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Gary Younge
The wrong way round

Before she left the island she was given orientation classes to prepare her for life in Britain. They told her to wear flannelette pyjamas and a woollen hat. They said nothing about people shouting abuse at you in the street.

She came of her own free will. She also came because she was asked by the British government to help to build one of the nation's most cherished institutions, the National Health Service.

Racism and the cold aside, two of the things to strike her when she arrived were that most British people seemed to know very little about their own country, and even less about the nations their country had occupied.

Whenever I hear about David Blunkett's tests for new immigrants, I think of my mother's initial impressions and don't know whether to laugh or cry: laugh because of the patent folly of his attempts to fix what is fluid and to codify what is contested in British identity; or cry at the racism that has inspired it, the nationalism that informs it, and the historical, political and cultural illiteracy that infects every part of it.

This was a wasted opportunity. Had citizenship and language courses been introduced as part of an agenda for social inclusion and constitutional reform, it could have been an excellent move. Here was one time when we would have been right to adapt American methods to our circumstances. Here was a chance to uncouple immigration from race and transform a threat into a promise.

And Blunkett blew it. We are moving not towards an induction into how to take part fully in national life, but an imposition of a mythical patriotism. It is shaping up not to be a test about citizenship but Britishness. It is an attempt to establish authenticity for those at the borders that is not shared by those already here.

"I want to see a greater pride from British people about their own culture and identity - English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish," Blunkett said last week at the launch of the report that will be a blueprint for the tests, "so that people can actually celebrate their own sense of identity much more clearly and have the confidence to celebrate and welcome other people." In other words, immigrants will be tested so that British peo ple can feel better about themselves.

This sloppy logic has blighted the project from the start. Rather than divorcing the issues of immigration and race, Blunkett has married them even more closely. The tests were not proposed as part of a much-needed national debate about what it means to be a citizen in a small, post-colonial monarchy coming to terms with devolution, the Northern Ireland peace process, European integration and globalisation.

Instead, they were raised as a response to race riots in the north. "We have norms of acceptability," Blunkett said shortly before the report into the disturbances was due to be released. "And those who come into our home - for that is what it is - should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere."

The fact that for most of those who took to the streets, both black and white, Britain was the only home they knew was clearly irrelevant to him. And one can only presume that "elsewhere" does not include the Indian subcontinent, Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa or anywhere else where Britain actually did set up in somebody else's home during colonialism and forced people to speak English, convert to Christianity and submit themselves to foreign rule.

And he is still at it. Last week he argued that properly primed immigrants will "see off the racists" - as if once blacks and Asians could conjugate their verbs properly and learn the date of the Battle of Agincourt, then racists would refrain from attacking them. Once again, Blunkett has got it the wrong way round. It is the abundance of racism that prevents integration; not the lack of integration that encourages racism.

This has been his problem all along. When racism rears its head, Blunkett blames not the perpetrators but the victims. Following Jean-Marie Le Pen's entry to the second round of the French presidential elections, he said the way to confront fascism was to be tough on asylum. The results speak for themselves. At the time, the rightwing British National party had no councillors in Britain; with its victory in Thurrock last week, it now has 18.

Left there, and this would be just one more blunder by a home secretary who has not updated his racial politics since the curtains went down on It Ain't Half Hot Mum. But the flaws go far deeper than that. To see how far, one need only go to the place he got the idea from in the first place - America. As most American Arabs and Muslims will tell you, the US attitude to immigration is far from perfect. But the nation's approach to the formal induction of new citizens is impressive.

A citizenship ceremony in the US is like a piece of civic theatre. The official pounds the lectern, evokes "the dream", invokes the constitution, reminds those attending of his own immigrant roots and implores them to take advantage of everything America has to offer.

There are two reasons why we could not stage such a ceremony in Britain. First of all, we do not have a constitution that lays down the principles of what our country is supposed to stand for. As a result there are very few of the tropes of nationhood - be it flag, anthem, monarchy or currency - that are not subject to partial rejection and complete confusion. We are a multi-nation state in which parties that advocate some form of independence from the United Kingdom are backed by 29% of voters in Scotland, more than 40% in Northern Ireland and 20% in Wales, and around a third of the population has republican leanings. Blunkett may have decided what our "norms" are, but many of the rest of us are still trying to work them out.

Second, unlike in Britain, American officials will, in all likelihood, be descendants of immigrants themselves. In the US, immigration is connoted not with "swamping" and "invasion" but hope and reinvention. It is seen not as a threat to a mythical land that is monocultural and monoracial but as a boon to a nation that draws strength from diversity.

One of the biggest cheers during last week's debate among the Democratic party's presidential contenders came when Dick Gephardt said: "Unless you're a Native American, we're all immigrants in this country." The frontrunners in the California recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cruz Bustamante, both tout their immigrant roots as an asset, not a liability.

The day when a Bangladeshi or Kosovan-born candidate could do the same in Britain is, thanks to Blunkett, still a long way away.

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