This essay, on notions of citizenship, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on bootlegging and Bob Dylan). It was published in the Observer, 4 November 2018, under the headline ‘Myths about shared culture have no place in the citizenship debate’.
What links Mike Leigh’s new film, Peterloo, to Donald Trump’s threat to deprive children born to undocumented migrants of the right to US citizenship? It might seem an odd question, best left to Only Connect fans. But answering it helps give an insight into some of the ways we think about immigration and citizenship.
Trump wants to restrict the scope of the 14th amendment, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born on US soil. It’s the latest move in a long history of attacks on ‘birthright citizenship’, a history defined by a desire to create fears about an ‘alien’ presence and to cast some Americans as not truly belonging to the nation.
There is more to the debate, however, than fearmongering. It speaks to wider questions about the nature of citizenship and of national belonging. It has resonance on this side of the Atlantic too.
The United States, according to Trump, is the only nation ‘stupid’ enough to permit birthright citizenship. In fact, virtually every country in the Americas does so. But not one in Europe. Yet this is not a New World/Old World divide. The roots of both birthright citizenship and opposition to it lie in Europe.
Two broad approaches to citizenship are formally labelled jus soli and jus sanguinis. Jus soli (right of the soil) is the right to citizenship of anyone born in a country. Jus sanguinis (right of blood) defines citizenship as an inheritance through one or both parents, who themselves need be citizens. What Americans call birthright citizenship is jus soli (though both forms of citizenship can be a birthright, automatically conferred at birth).
The distinction between the two has traditionally been seen as that between French and German conceptions of citizenship. The French republican tradition views citizenship from a universalist perspective, without regard for ethnicity or culture. German nationalism draws upon Romantic ideas of the volk, rooted in a specific history, culture and race.
The reality is more complicated. For a start, the US concept of birthright citizenship derives not from French republicanism but from English common law. More importantly, jus soli and jus sanguinis have long been intertwined in policy. France introduced in the 19th century a ‘blood’ element to citizenship: only those born in France with a French parent are automatically granted citizenship at birth.
In Britain, the 1981 Nationality Act restricted automatic citizenship at birth to those at least one of whose parents was British or had permanent residency rights.
In both countries, wariness about jus soli was driven by the sense that certain groups were incompatible with the nation. In the 19th century, Jews were cast as the unassimilable ‘other’. More recently, North Africans or West Indians were given that role. Today, it’s often Muslims.
Today, too, such fears have been recast in the debate about populism and social fragmentation. The philosopher Michael Walzer, influential in communitarian and postliberal circles, argues that in the past there existed an organic relationship between the political community and the cultural community. This allowed for ‘language, history and culture [to] come together… to produce a collective consciousness’ and ‘a world of common meanings’.
Immigration has served to disrupt this, making societies seem more fragmented. For nations to flourish, Walzer insists, they must regulate immigration and citizenship so as to protect their historical and cultural integrity.
The lesson that some, such as the academic Eric Kaufmann, draw from this is the need to employ racial and cultural criteria in selecting immigrants. There is nothing racist, Kaufmann insists, in an immigration policy that seeks to maintain the ‘white share of the population’. It is a pragmatic response to assuage social anxiety and protect cultural integrity. Fear of populism and the triumph of identity politics have transformed what we imagine is racist.
Enter Peterloo. Leigh’s austere, harrowing portrayal of working-class struggles for democracy does not touch upon the question of immigration. In exposing the fractures of 19th-century Britain, however, it exposes, too, the myth that, until disrupted by immigration, nations existed as organic political and cultural communities defined by a ‘collective consciousness’. Societies have always ruptured along class, religious, cultural and ideological lines. From the English Civil War to the anti-slavery struggles to the suffragettes to the miners’ strike British history is one of contestation. As is that of all countries. Obsession with immigration has made us blind to that history.
On neither side of the Atlantic will it help in thinking about charged issues around immigration and citizenship to cling to historical myths or be blinkered to the consequences of our answers.
The cartoon is by George Cruikshank, and is titled ‘The Massacre at St Peter’s or Britons Strike Home”‘; it was published in 1819. © British Library.