No longer will a large dose of hope in their hearts be sufficient for the 115,000 would be immigrants clamouring to enter Britain’s shores each year. Instead, a new proposal initiated by Home Secretary David Blunkett, and fine-tuned by the United Kingdom Advisory Panel, requires new arrivals to prove their Anglophile leanings by passing a ‘How to be British’ examination.
Applicants for naturalization must speak English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic; be conversant with British history and culture and most importantly know how to claim state benefits.
The latter stipulation is well known to most aspiring Brits, even before they fly, or sail, off from their homelands but I would suggest that Welsh or Gaelic-speaking Chinese, Afghans and Nigerians are probably few on the ground.
Most will arrive with a smattering of British history. Iraqis, for example, will be schooled in how Winston Churchill was the first to use gas on their people and Afghans will have been told how the British Raj sent troops into their country when only one British soldier lived to tell the story, returning in rags to India on a half-starved donkey.
Egyptian immigrants will know all about the failed adventure of Suez; Palestinians will be experts on Balfour and his famous declaration, while Africans from Cape Town to Nairobi can describe how the British, amongst other Europeans, lorded over the indigenous populations, raping their women and stealing their land, gold and gemstones.
As for British culture, what exactly is British culture? Will questions include the quaint old customs of dancing around the Maypole, bobbing for Apples, playing Lacrosse, or first-footing at Hogmanay?
Or, will questions concentrate on more contemporary issues such Manchester United and its former luminary Beckham, how to fit in at the local pub, the winding storyline of Eastenders and how to avoid fistfights while holidaying on Greek islands, not to mention throwing up on the pavement?
Applicants will also be required to display their expertise concerning “etiquette, the changing role of women, sexual equality, youth culture and national holidays”.
Let’s start with etiquette. As a born and bred Briton, perhaps I can help. A custom written in stone demands that “please” and “thank you” must be said every time a co-diner passes the salt or the breadbasket. Foreigners often find the constant parroting of these niceties somewhat strange.
Whereas spitting in the street is a definite no-no, it is perfectly acceptable to punctuate your discourse with a liberal smattering of four-letter expletives or put up two fingers in an inverted ‘V’ sign, showing displeasure.
The British never drop in on acquaintances, or even close friends for that matter, without first making an appointment and when you receive visitors it is customary to continue watching your favourite television program until the credits before serving beverages.
Asking a person’s religion or, heaven forbid, how much someone earns is veritable sacrilege while the subject of politics is out. You may, however, discuss what in other cultures would be thought of as taboo intimate details with impunity and if all else fails, there is always the weather.
Since the days of the writer P.G. Wodehouse when men would seek the company of fellow males in gentleman’s clubs after taking their intimidating aunts, sporting names like Agatha, for high tea at the Ritz, the role of British women has indeed changed.
British woman demand sexual equality even if this means they have to cope with the demands of career, home and children on their own. The age of chivalry is long gone and if a kindly male soul were to give up his seat on a bus or open a door for a frazzled woman burdened with bags of shopping, this would be viewed as sexist condescension. The Ritz is now the hangout for wealthy Gulf Arabs, men-only clubs fall foul of the law, and Aunt Agatha would likely be found staring at the box in an old people’s home.
Other notable British customs include dropping one’s trousers to expose pimpled flesh, called ‘mooning’–an accepted way of protest, and on the rare occasions the sun’s rays force their way through the clouds, Britons’s will often hunt down the nearest piece of green before stripping off down to their undies.
Youth culture? I’m not sure what this is. Should applicants carry a photograph of Britney? Should they be au fait with the changing casts of Big Brother? Ought they appear on The Dating Channel searching for partners who invariably must enjoy “a bit of fun and a laugh”? Should young Indian women, let’s say, learn how to drink their male counterparts under the table?
National holidays? The most important is Christmas, which must be prepared for at least three months in advance. Christmas in Britain has all but lost its religious significance and consists mainly of a shopping jamboree leading up to the 25th December when celebrants stuff down mountains of Turkey, Xmas pudding and mince pies, while attempting to make small talk with relatives before slumping in front of the television. In Britain, this is called ‘having a good time’. It is also a time where those without cash and/or family are more prone to committing suicide.
One thing is certain: immigrants who arrive in Britain like Dick Whittington expecting the capital to be paved with gold are in for a culture shock. Gold there is but only for those with skills and/or acumen. Many will be victims of growing racist attitudes while others are in for a lonely existence in a milieu where their only friend is the dole queue. Others will seek out the modern-day equivalents of the ghetto where English is rarely spoken.
There are, of course, success stories but as even as Mohammed Al Fayed has discovered, there is more to being British than owing the world’s most prestigious store and hobnobbing with the aristocracy. He dared to challenge the establishment and was refused nationality time and time again.
In a land where Chicken Tikka Masala has overtaken the traditional fish ‘n’ chips, Blunkett should realize that today’s Britons are a racial melange, and Britain a melting pot where Urdu, Arabic, Hindi and Spanish are more commonly heard than Welsh or Gaelic.
Keep up Mr. Blunkett! Keep up! Demanding that new immigrants be more British than the British is sheer poppycock, a way of keeping the numbers down enabling Britain to become a fortress island, one where the wealthy get a welcome sign, while the poor and oppressed are kept out.
More than anything being British requires liberal smatterings of tolerance and patience. Brits are required to put up with rising house prices, currently in the region of USD320000 for a small semi-detached. They must accept expensive and rundown trains, an archaic national health service and the erosion of educational standards. They must keep a stiff upper lip when paying the highest prices in Europe for petrol, alcohol, cigarettes and eating out.
Fings ain’t what they used to be in Britain but, nevertheless, new immigrants will also come to learn that the British justice system is alive and kicking, the concept of free speech set in stone and no more will they wait for the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
This is a country where who you are has more value than who you know, bribes rarely work and corruption the province of the higher echelons of government, as opposed to being riddled throughout all layers of society. There are no mass graves, no machete wielding dissidents and no torture cells. If a course in Welsh, history and manners it all it takes for a little piece of mind, then perhaps Blunkett’s way isn’t such a bad one after all.
Linda S Heard welcomes feedback and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org