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Who Do We Think We Are?

S1 E5 What can the UK’s citizenship test tell us about the shape of Britishness today?

10 Dec 2021

MB: Welcome to “Who do we think we are?”, a podcast exploring some of the forgotten stories of British citizenship.

I am your host, Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship, migration and belonging, and professor in public sociology at Lancaster University.

Join me over the course of the series as I debunk the taken-for-granted understandings of citizenship and explore how thinking differently about citizenship helps us to make sense of some of the most pressing issues of our times.

A-MF: I’m Canadian as you might hear, Quebecoise Canadian.

I’ve been living in Britain for many many many years, but I applied for British citizenship in 2011, and going through the process, preparing for the citizenship test—which I could say more about later—attending the citizenship ceremony, just picked my curiosity; and I was really struck by, on the one hand, how I felt very nervous about it, even though on paper I ticked all the boxes, right—professional, white, commonwealth Canadian citizen; had a permanent job, permanent residency, you know; I ticked all the boxes, that meant that there was no reason I wouldn’t be granted citizenship—I was still very anxious about it.

So, that’s one thing that made me think: “if I feel that way, I wonder how others feel?”

MB: That was my guest on today's episode, Anne-Marie Fortier, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University and author of the recently published book “Uncertain Citizenship: Life in the waiting room”.

She was describing how she felt going through the process of becoming a British citizen, and how that raised questions for her about those not as securely positioned, and how they might experience that process of naturalisation.

Many years ago, before the current system of naturalisation was brought in and long before I met him, my husband went through the process of becoming a British citizen.

A Greek citizen by birth, he had been living, studying and working in the UK since the early 1990s.

And as an EU citizen, he’d never been subject to immigration controls, as he was entitled to and had lawfully exercised Freedom of Movement.

To become a citizen at that time, he first had to apply for indefinite leave to remain; making himself a migrant in the process—I recently unearthed his document attesting to this.

But in order to do this, he had had to compile several years worth of documents proving that he had been living and working in the UK; and while this is pretty minor compared to what people have to do today, just pause to think about what you would need to do in order to produce the proof that you had been living in the UK for over five years.

Think about the challenges you might face in bringing together all of this information; the possibilities of missing documents; the complications introduced by having lived at multiple different addresses, or being employed in multiple different workplaces.

What about finding witnesses who can attest to your “good character”?

And remember that at the time he was applying, it was mostly before things were electronic and when bank statements came through the post every month.

After he was granted indefinite leave to remain, he had to wait a short while before applying for citizenship—and it was then that he could apply for his passport.

In total, this process took him about three years; and as an EU citizen, as someone with stable employment, his route through this process would have been relatively straightforward.

And of course, he was in the fortunate position of being able to document his life in the UK.

It’s important to remember here, that this is a privilege that others might not have.

My husband became a British citizen in 2002.

Later that year, changes in the process were brought in that introduced language testing, the “Life in the UK” test, and the requirement for successful applicants to attend the citizenship ceremony.

In this episode, we'll be hearing more about citizenship tests in the UK, their history and how they have changed over time; thinking critically about what they are really testing for, and what this can tell us about the shape of British citizenship today.

We'll be hearing more from Anne-Marie about how the process of becoming a citizen necessarily includes becoming a migrant, and how by paying attention to the emotional register of the process—the deep sense of insecurity and uncertainty it produces—we can start to see the values that shape political understandings of who is deserving of British citizenship.

But first, let’s head into the archive with George; and today we’re in Wales, following the trail of a recent newspaper article that piqued our interest.

GK: In an online BBC article, published on the 4th of October 2020, we read about Dr Rodolfo Piskorski, a 34-year-old Cardiff University lecturer, originally from Florianόpolis in south Brazil, who became the first person to pass the British Citizenship test in Welsh.

Piskorski moved to Wales in 2013.

According to the article, he began learning Welsh two years later, and although he has EU settled status through his Italian partner, he wanted to become “full citizen” due to uncertainty over Brexit.

