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JOHN Major thought it was long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion.

George Orwell reckoned it was gambling, bawdy jokes, drinking and swearing.

It could be a chicken tikka masala while watching EastEnders. Or dancing like crazy at the Notting Hill Carnival. It could be playing in a colliery band, owning every Beatles album or welling up with pride at the Last Night Of The Proms.

What is the essence of Britishness?

Does it wear a kilt, a flat cap or a Welsh rugby shirt? Is our national drink Guinness, bitter, Stella Artois or tea? Is Britishness a vicar-and-tarts party or a muezzin in a minaret calling the faithful to prayer? Is Britishness European or are we now the USA's 51st state?

This is the cultural quagmire the government got into yesterday after revealing the details of a proposed "Britishness Test".

Within two years, people applying for British citizenship will have to pass an exam to show their knowledge of our culture, history and laws.

There will be a compulsory language test to prove a basic command of English and the "ability to hold a conversation" - something that would challenge many of our teenagers.

Only when would-be citizens pass both tests will they get a British passport in a "naturalisation ceremony" where they swear allegiance to the Queen. How many of us would swear such allegiance if asked to?

HOME Secretary David Blunkett said the aim was to ensure all Britons, new and old, shared "the common values that bind us as a nation".

He said it would help break down barriers between communities.

"Citizenship brings responsibilities as well as rights," he added. "It is important new citizens understand and respect the UK culture and its laws."

About 120,000 people a year are expected to sit the test. Asylum-seekers and those who have permission to stay in the country will not be forced to take it unless they want a passport or the right to vote.

Sir Bernard Crick, the University of London professor heading the government-appointed committee that drew up the proposals, said: "Citizenship is more valued when it is earned and not given."

He said questions could include asking people to say what the Conservative Party stands for. He declined to say whether he thought the Conservative Party would be able to answer the same question.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty, welcomed the tests but said they should not only be for immigrants.

"These are aspects of citizenship that we should be promoting amongst the wider community, not just those applying for citizenship," she said.

But Tauhid Pasha, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, warned: "We will be depriving the most vulnerable people in society who may not be able to pass these tests, either for educational reasons or for some other learning disability."

The proposals include free English lessons for immigrants, but Mr Blunkett said he would have to "consider the cost implications". …