It’s Monday morning, and the queue stretches all the way up the imposing staircase of the town hall in the London borough of Islington. Eventually, everyone is ushered into an upstairs committee room where they are given various instructions, some of them incomprehensible even to a native English-speaker.
Then the 50-odd stars of the show are shown into the very pleasant round council chamber, and seated towards the front. Relatives and hangers-on are shown to the back. When everyone is settled, a variety of people – most with strange-sounding names from faraway places – take the final step on the road to becoming British citizens.
Most British ritual – the enthronement of an archbishop, Trooping the Colour – has origins lost in the mists of the Middle Ages and Merrie England, or at least gives that impression. The citizenship ceremony dates all the way back to 2004, when the first one was held – across north London in Brent – graced by the presence of Prince Charles and the politician primarily responsible, the then-home secretary David Blunkett.
British pageantry has long been a flourishing export trade. But this is very much an import, from the New World countries built on immigration: in the US, citizenship ceremonies have origins dating back, at least, to the first world war. The fashion has only spread across Europe since the millennium. To reach this stage, the putative Britons have had to pass tests in language and Britishness – and usually fork out well over £1,000 in fees. This is the culmination, the fun bit.
But this group is now just part of Islington’s regular routine, one of dozens of such ceremonies taking place across Britain every week, catering for nearly 200,000 new Britons a year. No royalty, no home secretary, though this lot did get the deputy mayor of Islington, Councillor Barry Edwards, who made an amiable, dull and not very appropriate speech, mainly about the delights of the borough, as though they were here in pursuit of their life-long dream of being Islingtonians.
Then they had to recite, in unison, phrase by phrase on a prompt from the registrar, “the oath” and “the pledge”. These are announced as though they are as fundamental to national life as the weather forecast, though most Britons would associate oaths with being in court and the pledge with films about American classrooms.
The oath turned out to be the royalist part, whereby the newcomers promised to be “faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”. The pledge is broader: “I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values and will observe its laws faithfully ... ” The registrar, who runs the occasion with a nice, light touch, then congratulated the new citizens. The tinny sound system came alive and, to the sound of what one suspected was a budget CD of Great British Classics, each of them came to the front, signed, smiled, and posed with Cllr Edwards in front of a picture of the Queen and two flags: the Union Jack, which they will have recognised, and the Islington flag, which they might not.
Then we all stood for the national anthem: they mumbled the words unconvincingly, which is one proof of Britishness, and left clutching certificates and a gift: a passport holder. It was all a bit cut-price. Get used to that, new Britons! And not difficult to mock. Get used to that too! It was also rather wonderful. As the newcomers walked out into the wintry sunshine, they did so with broad smiles. “I feel I’m settled now,” said Katie from Nigeria. “That my contribution matters.” Pascal from Australia was also delighted: “It made me aware that some of these people have had a harder journey than I have.” “It was really nice,” said Sihem from Algeria.
Sihem was with her husband Kamal, who became British 25 years ago. Indeed, he had felt British enough to heckle during the preliminaries when one official had talked about the importance of voting: “Why would they want to do that?” But he approved of the ceremony. “When I became British I just went to a lawyer and filled in a form. This is much better.”
Once upon a time the notion ofcitizenship in the UK was very flaky indeed. There were not really any British citizens as such, there were subjects of His or Her Majesty, a position that was far less abject in practice than in theory. It also had an enormously large embrace. From 1914 to 1948, “any person born within His Majesty’s dominions and allegiance” was considered a natural-born British subject. This began to fall apart because the old white-run dominions wanted control of their own borders; and so did the British, after they became alarmed at the effects of the early waves of non-white immigration in the 1950s.
After Enoch Powell’s famous/infamous anti-immigration speech in 1968, the subject was pretty much closed down by the politicians. Occasionally it would become unavoidably topical. But much of the liberal elite considered it indecent to debate immigration: it was A Good Thing; racism was A Bad Thing; there was nothing else to be said. The parties at Westminster felt it was potentially toxic, both politically and societally – if the white working class was not rioting about the influx of non-whites, why provoke them?
The silence extended both to academe and the bureaucracy. Professor John Salt, founding director of the Migration Research Unit at University College, London, began studying immigration in the late 1970s. “There was almost no one else working in the same field,” he recalls. “When I tried to get figures for the number of work permits, it turned out that publication had stopped a few years earlier because no one seemed interested. And their absence had gone unnoticed.”
The mood changed after 9/11. At home, with Labour in power under Tony Blair, there was a growing realisation that the threat was not just external, as shown when a group of young Asians from Leeds perpetrated the London bombings of 2005. There was also a sense that Britain had failed to protect its own interests by acquiring the migrants it wanted rather than just those who wanted to come. And that the country not merely did not know how many potentially murderous radicals it was harbouring in Asian ghettos but also how many of their mothers, in particular, were unable to function outside the home because they could barely speak the language.
The problems were exacerbated after 2004 when the government grossly underestimated immigration from Poland after its accession to the European Union, which brought resentments to British towns that previously had glimpsed few migrants except swallows. Maybe David Blunkett sensed ignoble political advantage too. But he was addressing genuine issues. And so Britain joined a Europe-wide trend towards testing and ceremonies. Twenty other European countries have similar regimes.
There are two elements to the British test. The first is language. Fluent English-speakers (or Welsh or Scottish Gaelic-speakers) can evade this but, for others, Britain now has one of the stiffer language tests in Europe: set at B1 level – which requires the ability to read a newspaper or hold a conversation – whereas other countries settle for the lower A2, the level achieved by anyone who can buy a train ticket without gesticulating.
In Islington, a couple of new Britons who looked as though they might have had very hard journeys were unable to understand my questions, which made me wonder whether the fluent were the only evaders.
