I am German, but have been living in the UK for ten years. I’m now thinking of becoming a British citizen. In order to do so, I would have to pass a citizenship test. In that test you are being asked 24 multiple choice questions, and you need to get at least 18 of those questions right to pass the test. If you fail, you have proved yourself unfit to become, or unworthy of becoming, a British citizen, and you have to officially remain a foreigner. So what kinds of things do you need to know in order to be considered worthy of being a Brit?
There’s a lot about Henry VIII and his wives, the Romans and the Norman conquest, the parliamentary system, Christmas, and, rather disproportionately, TV licenses (when do you need one, how do you get one, are there exceptions, etc.). What you apparently don’t need to have a grasp of is grammar. Some of the questions seem to have been written by illiterates: “Regarding to the myth when does father Christmas comes?” (sic!) Some only a complete idiot can get wrong: “People open their Christmas presents during Easter.” Some take statistics very seriously: “In the 2009 Citizenship survey, … of people said they had no religion.” Possible answers: 21, 23, 25, 27. You don’t know the right answer? Shame on you! The right answer is 21, of course. It’s clearly imperative that you know such things if you want to live here.
But of course, as Alfred North Whitehead once said, “the exactness is a fake,” and there are other questions in the test that don’t even bother with the semblance of exactness: “People don’t celebrate Christmas as much as they used to before.” Ergh, when was that again? 1900? 1200? Would that not make a difference? (The correct answer is that the statement is very untrue indeed – and presumably very un-British, too.) Here’s another one: “Very young children believe that Father Christmas (also known as Santa Claus) brings them presents during the night before Christmas Day.” Very young children? What is that supposed to mean? Newborns? Five-year-olds? And are we talking about all of them? Or the majority? Some maybe? In Britain? Also among the Sikh and Muslim communities? Based on which survey?
More interesting, however, is that many questions are openly ideological. This is interesting because the test strongly encourages us to treat ideology as a fact. So according to the test it is just as true that “you must treat everyone equally, regardless of sex, race, age, religion, disability, class or sexual orientation”, as it is true that “the capital city of Scotland is Edinburgh” or that “the Speaker is chosen by other MPs in a secret ballot”. But can we really say that this is true? Is that a moral fact? Universally acknowledged?
What about this one? “Residents who do not respect the law should not expect to be allowed to become permanent residents in the UK.” In what sense exactly is it true that such residents “should not be expected to be allowed”? What a curious phrasing! What kind of “should” is that? Prudential, moral, or what? And who does the expecting? It sounds more like a threat than a statement.
Or consider this one: “When you move into a new house or apartment, introduce yourself to the people who live near you so they can help you.” This is supposed to be the correct answer. The alternatives, to “warn the people who live near you so they do not bang on the walls” or “do not play music”, are seen as incorrect, even though they are not even statements. “A fundamental principle of British life is participating in your community.” Is it really? In what way? Is there an official list of fundamental principles issued by the government, to which “participating in one’s community” belongs? Is “British life” an agent who can act on principles? Do all British people participate in their community? Never mind: for the purpose of the British Citizenship test, the existence of such a principle is to be treated as a fact.
And finally, perhaps the clumsiest and most conspicuous piece of ideology: “All terrorist groups try to radicalize and recruit people to their cause.” Do they really? Is that an empirical fact? Or part of the definition of what it means for a group to be terrorist? Can there not be a terrorist group that does not try to recruit people to their cause? And why would that be something that I needed to know in order to qualify for life in the UK? Suppose that I was of the (allegedly incorrect) opinion that not all terrorist groups tried to recruit people to their cause. Would I then be more likely to commit acts of terrorism myself, or more likely to sympathise with terrorist groups? Or would somebody with terrorist tendencies be more likely to deny the truth of that statement, so that those who did so could easily be weeded out as dangerous and therefore unfit to become a British citizen?