as for the EU, it's unlikely to grant us preferential trading terms if we've just thrown the whole European project down the pan, and most likely triggered a run on the Euro; far more likely is the scenario that they'd penalise us with stiff tariffs. Tariffs on EU and USA trade would affect over 70% of our exports. There won't be a recession, it'll be a major, crippling, lasting depression.

7. The fruitcakes advocating Brexit tend to fall in two camps: those who want to turn the Commonwealth into a second British Empire, and those libertarians who want Britain to become the 51st state of the USA. Neither will happen. There is no viable post-Brexit model.

8. Scotland will secede from the Union, and will apply for EU membership (which will probably be granted). Northern Ireland probably won't follow, but renewed calls for Northern Ireland secession to follow will result in a renewal of Northern Irish terrorism between loyalists and republicans, which will affect the whole UK.

9. In the longer run, with all of these factors, the GDP of what's left of the UK will steadily slide in gradual decline. What's left of the UK will oscillate between "managed decline" and "unmanaged decline" as the country will go back to the 1970s (or worse).

10. The UK currently has the best deal in Europe, including numerous opt-outs, vetoes, and the only rebate of any EU member state. When the remaining rump of the UK eventually goes back to what's left of the EU with its tail between its legs in 20/30 years' time, admitting that it made a terrible mistake in 2016, and applying for readmission to the EU, it will be on the most punitive terms imaginable.

11. There will be a realignment of politics, for the worse. In what's left of the UK, the Conservatives will have a natural majority, and the Labour Party will dwindle into irrelevance. UKIP, which came second in 125 English constituencies at the 2015 general election, will become the principal opposition; and UK political battles will be pitched in a new "centre ground" between the Conservative Party and UKIP.

On the plus side, housing stock would probably start to become affordable again with the whole economy going down the pan.

Roll Up, Roll Up, it's the Latest Hereditary Peers' By-Election

The votes have been counted, and the 3rd Viscount Thurso has been elected as the newest member of the House of Lords. I say “newest”, but he was previously a member of the Lords from 1995 until 1999, until his right to sit as a hereditary peer was abolished. Now he’s back.

The victorious candidate did rather well. He received 100% of the vote, on a 100% turnout – a result that even Kim Jong-un would be envious of. Admittedly, he only polled three votes, but still, it was a full and vigorous poll, worthy of Old Sarum.

There was the small matter of manifestos. Candidates to sit in the Lords were able to write a manifesto of up to seventy-five words, setting out the case for why they should be installed as a legislator until their death or retirement. Six of the seven candidates chose to submit such manifestos, emphasising such pressing issues as grocery delivery, and fast food. The seventh candidate, Viscount Thurso, declined to write a manifesto at all. A week later, he scooped up the votes of the entire electorate, made up of his three former parliamentary colleagues.  

The three voters, three white men named Dominic, Patrick and Raymond, were unavailable for comment.

It is truly stirring, in this day and age, to see democracy in the Mother of Parliaments as such a shining example to all.

In related news, a man named “Asquith” did not cast his vote for a man named “Lloyd George”, to no-one's great surprise.

 

N.B. On a point of pedantry, I have yet to see a news outlet correctly describing who the electorate was. They were not “all the Lib Dem sitting hereditary peers” (there are five – now six – not three), nor were they “the hereditary peers allocated to the Lib Dems” (until Thurso filled the vacant place, there were only two of the three left after Lord Avebury’s death). The electorate was made up of every currently-sitting Lib Dem hereditary peer who was sitting by virtue of a hereditary peerage.

Both the 6th Baron Redesdale, and the 14th Earl of Mar and 16th Earl of Kellie (the two Earls are actually one man, with two titles), started sitting as hereditary peers, and then had their right to sit abolished by the 1999 reforms, but were subsequently awarded life peerages. Since they sit by virtue of life peerages rather than hereditary peerages, neither had a vote in this election. Still awake?

