How British are you?

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Image by Jaymie Koroluk

Do you know who composed Rule Britannia? Do you know the English translation of the “Magna Carta”, or at least why it’s deemed to be historically significant? If you don’t then you’ve failed David Letterman’s British Citizenship Test, you lose your status of an UK/EU student and the university now has an excuse to set your tuition fee’s to that of international students, which i’m sure you know is quite a bit more than £9,000. If you did get these questions wrong, however, you’re not alone. Prime Minister David Cameron, who graduated with a 1st class degree in PPE from Oxford, similarly failed on these questions.

The media made something of a furore about Cameron “not knowing” his British history, when in fact he was able to explain the partition of Ireland, as well as state when and where the Magna Carta was signed and explain why it’s a milestone in the development of liberal democracy. In fact, Cameron probably knows quite a bit more about British history than your bog standard Brit, who is probably more capable of naming eleven Manchester United players than eleven English monarchs.

What lies behind this effort to make a mountain out of a mole-hill is the perfectly sound presumption that the prime minister should be knowledgeable about this countries history – but should we be really be surprised that he didn’t know who composed Rule Britannia? After all, who does know who composed that song? Classical music enthusiasts perhaps, but I certainly wouldn’t expect Cameron have known. He probably should have known what Magna Carta meant in English, but he demonstrated that he knew what it was all about. However, the other presumption behind this mountain-making exercise is the less than sound notion that we should know the answer to these sorts of questions to vindicate our British citizenship.

The questions Cameron was asked were very similar to the kinds found in British Citizenship tests. Like for instance ‘in which century did England begin to impose laws on Wales?’ ‘Was the Glorious Revolution was peaceful or violent?’ And ‘what proportion of the British population died from the Black Death?’ If you know the answer to these questions, then great, you’d have passed the British Citizenship Test. It’s obviously desirable that we should know such things, not just about national history but history in general, so that we understand how the world came to be what it is today. But why must immigrants answer such questions when many native Briton’s don’t know the answer themselves? It implies that in order to be a British citizen you should know British history, and therefore if you are unknowledgeable of this subject you’re “less British” than someone who is knowledgeable. It means the person next to you might be more or less British than you are, and that a history student is probably more British than an engineering student. And, If you’re not a UK student, would having a sound knowledge of British history make you somehow more British than a British student?

It is obviously absurd defining the legitimacy of possessing a national identity based on how much of that nations history you can recall. Rather, I feel that national identities are formed by simply experiencing life in that country. In Britain, it’s things like being familiar with Tesco’s or Greggs, sitting through GCSE examinations, putting up with the erratic weather, being fluent in English and knowing the accents and local dialect. It’s why when I’m talking to maths and science students I don’t feel like I’m talking to foreigners, because we have that common knowledge which comes from being raised in early 21st century Britain. Therefore we shouldn’t be worried about Cameron not knowing what Magna Carta means, but rather we should be more worried about the country being run by privileged, Eton educated Oxbridge graduates who wouldn’t know a Greggs pasty if it hit them in the face.

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