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Welcome to Britain. Our Weather Is Appalling.

Sunday 3 February 2013

By SARAH LYALL

LONDON — The 100 Years’ War actually lasted 116 years. Pantomime dames tend to be men dressed as women. The hovercraft was invented by Sir Christopher Cockerell. York Minster has very nice stained-glass windows. Margaret Thatcher successfully tamed the unions and turned London into a powerful international financial center by deregulating the financial markets.

These and other interesting pieces of information can be found in “Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents,” a revised book issued by the Conservative-led government that, starting in March, will form the basis of the country’s revised immigration test. To pass, applicants who want to become citizens or live here permanently will have to answer 18 of 24 questions correctly.

Judging from the sample questions released by the government, the test may end up being relatively easy. But the guidebook, crammed with information, reflects the Conservative view that too many people are trying to immigrate to Britain, and that once they arrive they are failing to appreciate the country properly.

“The new book and test will focus on events and people who have contributed to making Britain great,” Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said last weekend.

In announcing the revised guidebook, Mr. Harper went out of his way to criticize the old one, “Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship,” which was issued by the rival Labour government in 2007.

While it includes some history, the Labour version tends to concentrate less on the excitements of the British past than on the practicalities of the British present. (Plus, in its own partisan contribution, it says that Mrs. Thatcher was a “divisive figure” whose policies might have “caused a massive decline in industry.”)

“The new book rightly focuses on values and principles at the heart of being British,” Mr. Harper said. Referring to the old book, he said, “We’ve stripped out mundane information about water meters, how to find train timetables and using the Internet.”

Indeed, a chapter called “Everyday Needs” in the old Labour version gives advice on things like what to do if you feel sick (“call your G.P.,” is one possibility); how to rent a house; and, weirdly, how best to refer to garbage. “Refuse is also called waste, or rubbish,” it explains.

Roger Helmer, a member of the European Parliament from the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party, said it was about time the old manual was retired.

“They’ve taken out a lot of references to New Labour achievements, which is a jolly good thing,” Mr. Helmer said in an interview.

But Don Flynn, director of the Migrants’ Rights Network, an interest group, said the new version propagated a snobby, atavistic, superior approach to British culture and history. He singled out as particularly objectionable the historical chapter, called “A Long and Illustrious History,” whose first page depicts a rousing scene from the Battle of Trafalgar.

“The chapter which primes applicants’ knowledge about history is permeated with the sort of Whig views of the world-civilizing mission of the British realm which have encouraged generations of Etonians and Harrovians to play their role in the great imperial enterprise,” Mr. Flynn told The Guardian, referring to Eton and Harrow, two elite boarding schools.

In the section, would-be immigrants are taken on a speedy 56-page tour of the past 100 centuries, beginning with the Stone Age (“People came and went, following the herds of deer and horses which they hunted”) and ending with a flourish at the climax of the 2010 election. (“The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, became prime minister.”)

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Labour’s most important politician in the past 20 years, gets a paragraph; his successor, Gordon Brown, gets a sentence.

The chapter sometimes skates shallowly over contentious issues. Discussing the often bloody, often traumatic shedding of the component parts of the British Empire in the 20th century, for instance, it says happily that there was, “for the most part, an orderly transition from empire to commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence.”

As The Guardian pointed out, “There is no mention of the million or more people who died in communal and religious violence at Britain’s withdrawal during the 1947 partition of India.”

Britain is actively trying to find ways to tighten its borders. The British news media reported recently that the government, terrified that the lifting next year of European Union restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians living and working here would result in an influx of unwanted people, is considering an advertising campaign pointing out Britain’s bad qualities, like its climate.

A spokesman for the Home Office did not deny the reports, but said that officials “are working closely with other government departments to look at the pull factors that may encourage E.U. nationals, including those from Bulgaria and Romania, to come to the U.K.”

Mr. Helmer of the U.K. Independence Party scoffed at the government’s attitude.

“Rather than simply say, ‘We only want 500 of those people coming in,’ ” he said, choosing a random number and referring to Romanians and Bulgarians, “we have to run an ad campaign saying that it rains in Britain. For heaven’s sake, how ridiculous is that?”

The guidebook does its best to promote what the government considers Britain’s best qualities (rain is not among them). But filled as it is with proud references to great kings, great achievements and great prime ministers, it is strangely at odds with the quirky, creative, nonmilitary image Britain presented of itself at last summer’s ecstatic and much-loved Olympics opening ceremony.

Keith Vaz, a Labour member of Parliament who is chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said the Conservatives had taken “a very odd approach” to their guidebook and questioned whether it was right that a government department should unilaterally get to decide how to present British history to the outside world.

“This is the kind of work that is best written by people who are not party political,” he said in an interview.

See online: Welcome to Britain. Our Weather Is Appalling.