So, the Home Secretary has ordered a rejig of the Life in the UK test. For those who don’t know, this is one of the many hurdles that any non-EU, would-be permanent resident or citizen has to clear. It is managed by that branch of the Home Office called the UK Border Agency – yes, that loveable bunch who brought you ID cards and three-hour queues at Heathrow.
It has brought back memories of my two experiences with the test a few years ago, which still have the power to get me pontificating like Benedict.
Despite the fact that it is one of the bevy of pogonophobic measures introduced in Britain post-9/11, I actually don’t have a huge problem with the idea that new settlers ought to have a grasp of the dominant language, customs and culture of their intended home. But as an immigrant myself, from a settler society, I know that a lot of the anxiety over the integration of migrants is wildly overblown.
First, many migrants integrate enthusiastically and rapidly. Many people in settler societies know Japanese or Poles or – in my case, Danes – who anglicize their names and customs, who wrap themselves in the symbols of their new countries, while nursing (sometimes secretly, sometimes proudly) memories and habits of their homelands. It doesn’t always work this way, but the immigrant experience is often one of grappling more-or-less-successfully with learning the unspoken assumptions and habits that the locals take for granted, while at the same time over-emphasising a selection of more-or-less-accurately remembered habits from “home”. The children of immigrants grow up both with the culture of their new home and a smattering of symbolic mis-rememberings from their parents. By the time the third generation arrives, they often native in all but minor detail.
And yet it is that minor detail that gets harped on in Britain. My surname is pure Northern – Lancashire and Yorkshire – with the British part of the family having emigrated from Bristol in the mid-19th century. But I am less British culturally than a third or fourth generation kid called Tariq from Leicester. I’m also white – NOT an ethnicity, you people in the ONS, but a skin colour – but because Tariq has a higher melanin content he gets singled out as the “immigrant” while I pass under the radar.
Meanwhile, immigrants are generally harder working, become better-educated, have higher incomes and lower reliance on welfare than the ‘native’ population. They have get-up-and-go, because they got up and went. They are often caricatured as doing jobs that the locals don’t want to do, but they are also highly skilled doctors and nurses, teachers and business people.
I rant on about this because the Life in the UK test is largely aimed at integrating first-time migrants when integration is a process that happens over generations; it is targeted at an image of poor, illiterate brown people; and even in its present, pre-Theresa May guise it peddles comfortable myths about Britain instead of useful reality. It is not targeted at real migrants – rich and poor, brown and white, educated in schools or by hard knocks – but at Daily Mail migrants, cardboard cut-out migrants. And it mixes all that with a hand-wringing form of liberalism, pushing a Land of Hope and Glory vision of Britain at an ill-informed image of tribal types, but applied equally to everyone, offending everyone in a wonderfully egalitarian way.
I am not for a moment pretending that there are not problems with cultural enclaves in Britain, places where migrants put the walls up, and perpetuate those walls over generations. We might reflect a little more on why they do so – and I suspect some of that has to do with the way that migrants are stereotyped, classified, and rejected by mainstream cultures. See the work by my friend Therese O’Toole and her colleagues on this.
We might also reflect on how many British people behave when they emigrate: building enclaves, refusing to learn the local language or customs, sucking up welfare resources …
The new proposals for the Life in the UK Test are not based on accurate understanding of migrants or migration; they are in large part the projection of our own myths and behaviour onto them.