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History in the unmaking: how the government department that brought the Windrush scandal downplays slavery in its citizenship handbook

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 July 2020

Arthur Chapman.

July 21 this year was a day of historical reckoning, of sorts, for the British government’s Home Office.

On the one hand, the Home Secretary apologized for the ‘unspeakable’ treatment of members of the ‘Windrush generation’ at the hands of her department and promised ‘a genuine cultural shift’ including ‘mandatory training for Home Office staff on the history of migration and race in the UK.’ On the other hand, the Historical Association posted an open letter signed by 175 historians, protesting about the distortion of British Caribbean and imperial history in the Home Office’s official ‘textbook’ for those taking the UK Citizenship Test, Life in the United Kingdom: A guide for New Residents.

As the historians rightly contend the 2013 edition, still currently in use, is ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’ in its representation of the history of slavery, the slave trade and decolonisation. The narrative, they argue, is not only factually inaccurate, it is also selective and written in a way that obscures the agency of the enslaved and the colonised in the developments it narrates. The text, they conclude, ‘perpetuates a misleading view of how we came to be who we are.’

The old Customs House, Lancaster, built in 1764. Lancaster was the fourth largest slave trading port in Britain in the 18th century

This is no trivial matter. The booklet is published by a department of state (the Home Office), commissioned by ministers, and used in a state-mandated test with consequences for those who fail it, including, ultimately, the refusal of residency.

The historians note that ‘some of its most misleading passages date only from the third edition published in 2013′. They rightly point out that this edition aims to distance slavery from Britain – calling it an ‘overseas industry’ and claiming that it was illegal in Britain (something that is, at the least, debatable). The historians also state the ‘handbook is full of dates and numbers but does not give the number of people transported as slaves on British ships (over 3 million); nor… mention that any of them died.’ The abolition of slavery and the slave trade is presented as ‘simply’ a moral decision by ‘the British’ and the agency of the enslaved in forcing abolition is ignored.

What the historians do not point out, however, is that the agency of the enslaved in abolition was explicitly acknowledged in the original 2004 edition and implied in the 2007 one. Unlike in 2013, the 2004 booklet acknowledged the presence of slaves in Britain in the 18th century and quotes the Somerset Case of 1772,  brought by a slave named James Somerset. The judge’s ruling stated no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain but did not emancipate slaves in Britain.

It is notable also that whereas both the 2004 and the 2007 editions of the guide emphasise a Black presence in Britain in the eighteenth century, the 2013 guide deleted this presence from its narrative of the trade. In addition, the grammar of the narrative in the 2013 edition has been rewritten in ways that weaken the condemnation of slave trading and that appear to obfuscate the British role in it.

Whereas both earlier editions describe slavery and slave trading as an ‘evil side to… commercial expansion and prosperity’ the only adjective that the 2013 guide applies to it is a positive one (‘commercial expansion and prosperity was sustained in part by the booming slave trade’). In 2004 ‘British ships’ are said to have ‘supplied… men and women seized or bought in West Africa.’ In 2007, ‘slave traders bought men and woman’ and ‘British ships took them’. By 2013, however, agency is either absent because verbs lack subjects, or the captured Africans are themselves put in the subject position (‘Slaves came… from West Africa. Travelling on British ships… they were taken’).

Putting to one side questions of inaccuracy, manipulation and selective narration in the 2013 ‘Citizenship guide,’ there is continuity in the history of this text since 2004. Historians have protested about the guide before. In May 2005, the President of the Historical Association wrote to then Home Secretary Charles Clarke expressing displeasure and chronicling numerous errors and in 2006 the Honorary Secretary of the Historical Association described it as ‘leading would-be citizens astray with a confusing array of historical errors, questionable suppositions and glaring misquotes.’

As UCL researchers have meticulously shown, slave-holding was deeply embedded in British society and it should form a central element of historical accounts. It is natural for history to be revised and rewritten as our knowledge increases. Official history, written and rewritten to serve political rather than epistemic imperatives, is more an impediment than a support to an informed citizenry and to democratic political processes. Historical pluralism and the public testing of knowledge claims are core democratic and epistemic virtues.

