Viewpoint: Neither about Britishness, nor about Citizenship – The Life in the UK Test

Viewpoint: Neither about Britishness, nor about Citizenship – The Life in the UK Test

Ipek Demir

Since its launch in 2005, those who need to apply for British citizenship or settlement in the UK have to take a test called the ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ (LIUK) test, known as the ‘citizenship test’. One has to apply online and pay the current fee of £50 (1), and purchase and study the accompanying book, Official Handbook for the Life in the UK Test, as one is tested on the information provided in this official handbook. It is currently in its third edition and the page numbers I quote below are from this edition. Passing the test is a necessary but not a sufficient requirement as it only constitutes part of one’s application for settlement or British citizenship in the UK. There are many other requirements, and one can still get turned down at the end.

The administration of the test has been ‘privatized’. Learndirect, a company which provides adult training and apprenticeship (and which got inadequate in its latest 2017 OFSTED report) administers the test. There are various apps, online and print test books, and also courses which are there to help applicants – albeit for a fee.  None of the official training materials are free, and the courses cost about £200. Thus, there is indeed a ‘market’ associated with citizenship which has developed in the UK.

Why do I know all this? I recently passed this test. Having lived in the UK for about 20 years, and having studied and taught politics and sociology at various British universities for over 15 years, and as someone who is an avid Radio 4 listener – I thought I’d read the LIUK book in one or two days and take the exam the following week. How wrong was I? Memorizing the trivia listed in the book takes time and quite a bit of emotional and mental energy. Though my English husband was probably even more frustrated and embarrassed about how I had to memorize ‘knowledge’ such as: What is the name of the architect who designed the Queen’s House at Greenwich?; Where was the first tennis club founded in 1872? (2); What is the name of giant greenhouses at the Eden Project?; What is the name of the clock tower which houses the Big Ben?; What year did the hereditary peers lose the automatic right to attend the House of Lords?; Who wrote Belshazzar’s Feast?; What is the name of Anne Boleyn’s cousin who married Henry the 8th?; Which battle did Charles II escape from and hide behind an oak tree before he fled to Europe? What are the contents of haggis? (3)

Yes, trivia indeed. What I would like to share with my potential British compatriots is that the book (or the test) does not prepare one for a life in the UK, but maybe for a game of Trivial Pursuit or perhaps a British pub quiz. The test is neither a test of citizenship nor of Britishness. It is not a test of life in the United Kingdom either. It is a test of how willing or desperate one is to take up residency or citizenship in the UK. (4)

My frustrations are, however, also centred on what kind of Britishness the book incites, what kind of British history and identity are commended in the book, and which bits are conveniently forgotten and glossed over. I have carried out an analysis of the life in the UK book through an application of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). Here are some of my findings:

First, the book incites a certain British history and identity, and involves convenient exclusions and omissions. The history of the UK hailed in the book is one which can be called ‘kings and queens history’. There are plenty of erasures and convenient omissions. Whilst the English Civil War is discussed in detail over three pages, and the glory of Tudors over five pages, the second world war over four pages, only two paragraphs are on the British empire (p.47). In those two paragraphs there is no discussion of how the wealth of Britain today might be linked to the colonial exploitation and gain enabled by the Empire and the slave trade.

Discussion of slavery itself is also extremely brief. There are two short sentences about the horrors of slavery, followed by a long paragraph on the proud history of abolition. The link between empire and slavery is not made; except that ‘in 1833 the Emancipation Act abolished slavery through the British Empire’ (p.43). There is no mention of ‘indentured labour’ but instead of the employment of Indian and Chinese workers ‘to replace the freed slaves’ (p.43). More importantly the section on the British Empire is followed by a long section entitled ‘Trade and Industry’ which unashamedly starts with a sentence ‘Britain continued to be a great trading nation’ (p.47).

The book claims there was ‘an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’ (p.52). Irish famine gets mentioned briefly, the opening sentence to that section setting out that: ‘Conditions in Ireland were not as good as in the rest of the UK’ (p.49). Perhaps the citizenship test is trying to teach us British understatement…

There is also a lack of racial and cultural awareness, and of working class histories. Chartists get a mention, but overall, there is no mention of working class struggle. A white-washed history and present of the UK dominates the book throughout. Except for one or two exceptions, the section on arts and culture section is dominated by white and male artists. In particular, all the artists, musicians and poets which need to be memorized are white males. Even the Spice Girls do not get a mention. Yet Last Night of the Proms receives a glossy picture of people waving flags in the Royal Albert Hall. There are plenty of other pictures through the book. A non-white person can be identified only twice, on p.81 a family celebrating Diwali, and on p.142 when a white policeman is talking to an East Asian woman. There is not a single black face in the book. Even the nod to tokenism has been kept minimal.

The book also gets mixed up between ethnicity, nationality and citizenship: ‘In surveys the most common ethnic description chosen is white, which includes people of European, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and American descent. Other significant groups are those of Asian, black and mixed descent’ (p.75).

