Historians urge Home Office to correct slavery information in citizenship test

Claims in Life in the UK handbook 'fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false', academics claim

Vincent Wood
Wednesday 22 July 2020 23:40 BST
Push to correct historical inaccuracies comes amid broader national reckoning with the legacy of the British empire triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement
Push to correct historical inaccuracies comes amid broader national reckoning with the legacy of the British empire triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement (Getty)

More than 180 historians have urged the government to review its citizenship test - arguing it glosses over colonialism, overlooks the role of colonised people in the building of Britain and misrepresents the nation’s role in the Atlantic slave trade.

The Life in the UK test has formed a core part of citizenship applications since 2005 when it was introduced by the then-Labour government.

However academics have warned the research material provided for those looking to gain citizenship is “fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false” in an open letter published in the journal History. “This official, mandatory version of history is a step backwards in historical knowledge and understanding”, the letter states “Historical knowledge is and should be an essential part of citizenship. Historical falsehood and misrepresentation, however, should not.”

Among the areas of contention is the claim in the text that “While slavery was illegal within Britain itself, by the 18th century it was a fully established overseas industry”, with the historians arguing “ In fact, whether slavery was legal or illegal within Britain was a matter of debate in the eighteenth century, and many people were held as slaves”.

“It also states that ‘by the second part of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’. “In fact, decolonisation was not an ‘orderly’ but an often violent process, not only in India but also in the many so-called ‘emergencies’ such as the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya”.

Other criticisms of the exam include the lack of colonised people included in Britain’s history, that it presents “the misleading view that the Empire came to an end simply because the British decided it was the right thing to do”, and that “only individual of colonial origin named in the book is Sake Dean Mohamet who co-founded England’s first curry house in 1810”.

“The Life in the UK Test is neither a trivial quiz nor an optional discussion point”, the signatories added, “It is an official requirement in the application for settlement or citizenship and provides essential information about the United Kingdom.”

The call to readdress the representation of the British empire in the citizenship process comes amid a broader shift spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement to reckon with the nation’s colonial past.

Following on from action triggered by the death of US citizen George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, statues dedicated to slavers and colonial figures have been torn down across the country, while figures have called for a reassessment of the way race and colonial histories are presented in fields like education.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Given the breadth of British history, the Life in the UK handbook provides a starting point to explore our past and help those seeking to live permanently in the UK gain a basic understanding our society, culture and historical references which occur in everyday conversations.

“We have published several editions of the handbook since it was launched and will continue to keep its contents under review and consider any feedback we receive.”

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