Don't Know Much About History

British flag AP

This column was written by Myrna Blyth.
Britain has just instituted its first citizenship test, which immigrants must take in order to become citizens. And it couldn't be more different from our own citizenship test.

I am very familiar with ours because my British husband became an American citizen at the end of August and he spent several weeks this summer trying to remember the 13 original states. Like most other people who try to name them, he kept forgetting either Rhode Island or Georgia.

Our test is about American history and American symbols and how our government works. Questions range from "What are the colors of the flag?" to asking for a quick definition of the Constitution.

The British test is very different. It is based on a government-issued 125-page booklet called "Life in the U.K," and it costs the applicant $60 to take the test. There are 24 multiple-choice questions and the applicant must get three quarters of them correct. If he fails, the test can be taken over as many times as necessary. And only those who speak English can take the test. Those who don't have to take a "skills for life" course at a local college and prove to their tutor they have learned some English and understand the British way of life.

The shadow home secretary David Davis has said, quite sensibly, "It seems ludicrous that those who speak English have an extra exam. Common sense dictates that it should be harder for those who don't speak English to become citizens, not the other way around." In America, during an interview an immigration officer asks a would-be citizen seven to ten questions and, I don't doubt, they are usually the easier ones on our citizenship test.

What are some of the questions on the British exam? Well, they have a lot more to do with knowing how to behave in contemporary British society than they have to do with the great traditions of "this sceptered isle."

For example there is one that asks (and I am not kidding): "What should you do if you spill someone's pint in the pub?" The wrong answers are: "Dry their wet shirt with your own." Or "Prepare for a fight in the car park" or "Run away from the pub." The right answer: "Offer to buy the person another pint." And, no, the test was not written by Monty Python. (By the way, my newly American husband got that right. There are some things you obviously never forget).

Here's another question that's sort of sweet but definitely strange: "Where does Father Christmas come from?" It isn't "Lapland," one of the choices, but that's close. And no, "I don't believe in Father Christmas anymore" is not a possible answer.

Can you imagine what a good time the ACLU, which doesn't even believe in Christmas trees, would have with a question like that on an official American government test?

Some other questions seem to relate to the life that the Labor government assumes new citizens will lead. Such as: How old must you be to buy a lottery ticket? How many licenses do you need for your TVs? And, Can you be fired from your job if you join a union?

Doesn't it strike you that there is just a tiny reflection of Britain's class system in such questions? No one, for instance, is asking an enterprising new citizen whether he knows how much capital-gains tax he may have to pay.

On the test there is practically nothing about British history or culture and there have been lots of complaints about that. David Davis calls that lack "a disgrace." And it is a shame that the British government doesn't seem to consider it is important for their newest citizens to appreciate the country's glorious past and amazing achievements. Why is Father Christmas on the test while William Shakespeare remains off stage?

The old cliché that's a cliché because it is true says one can become a British citizen (especially now, it seems, if you know how to behave in a pub), but you can't become an Englishman. And as the French are learning right now in their fire-filled streets, a country can have hundreds of thousands of citizens who are born in France but feel that they are not and never will be Frenchmen.

Our citizenship test is not perfect, but it does emphasize our history and our beliefs. And what's most important, I'm sure, to the person taking the test is that in this country we not only give foreigners citizenship — we truly want them to become Americans.


Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of "Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America." Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

By Myrna Blyth
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
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