Why Mr Blunkett would fail his own test

If Britishness means anything, it is accepting a Briton may hold any intellectual position he chooses

How British are you? It's actually quite a difficult question to answer, even for people born in this country. Nationality is an important part of personal and communal identity; probably in many cases, it approaches the fundamental status of your linguistic group - I speak and think in English - and your gender - I am a man. But, like many people, I suspect, I myself don't feel British at all, and would never describe myself like that, except on an official form. I'm English, and my sense of nationality is not quite what the Government thinks it is, or believes it ought to be. That's not eccentric or unusual: it is probably how most people in this country think about themselves.

When the Government starts talking about administering a complex and wide-ranging "Britishness test", as it is inevitably being called, to immigrants applying for nationality, they seem not to realise that the same test, given to native British citizens, would not reliably produce satisfactory answers. Britishness is, and always has been, a political concept quite distinct from identity.

In the 18th century, for writers like Smollett, it was a party political label, identifying those loyal to the King and to the Union: by no means a universally shared belief. Later, it became associated, not with national identity, but with the Empire; now, I suspect, it is principally useful as a means to evade those racial/national questions raised by the idea of Englishness, Scottishness or Welshness. Most people I know who do describe themselves as British are, in fact, members of racial minorities. Understandably unwilling to raise those ugly questions of racial identity which some people consider inherent in the claim to be English, Welsh or Scots, most people whose ancestors obviously originated elsewhere will describe themselves as British.

This is understandable, but regrettable. We all come from somewhere else. Like, as has been estimated, one in four Londoners, I'm descended from French Huguenots. Now, however, my family is simply English, and I dislike the category of Britishness which seems principally to apply to immigrants, and worry that there are certain principles of identity which, fervently held by those whose immediate ancestors were born here, are somehow not permitted to those proposing to change their nationality.

I make this point to suggest, in a roundabout way, how very complex the whole notion of the national identity of a British subject is, and how misguided the Government's proposals for a Britishness test really are. The central principle is that someone applying for British nationality should possess convictions and allegiances comparable with those held by existing British nationals. I don't see anything wrong with that; I merely think it untestable, or impossible to disprove. The net effect of the test proposed by the Government is to refuse to allow immigrants the freedom of opinion routinely held by existing British citizens, which, after all, is probably the main reason many people want to become British citizens in the first place.

Mr Blunkett rejected the proposals made by his own committee, headed by Professor Sir Bernard Crick, in January on the grounds that they were too weak on prescribing knowledge of culture and history. But it's worth looking at the committee's recommendations to see how very prescriptive they actually were. The proposed test would cover areas such as "knowledge of the four nations, etiquette, good neighbours, changing role of women, sexual equality, youth culture and national holidays". It also included a section on British national institutions, including the monarchy, Prime Minister, Parliament and the Cabinet, elections, devolved administrations, the civil service, the Commonwealth and "values of toleration, fair play, freedom of speech and of the press".

There are two objections to this slightly amazing prospectus. The first is that it demands, quite unfairly, a level of knowledge well in excess of that possessed by most British citizens, and quite unnecessary for the task of making a successful life in this country. I would be most interested to see the account of the relations between monarchy, Prime Minister, Parliament and the Cabinet by the ordinary Briton, and if most of Sir Bernard's pupils could supply a full and accurate answer to the question "What, constitutionally, is the Crown?" or "By what different means does someone get to sit in the House of Lords?" it would be astonishing.

Could you yourself give a reasonable account of the organisation of different local, national and European elections? Does anybody, apart from the Queen, know who is in the Commonwealth, what the qualifications for joining it are, or how it is organised? Not me. I certainly couldn't give you any information at all, either, about the devolved administrations: I'm quite pleased to know what the term means, frankly.

The second objection is to those evidently prescriptive elements which seem to be asking, like an old-style job interview, whether the candidate is the right sort of chap. Does he believe in being a good neighbour, in sexual equality, in toleration, fair play, freedom of speech and of the press? The general tone of this strongly suggests that faith in these national values is required. What would happen to a candidate who turned up and said "I understand that Britain values free speech, sexual equality, and universal toleration. Personally, I think all that's a load of tosh, and have no intention of becoming more liberal in my views."

Given that we ought, as Britons, to accept the right of our fellow Britons to hold views which may not be ours and may be abhorrent to us, why should we refuse that freedom to people from the start? To take a less extreme example, what would happen to someone who said, "I know that Britain has a monarchy, but in my view it would be better off without one, and I firmly intend, once a British citizen, to join the campaign for republicanism"?

These tests are being sold to us, incomprehensibly, as a means to improve cultural diversity; meaning, I suppose, that the only way we are going to get to like ex-foreigners is if they are as much like us as we can manage. There is a distinction between measures designed to make the lives of immigrants in this country easier, and trying to instruct them in how they may behave and what they are to think.

It would be entirely rational to provide non-English speakers with good-quality English classes, and perhaps even voluntary classes in aspects of English culture and history. It is rank impertinence to start saying that they ought to speak English to their families and friends, as ministers have suggested in the past. I wonder that other European governments didn't start saying the same thing about all those monoglot English residents in the Dordogne, Tuscany and the Costa Brava. And it is just as great an impertinence to require them to admire British history and culture.

If Britishness means anything, it means accepting that a Briton may hold any intellectual position he chooses. Inescapably, no intellectual position in itself is a bar to becoming British if it is not a bar to being British. If there were such a thing as a realistic test of British values, one wonders whether Sir Bernard or Mr Blunkett would themselves pass it; because any accurate account of the subject ought to include our historical, and admirable, willingness to provide a home for immigrants, no questions asked.