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The True test to being British

Immigrants, go home!’ the tabloids scream on any given day. And you can’t have been in the UK for a while, if you haven’t had it screamed at you by a passing lout or out of the window of a trades van, usually followed by an empty beer can hurtling in your direction. Quite another matter that you are not an immigrant, that you have hung on to your Indian passport like a badge of honour for 13 long years. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t usurped their position of supermarket shelf stacker or waitress, because you are just a tad too educated for that. You will still be told to go home repeatedly and strenuously by those who are able to stay off work, on generous government hand-outs, because you pay hefty taxes.

Of course, that’s just a section of the population. For every racist yob on the street, there are wonderful indigenous British people - neighbours, friends and in my case, in-laws- who will come to your door unasked when it snows, knowing you don’t drive, to take your children to school, or race over from another city to take the kids off your hands because you’ve managed to tumble down those steep British steps again.

These people are open-minded and inclusive; David Cameron and his cronies aren’t scared of them. They are terrified of that section of the population who shout the loudest and understand the least. And when the storm over the 2011 census results broke last month, you just knew changes to immigration laws would be afoot. The latest census results revealed a rise in the number of foreign-born residents in England and Wales by nearly three million since 2001 to 7.5 million people. These new immigrants were flooding in from Poland and horror of horrors, Pakistan and India. In London, Caucasians had actually become a minority. For any self-respecting Right Wing Briton, Armageddon had arrived and the noise against immigrants, especially those from South Asia, became deafening.

Immigration laws are being tweaked constantly, of course, to shut the floodgates, but Cameron would have felt the pressure to reassure those elements of his electorate who see immigrant bogeymen ‘round every corner. And so last week, a new version of the UK citizenship test was released by the Home Office. Immigrants applying for British nationality or visas that allow indefinite stay have had to sit for a citizenship test since 2005. But far too many immigrants were passing this test, to the dismay of those who would catapult them into the English Channel if they could, and so a new, more ‘British’ test has been devised to finally fox those slippery immigrants who by dint of their cunning and obduracy (aka. brains and grit) were getting through with flying colours.

I sat for this test last year when I was toying with the idea of applying for British citizenship (the rest of my family is British, it makes sense, but something holds me back). I got full marks, and as I found out, so do most, because it is quite the most pointless test you can imagine. It is supposed to examine your suitability for life in this country, what it does instead is test your ability to swallow facts whole, without any need to understand them, and regurgitate on the day (familiar to anyone who has taken West Bengal Board exams). And if they are not empty stats to learn by rote, they are ridiculously easy.

Here, try your hand at these: ‘The 14th February celebrates: a) Valentine’s Day b) Guy Fawkes Night c) Halloween d) Hogmanay Or ‘The percentage of the population who attend religious services in the UK is: a) 5% b) 10% c) 15% or d) 20%”

While anywhere in the world today you would know the answer to the first, even the white British who were sprung from this soil, did not know the answer to the second. In fact, as I worked my way through family and friends, I found that most indigenous British citizens did not know the answers to most of the questions in the Official Citizenship Handbook, the guide for the test. And that’s not because they aren’t bright enough but because the test material has nothing to do with life in Britain.

So, now they have brought out this new version which will focus on the identity, history and culture of Britain to help migrants integrate better. ‘Migrants did not have to show they had an understanding of how modern Britain has evolved. The new book and test will focus on events and people who have contributed to making Britain great,’ argued the Home Office.

But with questions like, ‘Which landmark is a prehistoric monument which still stands in the English county of Wiltshire? a) Stonehenge b) Hadrian’s Wall c) Offa’s Dyke or d) Fountains Abbey” and, ‘The second largest party in the House of Commons is usually known by what name? a) Senate b) Opposition c) Lords d) The other side’, the test is yet again neither challenging nor of any relevance to everyday British life.

I’m with author Iain Aitch, of ‘We’re British, Innit’, who believes it would be more useful to learn about pub etiquette or mushy peas. Integrating in Britain, he feels, is learning to queue, not complaining about your poor lunch, and talking about the weather endlessly.

I, personally, can’t see the new test fazing prospective immigrants who, like the current wave from India, are well-educated or, want the Holy Grail of British citizenship enough to mug up well.

So, nothing has changed. The test will remain a paper exercise to please the anti-immigrant lobby. Immigrants will navigate the exam easily, but the real test of whether they are up to life in Britain will be the first time a passing lout lobs a missile at them and shouts ‘Go home, Paki!’

Shreya Sen-Handley is a writer and illustrator. She now writes for The Guradian and other UK newspapers
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