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Sunder Katwala: Is it time to reform the UK’s attitude to becoming British?

New British citizen Laurier Alder with her certificate of naturalisation during a citizenship ceremony at Islington Town Hall, in north London.
(Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
New British citizen Laurier Alder with her certificate of naturalisation during a citizenship ceremony at Islington Town Hall, in north London. (Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Director, British Future

NOT many people know that Britain invented the pencil – though it is a source of local pride in the Lake District, as visiting the Keswick pencil museum would demonstrate.

That is, however, one of the things that you might have to learn if you want to become a British citizen. The pencil is one of those great British inventions which aspiring citizens could be quizzed about, along with the television, the cashpoint and IVF treatment, in order to pass their citizenship test.

Ahead of the launch this week of its independent inquiry into citizenship policy, British Future brought together a group of British-born citizens with naturalised citizens who have been through the citizenship test, to discuss the journey people need to take to become British.

The group were challenged to match dates to historical events which feature in the citizenship test. Caesar’s Roman invasion and the battle of Hastings were easy, as were the Queen’s coronation and our entry into the EEC. Getting the chronology right across the 1,000 years between – from civil wars to Great Reform Acts – proved trickier. Most were many centuries out when guessing when King Kenneth MacAlpin had begun to unite the Scots.

British Future will shortly repeat the exercise in Edinburgh and may find out whether this early Scottish history is more familiar to new and old citizens there. Local knowledge gave the Southampton group confidence that the Hovercraft was a great British invention, even if the invention of the pencil was a surprise to everybody.

But a hit-and-miss quiz on which of the scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century were British, American or European left participants sceptical about whether this was as useful as testing knowledge of society today.

New citizens said that understanding popular idioms really mattered: “Once I understood what people mean when they say ‘it’s not my cup of tea’, that is when I felt I fitted in,” said one new citizen.

After trying the test, British-born citizens were baffled by the level of historical knowledge required. Yet new Britons spoke up for history as a theme of the citizenship test, saying that knowing a country’s history helped to understand the people, and that the handbook offered an interesting overview.

There was broad support for ensuring that expectations about social norms and values – including democracy and equal rights for women – were understood, but there were doubts as to whether a multiple-choice test was a good way to find out whether people shared British values.

Asked to recommend how much citizenship should cost, our Southampton citizens found the fees – £1,300 per adult and £1,000 for children – too high, especially when that added up to more than £5,000 for a family of four. They felt that citizenship should be free for children when families apply.

Some British-born participants changed their views about whether there was any point in citizenship ceremonies, because those who had chosen to become British talked about what it had meant to them. Many felt it was a more meaningful way to complete the journey of becoming British than just getting a Home Office letter in the post.

The government plans to review the content of the citizenship handbook and the test. The British Future inquiry will explore the case for a much wider review of citizenship policy. The inquiry, chaired by Alberto Costa MP with participants from across political parties and civic society, has begun with an open call for evidence. It will present recommendations for reform next year that it believes can command broad support.

More than 150,000 people become citizens each year, but the government has no clear aims or objectives for its citizenship policy. Brexit sees more than three million Europeans applying for settled status – as permanent residents, but not full citizens – and is a chance to rethink what citizenship is for.

Yet citizenship has been neglected, partly because it has been overshadowed by an immigration policy focused, unsuccessfully, on cutting migration numbers. Former prime minister Theresa May’s policy discouraged citizenship, breaking the link between migration and settlement.

Should the Boris Johnson government and the opposition parties take a different view in the future? Should citizenship be actively encouraged, as a contribution to integration, or should it be more selective – and difficult to qualify for? How much should citizenship cost, and what should happen to the income from the fees?

Our citizens in Southampton, Britons old and new, did find common ground on why citizenship matters. It may miss the point if new citizens are swotting up on things that most of us don’t have the foggiest notion about, but getting the foundations of a common citizenship right is an important way to build confidence in how people become British and make their contribution to a shared society.