Talking about this choice, he states: “It's a silly test, like a pub quiz, and it doesn't integrate you, so I thought ‘how can I make the process more Welsh and give myself the challenge to do it in Welsh?’ […] The right is there and it's important to use language rights. […] I wanted to make a stand and show that there are different ways of being British. […] I wanted to show a different element to British identity, and make those in power acknowledge that fact, and acknowledge the right.”

Piskorski also crowdfunded the £1,500 needed to pay citizenship fees, seeing this beyond just being accepted as a citizen, through getting practical support by the people of your country.

All this reminds me how narrow a view of what is and isn't British we, non-UK nationals, usually obtain from what is or isn't highlighted by governmental institutions and authorities towards the outside of Britain—mostly limited to an English cultural and linguistic perspective.

MB: George has highlighted there how those seeking British citizenship are placed in a position where they have very few choices about the shape of Britishness.

It assumes that particular symbols and even language are what makes being British today.

But for me, what is also interesting is how the decision to become British—at least for Rodolfo—was inspired by uncertainty; the uncertainty caused by Brexit—by the sense that Settled Status, the scheme designed for EU citizens and their dependents living in the UK before Brexit, is not as secure as being a full citizen.

It also points to assumptions about integration.

It might cause us to ask the question: what exactly are people being asked to integrate into?

Britain is a multi-lingual country and yet, this is the first time that anyone has taken the test in Welsh.

And by Rodolfo’s own terms, this was a way of pushing back against otherwise unquestioned and homogeneous understandings of who is British.

By now, you might have started to get a little flavour of how the citizenship test has changed since my husband applied to become British.

The important date that you need to hold in mind is 2002, and the publication of the Home Office’s White Paper “Secure Borders, Safe Haven”.

This laid out changes to the UK’s nationality, immigration and asylum legislation that would, in time, become the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

When it came to nationality, the scope of the White Paper lay in considering the processes by which people could become citizens, but also through which citizenship could be stripped from those who had naturalised.

For the latter, the timing was significant: taking place in the wake of 9/11, the new measures of citizenship deprivation were closely related to increasing securitisation—as we’ll be discussing in the next episode.

But, it is particularly how this legislation changed the process of citizenship acquisition that I want to highlight here.

Let’s have a look at the justifications that were given in the 2002 White Paper for the introduction of these new measures.

Organised under the heading “Preparing people for citizenship”, the White Paper lays the foundations for the new “Life in the UK” test by highlighting that this is a way to develop “an appreciation of the civic and political dimensions of British citizenship and, in particular, to understand the rights and responsibilities that come with the acquisition of British citizenship”.

They go on to highlight that this is also about encouraging “active participation in the democratic process and a sense of belonging to a wider community”.

Remembering that the context at the time was one framed around integration, multiculturalism and diversity, is significant here.

But the White Paper also stressed the need for applicants to demonstrate they had a certain standard of English, and for making the citizenship ceremony integral to the process of naturalisation.

I remember in the very early days of my university teaching career, that I explored the new “Life in the UK” test with undergraduate students on a Race and Ethnicity course.

This was in the days when the test included questions about where you would go to apply for benefits as well as some—to me at least—obscure dates, like the saints’ days for the different constituent nations of the UK.

Before I move onto what has changed since 2002, I want to stress that these new requirements—the “Life in the UK” test, language requirements, and the citizenship ceremony—were in addition to years of existing bureaucracy that would lead to a stage where people were even eligible to apply for citizenship.

Importantly, these would be years where they would have to repeatedly demonstrate their eligibility to settle in the UK as migrants, applying for their immigration status until they moved from Limited Leave to Remain to Indefinite Leave to Remain—a shift from a temporary status to a permanent status.

It was only after that, that they would find themselves in a position where they could apply for British citizenship.

What I am trying to communicate here is that even getting to the stage where you are in a position to apply for citizenship is a long and drawn-out process.

