It’s strange that Magna Carta was not considered important enough for the Life in the UK Test

The celebrations of Magna Carta continue apace, with this week the four surviving copies of the 1215 version being brought together at last (there are 40 copies of all the versions, among them 1217, 1225 and 1297). The 13th century peace treaty has become hugely important as its 800th anniversary approaches, yet when the Life in the UK Test was first brought out it did not even feature the Great Charter (that’s been changed since). Here’s what I wrote about the Life test, which I took, in The Diversity Illusion:


The process of forging a new Britishness has begun with citizenship tests and ceremonies that, in the words of the BBC’s Mark Easton, aimed to create ‘a sense of identity that overarches creed, culture or ethnic background… built around the ideas of shared values’ such as ‘tolerance of diversity and cultural difference’. The early signs are not promising. When Home Secretary David Blunkett announced in 2005 that foreigners seeking Indefinite Leave to Remain, or naturalisation, were to be set a written test about ‘Britishness’, there was much amused press speculation about what newcomers would be asked, something along the lines of: ‘What is the correct phrase when starting a fight in a public house?’ or ‘Who has larger breasts – Jordan or Jodie Marsh?’ Yet the real thing is far more farcical than a Right-wing hack’s worst nightmare.

The Government presented the test as a means to creating a British melting pot based on, but obviously morally superior to, the American model. Blunkett’s successor John Reid peers out from the pages of the official handbook, A Journey to Citizenship, telling newcomers that the exams ‘have encouraged people who have decided to make their lives in Britain to learn more about our culture and institutions’. That they have certainly done. In total no fewer than 29 of the 408 potential test questions are about claiming state benefits, and another 65 concern other rights such as free healthcare, education and working hour regulations. Foreign arrivals might be bemused by the idea that British culture should be defined by welfare, as if Shakespeare’s Globe was less culturally significant than the nearby London Bridge JobCentrePlus. But indeed the major advantage to having Indefinite Leave to Remain rather than just Limited Leave is being able to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, housing benefits and the full buffet of the European welfare state.

And what kind of Britishness are they embracing? As well as questions about quangos, single-parent families, drug use and smoking laws, there are 9 on the EU, and a further 16 questions about women’s rights and the history of female suffrage. There is a reasonable argument that, since many immigrants come from countries where a ‘women’s right to choose’ means opting whether to be beheaded or stoned to death for adultery, newcomers should be informed about the one area of life where liberals feel unem- barrassed moral superiority over immigrants. And one could even justify the 20 questions about the history of immigration, on top of another 11 about the racial and religious diversity of Britain. Yet there are just four questions about all the rest of British history put together – and the test organisers managed to get two of the answers wrong, claiming as false the statement ‘The Church of England is a Catholic church and has existed since the 1530s’ (the C of E is ‘Catholic and Reformed’, just not Roman Catholic) and that ‘the monarch of the UK is not allowed to marry anyone who is not Protestant’ (only Roman Catholics are barred). There is not a single question about Alfred the Great, Magna Carta, the creation of Parliament, the King James Bible, the Civil War, Habeas Corpus, the Glorious Revolution or the Great Reform Act.

What do you think?