The fact that the same government department has presided over both the writing and rewriting of official history since 2004 and over the illegal deportation of British citizens with Afro-Caribbean heritage to the countries to which Colston’s Royal Africa Company and other British merchants brutally cargoed their ancestors as slaves should, at the very least, give us pause for thought.


This post draws on research forthcoming in 2021 in How to Investigate Public History: Analysing Historical Narratives, edited by Nicola Brauch, Stefan Berger, and Chris Lorenz (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books), some of which was published in Public History Weekly in 2019.

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One Response to “History in the unmaking: how the government department that brought the Windrush scandal downplays slavery in its citizenship handbook”

  • 1
    Dan Nuttall wrote on 30 July 2020:

    I only came across the Home Office’s ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ guidebook for the first time this year. This is perhaps surprising, as it contains perhaps the only official state narrative of British history (a chapter entitled, ‘A Long and Illustrious History’). When I analysed the chapter as part of my Education (History) Masters studies at UCL, I was somewhat shocked by what I found. As signatories of the open letter rightly highlight, the coverage of Britain’s colonial past and role in the transatlantic slave trade is highly problematic.
    Yet their criticisms do not go far enough. As Chapman states, and as his analysis of the grammatical structures of the different editions of the ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ suggests, the current edition of the guidebook distorts British history in an attempt to present a singular, unilinear history. Britain’s past is presented as distinct and unique, one separate to that of the wider world. The Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution appear not to have happened in Britain – or at least are not mentioned – and the Enlightenment is portrayed as a wholly British affair (Voltaire must be spinning in his grave).
    The ‘history’ in ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ is also imbued with heroic narratives: English/British military victories feature heavily; Churchill receives more column inches than anyone else profiled; and the origins of the phrases ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ and ‘Blitz Spirit’ are given in an explicit attempt to nurture the notion that adversity in the face of danger is a part of what it mean to be ‘British’. This is the stuff of identity narratives, not of history.
    The contribution of modern migrant groups to Britain is ignored (with the one exception of Sake Dean Mahomet) as to fully explore the contributions made by more recent immigrant communities would challenge the sense of sameness over time necessary to create a meaningful identity narrative. The multi-faceted nature and fluidity of British society is downplayed in order to present a stable and unchanging identity.
    Where less ‘illustrious’ aspects of Britain’s past are acknowledged, agency is backgrounded. Chapman highlights this in relation to the transatlantic slave trade. Yet is can also be seen elsewhere in the text. For example, in reference to the Boer War (one of the few conflicts within the British Empire actually covered; the Indian Rebellion being noticeable absent), we are informed that, ‘many [Boers] died in the fighting and many more from disease’. Slavery aside, this is as close as we get to any acknowledgement that the British Empire did any harm and, considering the British use of concentration camps during the war, the wording of the sentence certainly understates British responsibility as agency has been wholly absented.
    The history within the guidebook also serves to disempower. Its focus on individualism and omission of collective action makes British people appear passive and voiceless. According to the text, trade unions appear not to have existed prior to the 1970s. Where popular movements are considered, it is the leaders of those movements who are the agentive forces, not the people: Wilberforce caused the abolition of slavery, not the popular movement, nor slave resistance. Coverage of the Suffragettes focuses on the works of Emmeline Pankhurst to such an extent that the movement does not earn the section subtitle, she alone does. The Chartists were simply ‘unsuccessful’.
    If space here allowed, there are many other issues with the text that could be raised, not least the imbalance of gender coverage (despite the text featuring both the discovery of DNA, in which the British scientist Rosalind Franklin played an important role, as well as the development of IVF, which relied on genetic advances made by British scientist Anne McLaren – neither women are mentioned).
    Considering its selective narrativisation, its omissions, its avoidance of ambiguity, and its backgrounding of agency, it is hard not to conclude that the Home Office’s ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ is a work with a highly contentious political agenda, rather being an objective work of history. It is high time that it is reviewed and replaced.