Now, since 2002, the “Life in the UK” test has changed: it shifted under the coalition and later conservative governments to the point where it tests knowledge of “what it means to be a British citizen”.

Both this and the demonstration that you meet language requirements are essential to being granted Indefinite Leave to Remain; and after 12 months on Indefinite Leave to Remain you can apply for citizenship.

Anne-Marie describes the process of becoming a British citizen as “citizenisation”.

I started by asking her how she is using this term, and what this makes uniquely visible about the process.

A-MF: So, the term “citizenisation” originates from the policy world, particularly in the Netherlands and in Flanders; I take that term and use it as a conceptual tool and theorise it to capture the ongoing processes of making and unmaking citizens and citizenship itself.

So, the term “citizenisation” is by definition about things that are ongoing and always being made—empirically, it refers to what are known as integration and naturalisation measures, and there has been a lot of work on that.

But one thing that strikes me in both the theoretical as well as policy understandings of these integration and naturalisation measures is that they place these two processes—integration and naturalisation—on a continuum where naturalisation is the endpoint: one gets citizenship, that’s it, it’s done.

Citizenisation for me is about blurring that distinction between integration and naturalization.

Integration from what my research shows is that it never ends—and I will come back to that later: where, at the citizenship ceremony, even at that point, which in Britain is where one gets citizenship, when one “becomes a citizen”, even then, the new citizens are told that they are not citizens yet.

So, citizenisation starts from the premise that migrants have a citizenship deficit, in the sense that they have to be made into citizens in order to be given then the formal status of citizenship through these different tests and other forms—and even filling in a form is a kind of test, right?

So, in doing that it also uncitizenises them, it assumes that they are not citizens from another country, or it disregards the citizenship of another country—the process itself disregards the citizenship of another country—but it also disregards the fact that these individuals might be active citizens informally, without the status; they might be active citizens, working in the country where they are residing, paying taxes in the country where they are residing, voting in the country where they are residing.

But, it’s all this to say that this assumption is that these migrants are not informally doing citizenship here or elsewhere; so it de-citizenises them as well.

MB: So, it’s like creating a blank slate, right?

On to which you can start to add these new “building blocks” about what it means to be, or what the state thinks it means to be a citizen and the values that are associated with that?

A-MF: Exactly, exactly.

It is about making citizens or migrants into desirable citizens, but it’s also asking migrants to show their willingness, so these are hurdles: if you are willing to go through that, you are willing to be British.

MB: So, is kind of staying on the course that is part of the test.

A-MF: Exactly! In a way, it is an endurance test—in a way.

I don’t want to over-simplify it, but when you hear people’s lives and what they have to go through, in some ways implicitly, it certainly is an endurance test—it costs a lot for many.

MB: I think that is a really good bridge actually into asking the question: what does this process actually involve?

A-MF: So, the process basically means that people have to—going back to what we were saying earlier about the desirability of citizens—they write themselves into; you present yourself as the desirable citizen, the one that ticks all the boxes, and the forms shape the kind of story you tell about yourself.

It puts people in a relationship to the state, even if the state is this kind of abstract thing or person who will be “looking at my application”; but one is this kind of relationship to the state where one shows that they desire the state, and then the state responds by saying: “Yes, we desire you back”.

So it puts the migrant, the very process puts the applicant in this kind of relationship of desire to the nation (Britishness) and to the state (the British state) and to that citizenship.

MB: When you talk about processes, like application processes, I think it is quite easy to think “well okay, you know, it is a piece of paper, you fill it in” but it isn’t; as you say, you are curating a particular story about yourself which fits to what is being demanded of you, actually, by the state, in order to demonstrate your worthiness.

And I guess that’s all part of what you have described there as demonstrating your desire in order that the state finds you desirable—it’s deeply political, isn’t it?

A-MF: Oh absolutely, it is absolutely deeply political; and, the content, for example, of the citizenship test is a good way to look at that: look at how it changes when governments change and [how] what is deemed valuable, what is deemed worthy, who is deemed worthy will change.

