George Cruikshank 'Massacre at St Peter's'

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.


  1. damon

    Just looking at Wikipedia’s US census data for the last couple of centuries.

    The population of the US was 151 million in 1950, and had risen to over 308 million by 2010.
    Although there is lots of land in that country, always expanding the cities to cater to rising population has led to some pretty blighted cities. In theory they could build wonderful new communities from scratch out on open land, but the way it actually works is the cities just grow outwards.
    If enough Americans want less immigration, then it’s their right to restrict it.

  2. Frederick Peterson

    Kenan Malik’s observation that history generally is a record of (mostly) dynastic and religious contestation is certainly on the mark however it’s a bit of a stretch to deploy that ‘well known fact’ to buttress the argument that immigration hasn’t been so bad for us after all.

  3. @Damon: It’s not clear what your comments about population and cities have to do with your closing sentence, which simply repeats a truism. I suppose if your population/cities comments mean anything they could be understood to imply that immigration has contributed materially to the “blight” you mention. I know of no evidence for that. Americans have fretted and fought about “urban renewal” for decades – since long before immigration became an issue.

    @Frederick: That American society has been fraught by racial, ethnic, religious and class conflict throughout its history is, as you concede, inarguable. There’s no evidence that I know of to suggest that immigration has contributed materially to that conflict. Yes, some politicians, like Trump, for example, have fomented anti-immigrant feelings for political gain, but to say that because some abhorrent people have manipulated the masses with the immigration boogeyman is not a good argument for restricting immigration. That would be analogous to a heckler’s veto. In fact, as we know from *all* the data available, immigration, including illegal immigration, provides in aggregate a significant benefit to society, and to the economy in particular.

    • Frederick Peterson

      I don’t believe that Mr. Malik’s remarks were directed towards the United States in particular and neither were mine. In fact, in any discussion of race, ethnicity and, yes, immigration, the American experience is so singular that it has to be examined separately.

      It could well be that, as you claim, immigration provides a significant benefit to American society but it is certainly far from clear that this is the case in Western Europe, and the UK in particular. Even from a narrowly economic perspective.

  4. damon

    @partickdallas The population doubled in sixty years and I’ve never heard much talk of why people want to grow the population like that. Is there a broad desire to do that or is it just something that happens regardless?
    I know that there are some people strongly against it for several reasons, and I’m not sure who are the people on the other side who want an ever higher population. Is it just because it makes the country richer and grows gdp?

    As an occasional visitor to your country over the last thirty years, I have been disappointed to see how the urban sprawl has turned most cities into places with poor and uncommercial downtown areas and all the commercial activity moving out onto the highways. And the cities spreading out into “metro” areas with huge amounts of traffic and endless suburbs. Immigration has also changed the character of the country. I remember a Time magazine story from about twenty years ago where they spoke about both black and white long term residents of Atlanta feeling the city had changed into something else entirely. All the farmland just outside the city which was once home to many poor black people, had been swallowed up by surburban development and there were as many Asian immigrants now parking their cars at the new shopping mall (built on that former farm land) as there were African Americans. The city they knew – for good and bad and had it’s own history and culture – had become just another diverse atomised boomtown. Time magazine said that some residents felt a loss with their past.

    On a purely selfish note, I felt a bit envious of Jack Kerouac’s description of walking out of downtown El Paso Texas one evening in the 1950s and walking a few miles to get out of town, where he rolled out his sleeping bag out on the ground a way back from the road, and was able to just stretch out and enjoy the peace of the night and sleep under the stars.
    I’ve tried to do the same in more recent years, but the city sprawl goes on forever, and you end up walking along mile after mile of strip malls.

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