Of the three voters, two were allocated Lib Dem hereditary peers, the 6th Baron Addington and the 10th Earl of Glasgow. The third voter was the 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith, a hereditary peer elected from peers across the whole House of Lords to replace another Lib Dem who was part of that “whole-House” grouping, the late 7th Baron Methuen. There was initially an extra peer able to vote, another Lib Dem elected as part of the “whole-House” grouping, the 15th Viscount Falkland, and he did indeed cast a vote in the last Lib Dem hereditary peers’ by-election in 2005. However, in 2011 he ceased to take the Lib Dem whip, so he now has no vote in such elections, shrinking the electorate from four to three.

Do You Have In Your Archive...

Following on from my recent run-in with the TaxPayers' Alliance in the letters page of The Times, a friend has requested that I dig out my old letter in Private Eye (Issue 1282, February 18, 2011, p. 17) - a request which I'm only too happy to fulfil.

I've been an avid Private Eye reader since 1998, and I think I'm prouder of this meagre little titbit than anything else I've ever published. It's not getting a letter in the Eye per se which had me so chuffed when I was a humble PhD student; it was getting an Andrew Neil letter in the Eye - a proud and venerable national institution (unless you happen to be the long-suffering Mr Neil). I think I might just quit while I'm ahead, and retire from letter-writing to publications. 


Knowledge of Life in the UK

The Independent's old blogging site has gone down since its replacement by Independent Voices, so here's a piece I wrote for the blog back in the day.

Confessions of an Immigrant: Knowledge of Life in the UK 

The Independent blogs, July 2 2012

By Seth Alexander Thévoz

PhD student, Warwick University


So I finally took the plunge, and naturalised as a British citizen, having lived here for twenty-four of the twenty-seven years of my life. Naturally, I’m one of those dastardly hordes of Swiss immigrants who have come over here to deprive British workers of British jobs for British history lecturers. What should have been an affirmatory and celebratory experience was instead a combination of bureaucratic nightmare and Pythonesque farce.

To begin with, there was the dreaded form. The supplementary notes alone were some 151 pages. Past landlords had to be called up for references to prove that I had actually once been a tenant, and former employers pestered for letters to confirm that I was indeed clocking in at 9am every day, and not sneakily commuting back to Monte Carlo every night. Self-contradictory instructions were followed, and £851 parted with when handing in the form.

(In an aside, I first filled out the form in 2007, when the fee was £250. I was on a low wage then, and could barely afford the fee, until overnight the Home Office changed the fee to £700 without any explanation, and the application process did not materially change. I deferred handing it in, and ended up waiting another five years until I could afford it.)

The most intellectually demeaning part of the whole experience was the Knowledge of Life in the UK test, which I can only guess has been compiled by someone who has never visited the UK. I was made to sit the test because the Home Office does not recognise equivalent qualifications, and so my having been entirely schooled in Britain, holding the highest English Language GCSE mark in the country, four A-grade AS Levels (including one in English), three A-grade A Levels (including one in English), a Distinction in my English AEA Level, and two degrees in British History from the Universities of Cambridge and London, were not enough. Instead, I had to roll up to a Home Office test centre on a soggy Thursday morning and sit the test (current cost: £50).

Yet despite the Home Office’s obsession with language qualifications, each official I have come into personal contact with in this process – the test staff, the council official who checked my form, the Home Office call centre staff, the officers presiding over my naturalisation ceremony – demonstrated a striking difficulty in structuring a grammatical English sentence, making the whole exercise descend into farce. I remember being asked, ‘Is you here for the English test?’ and ‘Was you able to pass an English test, and can you talk proper?’ without a trace of irony.

The test takes the form of 20 multiple-choice questions, which one can only revise for by buying the official Life in the UK handbook from the Home Office (RRP £9.99) and the accompanying revision guide (RRP £5.99). One cannot simply take the test using common sense, because the Life in the UK book is so riddled with factual errors that if I were to give the correct answers, I would fail the test. I could only pass the test by memorising erroneous material.