And the migration regimes themselves already sift out—who is eligible and who is not eligible—that is already saying that some categories of migrants are not those that we want to stay.

MB: You can see, given what people are expected to do, that the stakes are quite high and you can see how that can generate that kind of affective response.

A-MF: Yes, very much.

I mean, I witnessed it throughout and, again, the people I met had a range of existing citizenship statuses: some who were what I would call a “shoe-in”, you know, others who were more precarious—like spouses, for example, people on spousal visas, many of them are quite precarious.

But the anxiety, the worry, the anger was quite palpable, and because of the uncertainty and because of how it’s endless…

One of the people I spoke to was someone who—it was so interesting, I mean “interesting” is a long word, but it was quite poignant—because he was not eligible for citizenship, he was an asylum seeker who was not granted asylum but who was on Exceptional Leave to Remain because he couldn’t go back to the country of origin.

But he was paying over £300 for a language course in order to try to apply for citizenship, even though he knew he wasn’t eligible.

And what was poignant about his story is that he was saying: “Why does this country not want me?” And I was sitting there—someone who got citizenship really easily, comparatively, right?

It is so unequally distributed, but it is framed in a way that, you know: “If you do the work, you show us you are committed, you will get it.”

MB: Like a meritocracy almost, but obviously not.

One of the things you are also really interested in, and exploring this process of citizenisation, is this focus on language and this idea that a marker of whether a person is desirable is this very vaguely defined phrase: “the ability to speak English well.”

I have seen that in other national contexts, the language requirement is enforced in France, where I have done research, and various other European countries…

I suppose the question is: what is exceptional about the British case?

A-MF: I think, it is good to point out that it is not unique; but we have to take into account the fact that English is also “a world language” —right?—it has acquired the status of the “world language”.

So, that very much feeds into the current politics of language requirements and understandings of English as something that is a resource that every aspirational person living around the world would want to acquire; it’s a resource, it’s a tool that every aspirational parent would want their children to have when they live in, whether it is India, whether it is China; you know.

It is the assumption that it is a world language…

MB: That it’s “good for you”, it’s “good” for you to learn it…

A-MF: Yes: “It is good for you to learn it”, “it will enable your mobility”—not only geographical mobility but also status, social status; and that is something that has a history in imperialism.

I won’t go into the details of that, but the way in which in the colonies, you know, the very development of English as a “world language” started in colonisation.

But another feature that I want to talk about in relation to language is the politicisation of English and the politicisation of language in this formalisation of language requirements for citizenship.

So in Britain, but that would apply for other countries as well, is the formalisation of language requirements to obtain citizenship, [which] formalises that connection between identity and language.

But what this does is that it legally ties those two together.

So, this is one of the effects of the language requirements; is that it consolidates this idea of the English monolingual public sphere in Britain and Britishness.

And it also—what we have noticed, one thing that has been noted and reported more—are also forms of linguistic racism in the street that have been reported, for example, after the Brexit vote in 2016.

So I am not saying, again, that it didn’t happen before, but there is more recording of it.

It’s a way of reminding the white-bodied Europeans that they are migrants; expelling them from the country by saying: “Speak English or go back to your country”; expelling them from the country, migratising them as not British, even though they might—in the racist schema of Britishness—they might look like they are British.

With this new system in place since the early 2000s, politicians of all parties have repeatedly said, you know: “The cornerstone of being British is speaking English”; it’s become a kind of common sense.

I’m not saying it’s not a useful tool, and it’s not a crucial resource to be able to work and engage with institutions, schools—when you have children—and so on.

But that said, I think we have to also not conflate that with linking language to belonging and to identity and to entitlement.

MB:     What I really like about Anne-Marie’s research on citizenship and what she’s explored with us today, is the way in which she sees this process of becoming a British citizen, as one that starts from that initial moment where people apply for visas to enter and settle in the UK.

