Natalie Haynes: The thing is... (12/10/11)

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The Independent Online

The thing is that now and then David Cameron has an idea which doesn't make me want to drive pins into my eyes and weep blood. And his suggestion that immigrants might learn and be tested on British history as part of their citizenship exam is one of them.

Learning something about the place you intend to live and why it is like it is doesn't seem a burdensome demand to me, it just seems practical. And, at the risk of sounding like the girly swot you know me to be, it might even be fun.

We just need to work out the details. What kind of history do we want immigrants to know? I assume that when the PM says British history, he doesn't expect them to go back as far as the dinosaurs (they're like European dinosaurs, except the fossils clearly reveal a stiff upper lip). He's probably not keen on them learning about the Druids either – too much focus on human sacrifice may not encourage integration.

So where do we start? With the Romans? The Emperor Claudius was so proud of his conquest of Britain that he named his son Britannicus. He also rode through our streets on an elephant, at exactly the speed of the modern rush hour traffic, but with more of a circus feel.

But if people spend too long learning about the Romans in Britain, they might get the idea that we are a nation of rebels which, by and large, we aren't. When our situation becomes unbearable, we're more likely to sigh and have a biscuit than revolt.

Maybe we should hop forwards in time to the Victorians, who represent the kind of Great Britain that I suspect Cameron likes the most. But the most famous Victorians aren't historical figures at all. They're either unknown (Jack the Ripper) or fictional (Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes). Actually, Sherlock Holmes would be an excellent question for the test: who is the best Sherlock Holmes? Anyone answering Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone or (at a push) Peter Cushing can stay in the country. Anyone saying Robert Downey Jr is out on their ear.

Now all we need is someone to teach the syllabus. But since fewer than a third of pupils took GCSE history this year, we might have to import the teachers first.

www.nataliehaynes.com

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