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What does the Life in the UK Handbook say about who the British people are?


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This is a guest post by Isaac Abraham, Nath Gbikpi, Tom Hardwick, Barry O’Leary and Mala Savjani.

On 22 July 2020, over 180 historians of Britain, the British Empire, and colonialism published an open letter calling for the review of the history chapter of the UK’s official “Life in the UK Handbook.” They concluded:

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. 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 full text of the letter and its signatories can be found here.

The Life in the UK Test has been repeatedly criticised for its difficulty, its random inaccuracies, and the irrelevance of much of its content to life in the UK today, from the precise height of the London Eye to the name of the first Archbishop of Canterbury. In October 2018, the then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid described it as a “pub quiz”, and promised to bring in a new test focussing on “British values”. There has been no sustained public engagement, however, with the broader vision of Britain’s past and present it requires migrants to endorse.

The day before the historians’ letter was published, on 21 July 2020, the Home Secretary committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Windrush Lessons Learned report, including introducing “comprehensive training for everyone working in the Home Office to ensure they understand and appreciate the history of migration and race in this country.” If that training is to have any positive effect, the Home Office must first address the serious distortions in its existing version of these histories, which it teaches through the Life in the UK Test.

The historians’ letter is a welcome first step in this long-overdue project. As immigration lawyers, we would like to contribute to taking the discussion one step further, by setting out what the handbook says about the lives of migrants and people of colour within Britain, both in the past and today.

What is the Life in the UK Test and who needs to take it?

Since 1 November 2005, all applicants for British citizenship between 18 and 65 have been required to demonstrate their knowledge of “Life in the UK” by passing the official Life in the UK Test, unless they have been granted an exemption on medical grounds. On 1 April 2007, this requirement was extended to almost all adults applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain (or “settlement”). Passing the test requires learning the entire content of a Home Office publication, Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents. The current version of the guide is the third edition, first published in 2013 but updated several times, including earlier this year.

It is very difficult to know how many migrants have tried to learn the historical narrative set out in the Life in the UK handbook, and how many have succeeded. According to the “Life in the UK test data” page on the gov.uk website, 119,287 people took the test between April 2013 (after the current handbook was introduced), and March 2014 (when the figures end). Because almost everyone who naturalises will have had to pass the test, the numbers of those applying for naturalisation provide a bare minimum of how many have taken the test since then,. According to statistics published by the Home Office, that number is 616,950. Many thousands more will have taken the test and failed, or applied for settlement but not naturalised.

What does the handbook say about Britain’s past?

The Life in the UK Test handbook has five chapters:

  • The values and principles of the UK
  • What is the UK?
  • A long and illustrious history
  • A modern, thriving society
  • The UK government, the law and your role.

Until 2013, the historical chapter in the handbook was not tested. Now, the introduction instructs migrants that the test questions will be based on “ALL parts of the handbook”. The only information they do not need to memorise is precise dates of birth and death. The history section has also been very significantly expanded and is now packed with names, dates and details. It runs to 55 pages in the Kindle edition, the longest chapter in the handbook.

The historians’ letter sets out examples of how the handbook downplays the horrors of slavery and the slave trade, obscures the importance of slavery with Britain itself, and denies the role of enslaved and formerly enslaved people in winning their own freedom, the violence of Empire and decolonisation, and the agency of colonial peoples.

These, however troubling, are sins of omission. Perhaps most disturbing of the issues raised by the historians is the blatant falsehood that the end of Empire was, “for the most part, . . . orderly”. Many hundreds of thousands if not several million people died in the Partition of India, and millions more were brutally displaced. Tens of thousands of Kenyans were tortured, maimed or killed in the British counter-insurgency campaign against the Mau Mau and other rebels in Kenya in the 1950s. British rule in Rhodesia came to an end with a Unilateral Declaration of Independence by a white-minority regime that would last for fifteen years and only be displaced following a war of independence in which at least 20,000 people died. As a condition of the independence of Mauritius in 1968, the British insisted that the country relinquish its sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and then forcibly deported the entire population of those islands to make way for a US Army base. In the aftermath of Empire, millions of people have at various times been rendered effectively stateless, including Tamils in Sri Lanka, Palestinians, and South Asians who had settled in East Africa as British subjects. Unresolved conflicts about post-colonial borders imposed without popular consent continue to fuel conflict in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

For many thousands of people who have taken the Life in the UK Test since 2013, the British politics of divide and rule and the violence and injustices of Empire and decolonisation continue to contribute to political and even armed conflict in their countries of origin. Many others come from societies fundamentally shaped by the legacies of slavery. For some, the history of slavery and Empire forms the background to the poverty or persecution that drove them to the UK in the first place. In order to settle or naturalise, they are all asked to deny their own history.