So, she sees this process of “becoming British” as something that starts with migration.

And in tracking that process, she highlights how uncertainty remains a constant for people who are navigating this process; of first being migrants and then moving towards a process of becoming British citizens.

And as she highlights, there are no foregone conclusions.

Linked to the politics of migration and belonging in Britain today, this is a process through which some are judged as lacking.

But I’d also like to point out here—and as Anne-Marie makes clear in her work—even the citizenship ceremony is not the end of the process.

People remain actively, producing themselves as citizens, even long after this point.

Even when people have become British citizens there remain possibilities for this status to be removed under certain conditions.

So, for naturalised citizens, citizenship may be an insecure status demonstrating that not everyone has access to the securities that citizenship is assumed to provide.

You can check out today’s episode notes for links to further resources on these topics, including links to Anne-Marie’s work on citizenship.

For me, the take-away point from today’s episode is how the process of becoming a citizen reproduces particular understandings of what counts as British.

The prominence of the English language, the knowledge base at the heart of the “Life in the UK” test, offers insights into political understandings of Britishness and belonging today.

It is not only that this changes with governments; it might also shift in response to wider changes and transformations.

And this brings me back to Brexit, a major political transformation, which has set the stage for a new political project of belonging.

The seeds of this can be seen in the new immigration plan and the nationality bill.

But it’s only in the coming months and years that the contours of this project will come more clearly into view.

The questions we should be asking now are: who do these new provisions include and exclude?

And, how are understandings of Britishness and belonging being shaped and reconstructed in this process?

What do you know about the UK’s citizenship test? What do you think it tests for and how? What do you think it can tell us about the shape Britishness today?

In this episode, we look in-depth at the developing UK’s citizenship testing regime from its introduction in 2002 to its current form. Presenter Michaela Benson explores how in 2002 the then Labour Government introduced the Life in the UK test, language testing and compulsory citizenship ceremonies for those seeking to naturalise as British citizens. She highlights in particularly how these changes took place against the backdrop of 9/11, government policies on multiculturalism, integration and community cohesion. George Kalivis uncovers the story of the first person to take the citizenship test in Welsh. They are joined by Anne-Marie Fortier, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, who talks about how the citizenship test is best understood as part of an ongoing process through which people are moulded into desirable and deserving citizens. As she describes, this is a deeply unsettling process that reveals uncertainty lies at the heart of the process, revealing that citizenship may not be as secure as it is so often imagined.

You can access the full transcripts for each episode over on the Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit website.

In this episode we cover …

  • The 2002 introduction of the UK’s citizenship testing regime
  • What looking at the citizenship test can tell us about Britishness and belonging
  • How the process of becoming a British citizen further consolidates the relationship between the English language and being British.


… citizenisation starts from the premise that migrants have a citizenship deficit, in the sense that they have to be made into citizens in order to be given then the formal status of citizenship through these different tests and other forms … in doing that it also uncitizenises them, it assumes that they are not citizens from another country, or it disregards the citizenship of another country but it also disregards the fact that these individuals might be active citizens informally, without the status; they might be active citizens, working in the country where they are residing, paying taxes in the country where they are residing, voting in the country where they are residing.

—Anne-Marie Fortier

Where can you find out more about the topics in today’s episode?

You can find out more about Anne-Marie and her work here. She is occasionally on Twitter @AMFortierLancs.

We were discussing her book Uncertain Citizenship, published this year by Manchester University Press. If you are interested in her work on language and citizenship testing, we recommend her 2018 journal article On (not) speaking English: colonial legacies in language requirements for British citizenship.

Our recommended reading for this week is John Clarke, Kathleen Coll, Evelina Dagnino and Catherine Neveu’s Disputing Citizenship.


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Active listening questions

  • After listening to the podcast how would you define citizenisation?
  • Which barrier within the citizenship test was the most impactful to you and why?
  • Has this changed how you view your own citizenship, how/how not?

View all active listening questions