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‘A Britishness test?! but what IS Britishness?’

The Life in the United Kingdom test is a computer-based test for individuals seeking Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK or naturalisation as a British citizen. The test is a requirement under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

It’s existed for a while, but every time this test is revised a new set of articles get written up acting like it’s a new thing. Each answer will be personal/political/ideological, impossible to reconcile, and thus recognizably useless for any practical purpose.

This is specifically what is being changed.

May also wants to drop sections of the official Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship handbook, which explains things such as the Human Rights Act and how to claim welfare benefits and give details of managing everyday life such as reading the gas meter, getting home contents insurance or dealing with the local council.

Instead, Conservative ministers want to tell new migrants that Britain is “historically” a Christian country with a “long and illustrious history”


A Home Office official said: “It’s a move away from the old one – stuff on rights, practical info that has little to do with British culture – to one that is clear about responsibilities and requires people to have a grounding in our history.”

People exist in types: British or American or Polish or whatever nationality you’ve been saddled with. For the purposes of this test they exist in two: The British and the Immigrant; Us and The Outsider. To come into our country you must learn about the essential nature of Us, which is primarily that our nature is essential.

This is not for the benefit of people wanting to get into our country, it’s for the people already living in it, reading about ‘the debate’ in the Guardian.

A focus on history is not intended to frame Britain within a historical context, that is to say limit it. No, it is to show that ‘Britain’ is constant, essential, unchangeable, and that at best you may live in it. 

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7 Responses to Britishness

  1. sunshinefiasco says:

    I would absolutely love to see some version of this test that doesn’t place yet another sloppy smooch on the head of white privilege. Because this sounds like an excuse to make sure that instead of being educated on available services/how to not to be exploited by an unjust employer, that everyone emigrating to the UK shows the proper due reverence to dead white people. While I understand that that’s unavoidable, how will the Conservative party be phrasing all this “history”?

  2. Guy Fox says:

    Letting the content of ‘Britishness’ bend and sway with history is not necessarily better than some kind of historical essentialism. As long as the meaning of such terms is clear and stable (NB: their meaning not the value of that meaning), you can be for or against, criticize and condemn, praise and honour, etc. They also have the capacity to inform your actions, as in “Britishness contains the value of self-reliance, which is a good thing, so I’m going to strive to be self-reliant” as long as the meaning is stable and clear.

    As soon as you start celebrating historical contingency or some other knee-jerk pluralist, relativist nonsense, then you’re doing a service for the status quo, because the terms will come to mean whatever the prevailing system needs/wants them to. This week Britishness includes tolerance and multiculturalism. In your kids generation it can mean nativism and exclusion.

    This logic applies to just about any symbol/sign you use to identify yourself. It’s often better to know what they mean, and if they lose their utility, bin them and use something else than to let such words be become infinitely plastic.

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      “This week Britishness includes tolerance and multiculturalism. In your kids generation it can mean nativism and exclusion.”

      First off, that’s exactly what happens with all words over time, even those describing nationality and national characteristics. That’s the nature of language. “American-ness” in the time of John Adams meant nativism and isolationism (not to mention an appreciation of slave labor). American-ness now means other things.

      Secondly, how can the meaning of something remain constant when its constituent parts are changing/have changed? The make-up of Great Britain has changed drastically over the last 200 years. Why should the definition of Britishness not reflect that? Wouldn’t clinging to an antiquated definition actually be the more inaccurate practice (not to mention, likely racist, xenophobic, and exclusionary?) Also, which definition of Britishness are we using as a baseline? From the country’s inception? From 50 years ago?

      Lastly, it’s not terms like self-reliance that I’m concerned about. It’s conflating “Britishness” with Englishness or whiteness or other, equally exclusive terminology. While I’m not from that part of the world, I was under the impression, gleaned from several friends of mine (white and non-white UK residents) that the term “British” is a much larger, umbrella term used to encompass people of multiple cultures and backgrounds. (For example, a non-white child of immigrants might refer to themselves as British rather than English, despite having been raised in England their whole life. A white child whose family line has been in England for centuries would be British and English.)

      If that’s the case, wouldn’t it make pinpointing characteristics like “self-reliance” a lot more difficult to pin down, considering the variety of cultural values involved?

      • Guy Fox says:

        You’re getting warmer. The easier it is to change the meaning of a word, the more pernicious it is likely to be. Arguing over the correct meaning or interpretation, even allowing for historical change, is a red herring. Those words themselves are pernicious. It’s not that the contents of categories like ‘British’ and ‘American’ change over time; it’s that those are hollow, floating, slippery categories to start with.
        Our grandparents knew what wheels were, and they wouldn’t have believed anybody telling them that new wheels have 4 sides. But they had different ideas about what it meant to be British and American than we do, and those ideas were not their own, and neither are ours.

        As a great British historian once wrote, “Once you get into the realm of abstractions, you never quite know what you’re talking about.”

        • sunshinefiasco says:

          Still not sure exactly what you believe here– particularly as this comment seems to contrast to the previous one. Also, comparing national identity to definition of something like “wheel” is a false comparison. The definition of nationality has never been that hard set– it would be more like asking our grandparents what happiness was. We seem to agree it’s a slippery category and a means to get into trouble, which is one of the primary reasons I think it shouldn’t be a main part of the citizenship test.

          Secondly, it doesn’t much matter what granny thinks Britishness means unless she’s a foreign minister. This is about a federalized quantification of Brtishness, which is why the discussion is so dangerous.

          Lastly, if you’re not into abstractions and/or racism, legal definitions of national identity might not be for you.

          • Guy Fox says:

            In the original comment, I wasn’t praising Britishness or nationality as a category. It was about the dangers of slippery categories that still inform moral decisions, as was the later comment. The definition of nationality has never been fixed because it’s not a meaningful concept, and it’s dangerous because people still let it inform their decisions. That some of those people have inordinate amounts of power of others, as foreign ministers do, is an unfortunate and aggravating contextual fact.

            “it would be more like asking our grandparents what happiness was.” Exactly. Stop there.

          • sunshinefiasco says:

            Ahh. very nice. It’s good when some of us can get along then.