My aim in writing this is not to invite yet more material to be added to future editions of this LIUK handbook, but to highlight what kind of history, identity and information are commended in the book, and what is conveniently glossed over. Without revealing such undercurrents, the test, and the handbook on which it is based, will continue to be an obstacle not just to integration and citizenship, but also to history and truth.

Secondly, this is what can be referred to as an English-centric test, not a life in the UK test. In the book Englishness emerges as the principal identity, and England and its history and peoples transpire as the main source of belonging in the UK. Overall, Wales, Ireland, Scotland get very little mention and attention. When they do, they are discussed in relation to England, for example when the English kings fought the Scottish or the Welsh. We learn that Scotland had its own kingdom in the context of James becoming the King of England in 1603; we find out about Wales when it was annexed, or when the Welsh rebellions were defeated by the English; we find out that restrictions on Irish Catholics were placed in relation to William III re-conquering Ireland. Also interesting is that Northern Irish and Scottish painters, inventors, tennis players are mentioned by their Scottish or Irish origins, but the English are not, exposing the underlying English-centricness of the book.

History is told through an English gaze, however.  The English or England are consistently the main actors and doers, and the Scottish and the Irish perspectives are usually missing. For example:

‘The English first went to Ireland as troops to help the Irish king and remained to build their own settlements.’ p.21

‘In Scotland, the English kings were less successful.’ p.21

‘In Ireland, the Black Death killed many in the Pale and, for a time, the area controlled by the English became smaller.’ p.22.

Thirdly, the inane and obvious, if not pointless, information about norms, conduct and customs in the UK is striking. As Brooks’ report (2013: 4) underlines: ‘the test does not fulfil its aims of providing satisfactory information that will facilitate integration into society or general knowledge about British laws rendering the test impractical’. Information which could be useful, for example, how to register with a GP, how places in schools are allocated, one’s rights as a tenant, free school meals etc. are missing in this edition. Given that most information in the book is in fact trivia, it is disappointing to see that the few brief sections where contemporary life in the UK are discussed are frivolous or patronizing:

On p.102 we are told that fish and chips are popular in the UK.

On p.101 we are told that ‘A lot of people have gardens at home and will spend their free time looking after them.’

On p.107 we are told that ‘A lot of people in the UK have pets such as cats or dogs. They might have them for company or because they enjoy looking after them.’

On p.102 we are told that ‘Many people in the UK enjoy cooking. They often invite each other to their homes for dinner.’

On p.106 we are told that ‘Many people use social networking on their mobile phones when out and about.’

On p.154 we are told that ‘When you move into a new house or apartment, introduce yourself to the people who live near you.  Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community and make friends.’

The above sentences and ones like that could perhaps be useful for someone to read before they set foot in the UK (though even this is doubtful), but not for someone who has lived here for five years or more, about to make a UK residency or citizenship application. Let’s be honest about it. One does not read the book for pleasure. The test (and hence memorizing the information in the book) is a requirement. One has to pass the test in order to apply for residency and one can only put in a residency application after having lived in the UK for five years. Do people who have lived in the UK for at least five years need to be told that ‘Many people enjoy meeting friends in the pub’ (p.106) or that during Christmas people ‘give gifts, send cards and decorate their houses’ (p.79)?

The test is an additional barrier, an obstacle to becoming British. As argued by Paquet (2012) the LIUK test is a ‘device increasing the difficulty of access to naturalization and permanent residence’. It is also interesting to note that there is no official engagement with those who have taken the test (except for a short survey taken at the end of the test which assesses solely the administration of the test). This engagement has, however, been undertaken by academics who have explored migrants’ experiences and views e.g. Bassel, Montforte, Bartram, Khan, Misztal (2017) and Bryne (2016); Fortier (2016).

We need to therefore ask if such a test would have been introduced if those who introduced it, and who promote and defend it, had to memorize trivia and sit a test as such before acquiring residency. Or would they have instead provided information about inclusion and rights, access to services, and practical information about life in the UK? In other words, would they have, perhaps introduced a life in the UK book which is a bridge, rather than a barrier to inclusion and citizenship?

The book is full of trivia, but it is not trivial if your right to residency is dependent on passing a test based on it.

1.The only way to book the test is online.
2. The answer is not Wimbledon!
3. Answers are: Inigo Jones; Leamington Spa; biomes; Elizabeth Tower; 1999; Sir William Walton; Catherine Howard; Battle of Worcester; haggis contents: offal, suet, onions and oatmeal.
4. The handbook on which the test is based on has also been portrayed as beingastray with a confusing array of historical errors, questionable suppositions and glaring misquotes. I also noted that the book wrongly states that Florence Nightingale went to Turkey. However, Turkey did not come into being prior to 1923. What existed then was the Ottoman Empire. The mistake is akin to getting Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire mixed up.


Ipek Demir  is Associate Professor in Sociology, University of Leicester. Her work sits at the intersections of the fields of diaspora studies, ethno-politics, race and identity, nationalism, global politics as well as social and critical thought. She held an ESRC postdoctoral post in Cambridge, as well as an AHRC fellowship at Leicester, examining ethno-political identity of diasporic Kurds. Demir is the founder and co-coordinator of BSA’s Diaspora, Migration and Transnationalism (DMT) Study Group.