During my stint as a special adviser to David Blunkett in the Home Office, I had the good fortune to work with the late Bernard Crick. Bernard had been appointed to advise the home secretary on the development of policies and programmes for the integration of new citizens into the UK, having previously chaired the committee which produced plans for the introduction of citizenship education in schools.
Bernard had been Blunkett’s university tutor. He was deeply committed to an active and participatory understanding of citizenship, as you would expect from the author of In Defence of Politics. He was something of a fish out of water in the sharp-suited Whitehall of the New Labour years, arriving for meetings with egg yoke down his tie and spilling his tea as he spluttered vociferous objections to the arguments of the long-suffering civil servants who worked with him. At his leaving do at St James’s Palace, he stood on a chair to give himself some height, dispensed a few pearls of wisdom on civic integration and then proceeded to tip his warm chardonnay down his front. It was entirely fitting.
Bernard advocated setting out the core of knowledge about British history and the rights and obligations of citizenship in a document that could be used to prepare for a new citizenship test. He penned the first draft of Life in the United Kingdom himself, which led to some amusing sections, like the one setting out what to do if you spilled someone’s pint in a pub. It contained the quirks of Bernard’s own understanding of British history, as well as a few factual errors. Civil servants had subsequently to tidy up the prose and make it more respectable in parts for its second edition. Bernard also set out what he thought should be the basic requirements of English language competence needed by new citizens.
In subsequent years, these tests and requirements were reformed and toughened up, but they endured in their basic form. Civic ceremonies at which citizenship was awarded were also pioneered in these years. Each part of this agenda has stood the test of time. They have not overcome all the stresses and strains of integrating people of diverse beliefs and practices into the UK, still less reduced extremism among those born and bred here. They were not designed to do those things. But they were a serious attempt to give new meaning and content to the acquisition of British citizenship in times of profound demographic, economic and cultural change.
As such, Bernard’s efforts stand in stark contrast to the cheap posturing of the communities secretary reported in today’s Daily Mail.