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.