Saturday, November 26, 2005

Trivial Pursuit

Recently, an American friend from Cambridge grad school days announced her intention to apply for British citizenship now that she's been a resident in the country for the requisite five years and intends on remaining here for the foreseeable future.

Of course obtaining citizenship in most countries is no easy task and one must expect to navigate the way through mountains of red tape and reams of paperwork designed to weed out all but the most persistent and optimistic of souls. This is certainly true in Britain, where the rocky road to becoming a citizen is paved with more than a few unique hurdles.

Not the least of these is the anachronistic requirement that applicants take a public verbal oath proclaiming their allegiance to the Queen, thereby becoming 'subjects' of the monarchy. With all due respect to Her Majesty, it seems a bit outlandish that circa 2005, one must pledge allegiance to a figurehead that has had no real power for over 300 years since the implementation of a Constitutional government. (Though since this country revels so much in its past greatness, I suppose this pledge is somewhat fitting within the context.) While admittedly, I find the Royals just as entertaining as the next person, and have in fact become bizarrely obsessed with reading about Henry VIII and his six wives, my fascination stops cold at the prospect of declaring myself a 'subject' of the monarchy, something which I suspect would deter many of the most Anglophilic of would-be applicants.

Meanwhile, prior to this month, not even a basic citizenship test was administered to ensure aspiring citizens were cognizant of key facets of British history and politics. So essentially, applicants need not have known the name of the current Prime Minister as long as they hailed the Queen and could speak the mother tongue.

This perversity finally appeared to catch the eye of someone in the Home Office, perhaps spurred on by the debate over cultural integration in the wake of the 7/7 terror attacks. In any event, as of November 1, a new citizenship test has been belatedly implemented, which all applicants must successfully pass in order to demonstrate "knowledge of life in the UK".

So what exactly constitutes "knowledge of life in the UK" you might ask? Fair question, and the BBC offers a sampling of the invaluable tidbits that one may need to know before becoming a British citizen:

According to "Life in the UK" (the study guide for the test), where does Father Christmas come from?
A: Lapland
B: Iceland
C: The North Pole

According to "Life in the UK", what should you do if you spill someone's pint in the pub?
A: Offer to buy the person another pint
B: Offer to dry their wet shirt with your own
C: Prepare for a fight in the car park

What or who is PG (again, according to the guide)?
A: One of the brand names for the national British drink, tea
B: A Personal Guide, a British-born mentor provided to each immigrant applying for nationality
C: Part of the cinema film classification system

Other gems include "Do many children live in single parent families?" and "Do people tend to live in the cities or in the country?" To say the test is missing some essentials like, um, British history or how to register to vote would be an understatement akin to saying the Titanic was a few lifeboats shy of capacity. Because of these glaring omissions, the new test has already come under fire from many critics. Tony McNulty, the Immigration Minister, defended the decision not to include British history amongst the list of subjects by saying, "This is not a test of someone's ability to be British or a test of their Britishness. It is about looking forward, rather than an assessment of their ability to understand history." Huh?

Are we to understand that becoming a British citizen isn't about understanding what it means to be British?! And how exactly is one supposed to 'look forward' without any context from the past? Most likely the reason the test doesn't strive to ascertain 'Britishness' is because the question of what exactly it means to be British has been stumping everyone over here for years.

So in lieu of trying to answer the unanswerable, successful applicants must instead possess a mental database of trivial information pertaining to such schizophrenic topics as pub etiquette, movie ratings, and a holiday that a significant portion of the country doesn't even celebrate. Indeed, perhaps by very nature of its myopism, the test does after all manage to give applicants a flavor of that elusive Britishness it seeks so desperately to shun.