Historians challenge home office over citizenship lesson


(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images).
(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images).

By Amit Roy

AS WE have seen with Dr David Starkey, not everyone agrees with his version of history – certainly not his history of slavery.

The Home Office’s version of his­tory is also being challenged by 181 historians, many of them eminent, at the last count. Applicants for citi­zenship or settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”) in the country have to pass the Home Office’s “Life in the UK Test”, which includes a section on the history of Britain.

But in History, the official journal of the Historical Association, a let­ter signed by the historians has taken issue with the Home Office’s version of decolonisation and with Britain’s alleged non-involvement in slavery.

“We are historians of Britain and the British Empire and writing in protest at the on-going misrepre­sentation of slavery and Empire in the Life in the UK Test,” the letter says.

“The official handbook pub­lished by the Home Office is funda­mentally misleading and in places, demonstrably false.”

“The official handbook creates a distorted view of the British past.”

The Home Office version of de­colonisation is false, the historians’ letter points out.

“It also states that ‘by the second part of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transi­tion from Empire to Common­wealth, with countries being grant­ed their independence’ (p 51).

“In fact, decolonisation was not an ‘orderly’ but an often violent process, not only in India but also in the many so-called ‘emergencies’ such as the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960). We call for an immediate official review of the his­tory chapter.

“People in the colonies and peo­ple of colour in the UK are nowhere actors in this official history. The handbook promotes the misleading view that the Empire came to an end simply because the British de­cided it was the right thing to do.

“Similarly, the abolition of slav­ery is treated as a British achieve­ment, in which enslaved people themselves played no part. The book is equally silent about colonial protests, uprisings and independ­ence movements.”

The letter objects to the Home Office line on slavery: “For example, it states that ‘while slavery was ille­gal within Britain itself, by the 18th century it was a fully established overseas industry’ (p 42). In fact, whether slavery was legal or illegal within Britain was a matter of de­bate in the 18th century, and many people were held as slaves. The handbook is full of dates and num­bers but does not give the number of people transported as slaves on British ships (over three million); nor does it mention that any of them died.”

It goes on: “Applicants are ex­pected to learn about more than 200 individuals. The only individual of colonial origin named in the book is Sake Dean Mohamet, who co-founded England’s first curry house in 1810. The pages on the British Empire end with a celebra­tion of Rudyard Kipling.”

Personally, I love Kipling’s The Jungle Book but his views on empire were of his time.

The Home Office should do an experiment and find out how many British people, born and brought up in Britain, pass its Life in the UK Test. Not many, I suspect. It would be best to scrap the whole test, not just the history section, and think of a better way of judging the suitabil­ity of applicants.

By the way, it would be interest­ing to know which historians were responsible for writing the Home Office’s history section.