Although the historians’ letter focuses on the handbook’s misrepresentation of the history of slavery and Empire, it is important to note that it is equally silent on the history of persecution and discrimination within Britain on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion, or against the LGBT community. There are generic recitals of non-discrimination laws, but no account of how they were won or why they continue to be necessary. Just to give a few examples: the handbook mentions that “the first Jews to come to Britain since the Middle Ages settled in London in 1656,” (p. 38), but not the 1290 edict ordering the expulsion of all Jewish people from England in the first place. Given the handbook’s aim of promoting “tolerance”, it is surprising that in more than four pages on World War II, there is no reference to the Holocaust or the Romani genocide, in spite of the connection between Holocaust denial and antisemitism and the continuing discrimination against the Roma and Sinti today. There is no mention of the criminalisation of homosexuality or the struggle for LGBT rights; Alan Turing is listed as a great British inventor, but nothing is said about his conviction for homosexual acts or his sentence to “chemical castration” and his subsequent death. A search for the name “Lawrence” produces not Stephen or Doreen, but the film “Lawrence of Arabia”.

After the historians’ letter was published, the Home Office told the Guardian that it “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.” This is plainly false. The partition of India or the murder of Stephen Lawrence are far more likely to arise in everyday conversation than, for example, the 1832 Reform Act or the names of key battles in the English Civil War.

What does the handbook say about who the British people are?

The handbook contains the names and brief descriptions of more than 200 individuals, from Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson, any one of whom could appear on the multiple-choice exam. In the entire history chapter, the only named individual of non-European origin is Sake Dean Mohamet who, together with his Irish wife, is credited with founding England’s first curry house in 1810. He is, in fact, the only named person of South Asian heritage to appear anywhere in the handbook.  

People of non-European origin appear only as a collective group, and only in six places in the history chapter: as “people from the Empire, including Africa and India,” who “came to Britain” in the Victorian period “to live, work and study” (p. 47); as troops fighting “on behalf of Britain” or “with the British” in World War I (p.53); in the statement that from June 1940 until June 1941 “Britain and the Empire stood almost alone against Nazi Germany” (p.57); in a brief section on “Migration in post-war Britain,” which describes the labour shortage in the late 1940s and ‘50s, and concludes that “For about 25 years, people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan and (later) Bangladesh travelled to work and settle in Britain” (p.63), and finally, in the statement that “the number of people migrating from the West Indies, India, Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh” fell in the late 1960s after new immigration laws were passed, but 28,000 East African Asians were admitted in the early 1970s (p.63).

There is no mention of Britons of colour (as distinct from migrants or colonial subjects), and no mention of migration from Africa after the Victorian period.

This is also a very partial history of migration more generally. The only refugees who appear are French Protestants in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, and Jewish people fleeing Russia and Poland between 1870 and 1914. We are told that artisans came from Europe in the middle ages, but there is no mention of the millions of Europeans who made their home here while Britain was a member of the European Economic Community and European Union.  The historical narrative even seems to suggest that migration to Britain largely came to an end in the 1960s.

The chapter on British life and culture today begins somewhat promisingly with the information that “post-war immigration means that nearly 10% of the population has a parent or grandparent born outside of the UK. The UK continues to be a multinational and multiracial society with a rich and varied culture.” Although race and ethnicity are said to be too difficult to estimate, the population is broken down by religion. There is a list of holidays, which includes non-Christian holidays, and a photo of a smiling South Asian family in winter coats over a caption that refers to Diwali. But that is where the acknowledgement of British diversity ends. Other than a brief reference to the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the only named people of colour are sportspeople. There is not a single named artist, musician, author, actor, filmmaker, politician or scientist who is not from a white British or European background. The list of Britons who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature omits Kazuo Ishiguro, the list of British Oscar winners, Steve McQueen. The only Turner Prize winners named are Damien Hirst and Richard Wright.

In short, the Life in the UK test is not only too difficult and detailed, and full of irrelevant information. It presents a deeply distorted vision of Britain’s past, of the past of thousands of those who are forced to take the test, and of who we are today. As the Home Office sets out to fulfil its pledge to teach its own staff about Britain’s true history, it must also transform the history it requires migrants and new citizens to learn.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.