The re-imagining of Britain

The re-imagining of Britain


Written by: Danny Firth

Life in the United Kingdom, A Journey to Citizenship, published in December 2004 by the Home Office, claims to assist people seeking British Citizenship, to integrate into Britain, by providing a ‘better knowledge of our way of life’. In reality it serves up to new Britons a cocktail of reinvented history and mythical nationalism.

The contents of Life in the United Kingdom will form the basis of citizenship tests required since 2002 of UK residents seeking British citizenship. They are to be tested to show both a ‘sufficient knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic’ and ‘a sufficient knowledge about life in the UK.’ This handbook is to be used by ‘teachers of English as a second language, mentors and others helping immigrants to integrate’.

Roots of the recommendations

The handbook is the culmination of two years research by the United Kingdom Advisory Group that was set up by the former home secretary, David Blunkett, following the so-called ‘race riots’ in several northern towns in the summer of 2001. In the immediate aftermath, British Asian communities were not only held responsible for the violence, but they were portrayed as being insular and inward looking.

‘We have norms of acceptability’, Blunkett said shortly before a report into the disturbances was published. ‘And those who come into our home – for that is what it is – should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere.’ The remedy, according to Blunkett, was to ‘educate new migrants in citizenship and help them to develop an understanding of our language, culture and democracy’. The fact that for most of those involved in the riots, Britain was the only home they knew, was irrelevant to him. And one can only presume that by ‘elsewhere’ Blunkett was not meaning the many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean that were colonised in the name of Britain.

But it is the Blunkett approach that underpins the handbook – the laying down of an official ‘norm’ of what it is to be British. Its practical sections that cover everything from parliamentary democracy to how to get a TV licence may be useful. However, it is the history section, penned by Sir Bernard Crick – chair of the Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Group and mentor of David Blunkett – that is most worrying.

Rewriting history

‘Some history is essential’, say the authors of the handbook, ‘for understanding the culture of any new country, and can also help in following references in ordinary conversation by British people’. True. But it helps if the history is accurate and balanced. Life in the United Kingdom reads like a mix of Tom Brown’s School Days and a Central Office of Information pamphlet.

‘We British are very fond, for instance of the “Dunkirk Spirit”, “the Nelson touch”, or “she’s a real nightingale”‘, says the handbook. Which ‘we’ are the authors referring to? How often do friends, relatives or colleagues of yours use any of these expressions in ‘ordinary conversation’? This is myth making.

The blood and brutality of Britain’s colonial past is touched up. Yes, it mentions the ‘evil side to this commercial expansion’ that was slavery, but on the whole, imperial rule is repackaged as something rather benign and beneficial. Take this for example, ‘The British Empire often brought more regular, acceptable and impartial systems for law and order than many had experienced under their own rulers.’ Or, ‘to some degree the English tolerance of different national cultures in the United Kingdom itself may have influenced the character of their imperial rule of India.’ The Amritsar massacre and the Irish potato famine are rather conveniently overlooked.

And the history of Britain’s Black communities is also made more palatable. It is confined to a summary of migration since 1945, where a shortage of labour ensured ‘for about twenty five years people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, travelled to work and settle in Britain.’ There is no mention of the racism that greeted them or the struggles for equality that ensued. And of course there is no reference to the more recent disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, where the government’s citizenship recommendations originated. Britain’s ‘official’ history has been ‘white washed’.

Life in the United Kingdom suggests that the government’s citizenship objectives are more about establishing an idealised Britishness than equipping new citizens with the contextual knowledge they need for a true equality.

Related links


Life in the United Kingdom is available from The Stationary Office for £9.99.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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