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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Explained: Why historians have called for a review of UK’s citizenship test

The test appears to glorify Britain’s colonial past, say the historians.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: July 23, 2020 4:03:56 pm
UK citizenship law, Britain citizenship law, UK citizenship, Britain citizenship, UK passport, Express Global, Express Explained, Indian Express A demonstrator holds a British passport in a shopping mall during a protest against the security legislation in May. (AP)

According to a Guardian report, historians have called on the UK’s Home Office to revise the UK citizenship test because the history section of this test contains “misleading and false” representation of history during Britain’s colonisation. Called the ‘Life in the UK Test’, it is a requirement for applicants who wish to acquire UK citizenship

In an open letter published on July 21 in the Official Journal of the Historical Association, 181 signatories have called for a review of this test on the grounds that the “official handbook published by the Home Office is fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false”. The test appears to glorify Britain’s colonial past, say the historians.


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The signatories include William Dalrymple, Joya Chatterji of Trinity College, Cambridge, Simukai Chigudu, Associate Professor of African Politics, Oxford, and Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History, Oxford.

What are some objections to the Home Office’s citizenship test?

This retelling of Britain’s history in an official handbook that is being used to prepare for the test, is an attempt to sanitise the nation’s violent and brutal past that may be particularly difficult for citizenship applicants from countries which were former British colonies, say the historians. There are several examples that the historians have highlighted in their letter.


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“For example, (the handbook) states that ‘While slavery was illegal within Britain itself, by the 18th century it was a fully established overseas industry’ (p.42). In fact, whether slavery was legal or illegal within Britain was a matter of debate in the eighteenth century, and many people were held as slaves,” write the historians.

The letter states that the handbook makes no mention of the over three million people who were transported as slaves and that people died during these journeys. “It also states that ‘by the second part of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’ (p.51). In fact, decolonisation was not an ‘orderly’ but an often violent process, not only in India but also in the many so-called “emergencies” such as the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960).”


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Independence movements and uprisings in the former colonies also find no mention in this handbook. “The handbook promotes the misleading view that the Empire came to an end simply because the British decided it was the right thing to do. Similarly, the abolition of slavery is treated as a British achievement, in which enslaved people themselves played no part.” The historians state that people of colour and people in colonies also have not been adequately represented in this retelling of history and their contributions to the development and growth of Britain has been entirely omitted.

Was the Home Office’s citizenship test handbook ever revised?

The historians state that given the handbook’s latest edition was published by the Home Office in 2013, the presence of these inaccuracies are even more troubling. The handbook isn’t just a relic that has been continuously used without consciousness about these factual errors and misstatements.

Conversations regarding historical inaccuracy and the whitewashing of Britain’s colonial past were very much occurring in 2012-2013, when the process for the republishing the handbook in an updated edition had started. Despite this, the Home Office had made no attempts to consider its own role in regurgitating convenient, white-washed retellings of history. “This official, mandatory version of history is a step backwards in historical knowledge and understanding. Historical knowledge is and should be an essential part of citizenship. Historical falsehood and misrepresentation, however, should not,” stated the letter.


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Why is the Home Office’s handbook problematic?

The letter explains the problem very succinctly. “For applicants from former colonies with knowledge of imperial violence, this account is offensive. For those from outside the former Empire without prior education in history, the official handbook creates a distorted view of the British past.” Applicants from India, for instance, are well aware of the long-term impact of socio-economic policies enacted in the Indian subcontinent for the economic and territorial benefit of Britain.

They also have knowledge and awareness of brutal violence, imprisonment and assault inflicted upon civilians and revolutionaries who had been working for the cause of freedom from British oppression. “For those with a basic knowledge of history, whatever their background, it puts them in the invidious position of being obliged to read, remember and repeat a version of the past which is false. For British citizens in general, the official history perpetuates a misleading view of how we came to be who we are,” the letter says.


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What has been the Home Office’s response?

It appears that the Home Office has taken note of the letter. The Guardian reported a Home Office spokesperson saying: “Given the breadth of British history, the Life in the UK handbook provides a starting point to explore our past and help those seeking to live permanently in the UK gain a basic understanding of our society, culture and historical references which occur in everyday conversations….We have published several editions of the handbook since it was launched and will continue to keep its contents under review and consider any feedback we receive.”

It was not immediately clear if the concerns highlighted in this specific letter were going to be considered by the Home Office or whether any reviews and amendments were in process. This comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to widespread protests across the UK and Europe. Statues of colonisers and symbols of colonisation have been defaced and toppled in protests against racism and historic injustices perpetrated against people of colour and immigrants.

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