I’ll admit it: I have a wee bit of a problem with authority. Not as big of a problem as some, that’s for certain. I was able to survive a few months in the Canadian Armed Forces without getting court-martialled, but needless, paternalistic, arbitrary authority does irk me. It gets my hackles up, makes me defensive and probably not very nice to be around. As such, I try to avoid it whenever possible (I should say, one of the reasons I enjoy working at Strathclyde is that we don’t, generally speaking, have that kind of authoritarian culture).
As an immigrant, however, authority looms large. You feel as though you are being constantly monitored, assessed, tested, poked and prodded. It doesn’t feel good and I don’t like it. Given all this, I was less than enthused about having to take the ‘Life in the UK’ test, one of the many, many, many requirements of becoming settled in the good old United Kingdom.
But take it I had to, so I paid the £50 for the privilege, as well as £15 for the guidebook, without which, I discovered, it would be difficult for the average immigrant to pass the test, and got my date with destiny. I was told to show up 15 minutes before my allotted time or have to pay another £50 and to bring the required ID and proof of address. Now, if you ask me, simply finding the test centre should qualify you for a test. For a start, the google map provided on the Visas and Immigration website showed that the centre was somewhere south of the M74, about 2 miles away from the actual site in the Gorbals, which is used primarily as a centre for charities dealing with many of the most desperate Glasgwegians. If you decide to ignore the map and find the Adelphi Centre, where the test centre is located, you are not home free. There are no signs indicating that there is such a test centre upon arrival. There are signs indicating all the other services provided on site, but not the Life in the UK test. Asking at reception got me where I needed to go, but would it hurt to have a sign outside? Heck, get some local graffiti artists to do something creative.
Once you find the test centre, you discover that it is a three-room affair, consisting of waiting room, interview room and test room, complete with computers for taking the test. As I entered, a lady of African (I presume) origin was in discussion with one of the staff, who was telling her that the bill that she provided as proof of address was not recent enough. Now, I don’t know about you, but I thought we were meant to be going paper-free. How many paper bills do we get every month anyway? We’ve been getting bank statements mailed to us for the exclusive purpose of showing to the Home Office that we still live in Milngavie. After a few minutes trying to explain the rule to the African woman’s justifiably raised eyebrow, the staff person called in someone from the other room, who informed this poor woman that she’d have to come back again, once she had been paid another £50 and scheduled another date. With a rather embarrassed simile, the staff person then attended to me. My ID was fine and I was told to take a seat. I thought about saying something about the ridiculous of the rules for proof of address, but noticed a sign telling me that (and I am paraphrasing) that smartarses would not be tolerated.
As I waited for my interview, I overheard and tried not to see a discussion occurring in the interview room. A Muslim woman was being told that she had to take her headscarf off so that the interviewer could determine that she did not in fact have any James Bond-style cheating devices secreted away. ‘Don’t worry, no one can see you in here,’ the interviewer lied through her teeth. Not only did one of the windows lack any blinds altogether, the venetian blinds on the other window were half-open. I averted my eyes while the flustered and mortified woman took off her scarf.
Preventing cheating, along with requiring endless proof that you are who you say you are, appears to be the raison d’etre of the people running the test centre are. When it was my turn, in addition to stating my full name and date and place of birth for the umpteenth time (as if that is really going to stymie someone who really wants to beat the system), I was told to roll up my sleeves, take off my watch and hand my glasses over for inspection. Now, I, from time to time, invigilate tests. I don’t particularly like the job, but I take it a little more seriously than most. Rather than read the Guardian on my computer, I walk around, lazily taking note of what’s happening in the sports hall and breathing in the anxiety. It is not difficult to spot unusual behaviour even in a test consisting of hundreds. Why the Life in the UK test staff can’t manage 8-10 people in a small room without humiliating people by getting them to take off their headscarves and smudging their glasses, I can’t for the life of me understand.
It was my turn to take the test. And all the sudden I was nervous. What if I, a professor of history who had lived here for 10 years and was a citizen of an English-speaking Commonwealth country failed? God, how humiliating! But then I realised that it is not people like me that the test (which has a pass rate of only 70%) is meant to weed out. No, of course not. It is meant to trip up immigrants with more barriers to assimilation (read: less desirable). But, rather than helping these immigrants, who do the shit jobs and have the most work to do to fit in and get by, we add another hurdle by making them pass an idiotic test.
And it is idiotic. Half of it is history, for a start. Now, as a historian, I am all for history, really I am, but I don’t think knowing that Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar is really a necessary condition for becoming a permanent resident of the UK. And I love British sport, but I don’t think knowing that the 6 Nations is a rugby union tournament is really going to predict who will become a productive member of society. How could that ever be the case?
I finished the test, feeling somewhat confident, but not at all cocky, and awaited my return to the interview room. After giving my date of birth and favourite colour for the 97th time, I was told that I passed. ‘Congratulations,’ she said. As I left the centre, passing drug addicts, ex-cons and the mentally ill, I thought, ‘For what?’ To be able to join a country that focusses more on testing those who want to contribute to it than it does trying to help those have clearly failed to thrive in it? For a second, I wondered how many people using the services of the Adelphi Centre that day would be able to pass the test, but then quickly realised that that was not the point. The New Labour politicians and bureaucrats who thought it was necessary to put one more barrier in place to those hoping to immigrate to this country had done bugger all for the strugglers I passed in the corridor. How disingenuous it was to test newcomers about how tolerant and welcoming the UK was and how ‘illustrious’ its history was when they were failing their own so miserably.
I walked down the Clyde, across St Andrew’s Bridge and over to Glasgow Green feeling angry, frustrated and impotent (emotions that have not been absent as of late given recent events). I must have had quite a look on my face for the builders and the neds who passed me gave me plenty of space. But, as I passed the landmarks that had become so familiar, I slowly realised that, although I was immigrating to the UK, it was really Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire and Scotland that I now called home. It was here that my family and I felt welcome, despite all the messages, subtle or otherwise, that we were not. And, despite all the aggravation, that is what’s more important.