I have not yet managed to discover whether anyone has ever chosen to be tested in Welsh or Gaelic. But there is a strange precedent. Australia, anxious to keep out non-whites, gave itself the right to demand a dictation test “in any European language”. In 1934, faced with the arrival of an unwanted German anti-Nazi activist, Egon Kisch and aware he was multilingual, they ordered him to be tested in Gaelic.
Jasper Dag Tjaden of the Migration Policy Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, is unconvinced by any form of testing: “I really do think that citizenship tests are more about political symbolism than effective policy making.” They have certainly become political footballs. Later this month, Britain is changing the test instituted under Labour. This has all kinds of questions geared to collecting benefits, and others that are highly dubious (What proportion of the population have used illegal drugs?) or outrageously misleading or wrong. (The number of bank holidays a year is two, three, four or five?) Actually, there are eight in England and nine in Scotland.
Instead, there will be much emphasis on general glory-glory: Shakespeare, Nelson, Churchill, Brunel, Kipling, Monty Python, Jessica Ennis etc. Both versions have been attacked in the press. And both clearly constituted a political statement from the party in power. Only limited numbers of the new sample questions have been released but at first sight they do look less idiotic.
Problems in this area appear to be diagnostic. The US changed its test in 2006 to ask fewer questions about the names of presidents and more about the principles of democracy. Australia’s Labour government reversed the policy of the former cricket-loving prime minister John Howard and decided migrants did not need to know about the country’s greatest cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman.
On the continent, the issues have been even more fraught. The Dutch tried issuing, along with the test, a film showing bare breasts and a gay wedding to put off fundamentalists. It was pointed out that possession of the film might not be helpful to a potential citizen discovered watching it while trying to escape the rigours of, say, rural Afghanistan.
Tjaden says that in Germany, where early tests were in the hands of individual states, one question was, “Would you send your daughter to a swimming class at school?” These do seem like illiberal ways of promoting liberalism. “Almost whatever questions you choose are bound to be unsatisfactory,” said Ian Macdonald QC, author of the standard British work Immigration Law and Practice. “That’s why I object to the tests.”
The first half of this is unarguable. But, as the son of a refugee myself, I take a different line. A change of citizenship should only to be granted to those willing to strive for it, if not to suffer. One person in Islington told me a major reason for switching was to avoid the queues at Heathrow. There ought to be more commitment than that.
I have always believed that, as a freeborn Briton, I can come and go as I please. In fact, Macdonald told me, under a little-known 2006 amendment to an earlier Immigration Act, even those born in Britain can now be deprived of citizenship if that is deemed “conducive to the public good”. I better brush up on my Gaelic and my Jessica Ennis. Who knows what trick some petty official at Heathrow might one day attempt?
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist
Would you pass?: citizenship tests round the world
UK (Old test, until Mar 25)
1 True or false? 45 per cent of all ethnic minority people live in the London area.
2 When is Halloween celebrated? (A) October 30, (B) October 31, (C) November 5, (D) November 6.
3 True or False? Information about grants and loans is available at the Citizens Advice Bureau and Jobcentre Plus.
4 The primary stage lasts --- years in Scotland’s school education? (A) From 4 to 11, (B) 4 to 12, (C) 3 to 11, (D) 5 to 12.
Answers: True, B, True, D.
UK (New test, from Mar 25)
1 Which of these statements is correct? During the second world war, (A) on D-Day British and French soldiers were evacuated from France or (B) on D-Day British and French soldiers landed in France.
2 True or false? The flower that is traditionally worn on Remembrance Day is a lily.
3 What is the name of the part of the Edinburgh Festival that showcases mainly theatre and comedy? (A) The Edge, (B) The Fringe, (C) The Alternative or (D) The Show.
4 Which country of the UK has a dragon on its flag? (A) England, (B) Northern Ireland, (C) Scotland or (D) Wales.
Answers: B, False, B, D.
1 In which type of industry did most early European settlers work in Canada? (A) Farming, (B) Mining, (C) Fur trading, (D) Forestry.
2 One-third of all Canadians live in which province? (A) Ontario (B) Northwest Territories (C) Quebec, (D) British Columbia.
3 Which province is Canada’s leading wheat producer? (A) Alberta, (B) New Brunswick, (C) Saskatchewan, (D) Manitoba.
4 What principle was Canada’s constitution founded on? (A) Independence and Freedom, (B) Peace, Order and Good Government, (C) Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, (D) Liberty and Pursuit of Freedom
Answers: C, A, C, B.
1 You pledge your loyalty to ----- at the citizenship ceremony? (A) The Queen, (B) Australia and its people, (C) The people and the prime minister.
2 Who were Australia’s first inhabitants? (A) The Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginals, (B) Europeans, (C) British people.
3 Which would you consider the oldest continuing culture in the world? (A) British culture, (B) the indigenous culture of Australia, (C) Roman culture.
4 What were the first 11 convict ships called? (A) First 11 Ships, (B) First Fleet, (C) 11 Fleet.
Answers: B, A, B, B.
1 Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? (A) George Washington, (B) Thomas Jefferson, (C) James Madison, (D) John Hancock.
2 What are the first words of the Constitution? (A) When in the course of human events, (B) In order to form a more perfect union, (C) To whom it may concern, (D), We the People.
3 Which of the following is NOT a right outlined in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence? (A) Life, (B) Liberty, (C) Right to bear arms, (D) Pursuit of Happiness.
4 If both the president and vice-president can no longer serve, who becomes president? (A) Secretary of State, (B) Secretary of Defence, (C) Speaker of the House, (D) President pro tempore of the Senate.
Answers: B, D, C, C.