Why do we have a British Citizenship Test?

The UK citizenship was introduced in 2005 in order to address White Working Class concerns over immigration, at least according to one sociologist….

If immigrants to the UK want to claim British Citizenship, then they need to pass a British Citizenship Test.

The test consists of a number of questions on British history, culture, society and politics. If you’d like to try some test questions the Life in the UK Test 2020 has some examples, and if you answer 25 questions it will even tell you whether you’d pass the test!

It mights seem obvious, from a common sense point of view, why we have such a test: surely it is perfectly reasonable that we require potential future citizens to possess a certain level of knowledge about the country the wish to reside in permanently.

However, from a more critical, sociological perspective it is not at all obvious, especially since the test is such recent invention – having been introduced in only 2005, and since some of the questions do seem a little trivial, and don’t necessarily have much to do with ‘Britishness’ at all.

In a recent Thinking Allowed podcast, David Bartram, currently at the University of Leicester, discusses why we have a citizenship test, and what the consequences of it are for the people who take it, among other questions.

What prompted the introduction of this test?.

Bartram notes that there was an increasing interest in the concept of Citizenship in Late 1990s under the Blaire government, but it wasn’t until 2002 that an Act of Parliament was passed, making it a formal requirement for anyone seeking naturalisation in the UK to sit and pass a formal test.

Bartram suggests that the test was introduced as a response to unrest in northern cities in early 2000. The media cast the so call Northern riots, in towns such as Bradford and Oldham in ethnic terms, focussing on mainly Asian Youths being out of control, and being out of control and separate from the rest of ‘us’.

Rather than blaming the native white working class community for these ‘riots’ the media blamed immigrants for failing to integrate properly, and something had to be done to address this situation.

Thus the introduction of the citizenship test, which people first started taking in 2005.

Crucially, Bartram notes that the test was primarily introduced and directed towards an audience of white British natives. It was the government’s way of addressing concerns over immigration, rather than in terms of the positive outcomes for the people who took it.

Some problems with the UK Citizenship Test

The very act of imposing a requirement for a test suggests that those who must take it (i.e. anyone seeking to claim British citizenship) doesn’t initially know enough about the British way of life, it has an immediate stigmatising effect.

Originally the test had some useful questions to help candidates nagivate their way around some of the complexities of life in the uk, but overtime it deteriorated into more and more factoids – such as ‘what year did Richard 3rd die’ – just exactly how knowing the answer is 1485 is supposed to make you a better British citizen is unclear.

The test seems to have a negative impact on Participation in British Life

Bartram uses survey data to demonstrate that those people who have taken the test and passed it have lower levels of participation in British social and political life compared to similar people who had not taken the test.

Participation here is measured by such things as how likely someone is to do voluntary work, among other indicators.

Why is this?

The problem is possible in the nature of the questions about politics – they are about knowing the rules of the game, about obedience, not about rights or political activism, which suggests to the people who take it that just obeying the law is enough to be a British citizen, rather than actively taking part in voluntary or political action.

Relevance to A-level sociology.

This material can be used to criticise the Functionalist view of society consisting of shared values, clearly integration is a problem, and the solution to it isn’t helping.

There’s also some support for the labelling theory of deviance – just be introducing a test, you are stigmatising any potential applicant.

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