From the Life in the UK handbook I learned many new and interesting things. Apparently, Magna Carta was signed in 1316, some 101 years later than is commonly thought, and Hitler invaded Russia in 1942 – which must have come as a shock to those Russians fighting the invading Wehrmacht in the summer of 1941. Being a political historian, I naturally homed in on the fact that every single description of who was allowed to vote at various times in British history was comically wrong. Had it been an essay I was marking for my students, I would have given it a Fail.

On a more sinister level, the test handbook apparently served as one long propaganda piece. Drawn up by the Labour government in 2005, and unrevised since 2007, its subtext seemed clear: Labour governments are good to immigrants, and have a history of loosening restrictions, while Conservative ones are bad and keep tightening restrictions on immigration – and a point was made of highlighting whether it was a Labour or Conservative government responsible for relevant changes of law. In the book’s potted account of the history of immigration in Britain, no mention is made of the Harold Wilson government’s 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, probably the most racist piece of post-war British legislation, which severed non-white Commonwealth immigration whilst leaving white immigration almost intact. The manual might as well have had a bright red cover and the heading “VOTE LABOUR” atop every page. It therefore comes as no surprise that Theresa May has come round to announcing a revised edition, and I fully expect it to have a comparable “VOTE CONSERVATIVE” subtext.

Finally, the big day came, and I was asked to take my oath at a Citizenship Ceremony in my local town hall. The entire affair could not have been more ludicrous. It began over half an hour late, while we watched a rotating PowerPoint slide show on the ethnic diversity of my London borough, and were introduced to each portfolio holder on the local council’s cabinet; essential grounding for every new citizen, I’m sure you’ll agree. 

The ceremony was a mass swearing-in of over 30 new Brits, and it opened to great fanfare with the entrance of the Mayor, fully resplendent in aldermanic garb, and led by a white-gloved elderly gentleman brandishing an impressively-proportioned golden mace. Unfortunately, it was only at the end of their march to the stage that they realised they’d lost the stand for the mace, and an increasingly frenzied search under the tables took place whilst this poor elderly man looked as though he was about to keel over under the weight of his mace.

The Mayor then gave us a welcoming speech, which turned out to be a verbatim repetition of the slideshow on our London borough which we had been left to study for the last half hour, only in rather broken English, with a few platitudes thrown in.

The ceremony proceeded, as proud new citizens collected their naturalisation certificates. Half-way through the proceedings, pandemonium erupted as everyone realised they’d been given the wrong certificates, and 30 newly-sworn-in Brits began manically shuffling around pieces of paper like schoolchildren exchanging prized bubblegum cards. 

Mindful to show the trendiness of modern Britain, the Superintendant Registrar chaired the proceedings with a style somewhere between Bruce Forsyth and Les Dennis, complete with calls to the stage of, “And if you’ll give them a warm hand, my next contestant is...” By this stage I didn’t think the event could get any closer to a bad Saturday night light entertainment programme, but I was wrong, for we all had to stand to a recording of the national anthem being played on a Wurlitzer organ – a remarkable instrument that can transform even the most solemn piece into musak.

Finally, we were presented with a commemorative gift, so we could all go home remembering our big day: a glass paperweight with the seal of my London borough, and the words “CITIZENSHIP CEREMONY”. I had at last achieved my long-held dream to be a citizen of the country that is my home; but with that cheap and nasty paperweight they somehow managed to make the whole thing feel like a consolation prize.

New Job!

As of today, it's official: I'm starting a one-year part-time post as Michael Crick's research assistant on the official biography of David Butler, the noted psephologist. The post comes with Associate Membership of Nuffield College, Oxford, where Butler (now 91) has been teaching since the 1940s, and will involve taking in the full scope of politics and academia over the last 70 years.

You shan't see me blogging about the role a great deal, but I will take this opportunity to say that if anyone reading this has any useful knowledge, sources or insights on Butler and his work, then I'd be only too delighted to hear from you - I'd particularly like to hear from anyone who's worked with him. See the "Contact" page for my details.