Himid, Lubaina, b.1954; Weave

This essay, on the transformation of the meaning of citizenship, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on changing scientific theories.) It was published on 9 February 2020, under the headline ‘Deportations to Jamaica, the Shamima Begum case and Windrush betray a woeful regard for the notion of citizenship’.

‘A transcendental power, more than any man should possess.’ So said Lord Houghton in 1870 in response to William Gladstone’s plan to acquire the ability to revoke the naturalisation of any individual who ‘acted in a manner inconsistent with his allegiance as a British subject’. Houghton added that not only was too much power being placed in the hands of the executive but the law was also discriminatory in dealing ‘differently with naturalised than with British-born subjects’. Parliament agreed and rejected the proposal.

Now, 150 years later, Houghton is a forgotten figure. That proposal, however, has been entrenched in British law. The government enjoys far greater ‘transcendental power’ to deprive Britons of citizenship than even Gladstone could have imagined.

A flurry of recent cases, from the revocation of Shamima Begum’s citizenship, to the deportation to Jamaica of people the government regards as ‘foreign criminals’, to the Windrush scandal, reveals the consequences. Each case is distinct. Begum’s is about the ability of the government to revoke the citizenship of a Britsh-born person. The deportations raise the question of whether individuals, many of whom came here as children, should be seen as ‘foreign’ because they committed a crime when, had they not done so, they might have been seen as British. At the heart of the Windrush scandal are British citizens whom the authorities refused to see as such. What links them is a transformation in our perception of citizenship.

‘Will the minister confirm that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right,’ asked Suella Braverman, the new attorney general, during last week’s Commons debate on the deportations to Jamaica. Home Office minister Kevin Foster was happy to confirm that it was.

In 1870, MPs viewed citizenship as a right that should not be arbitrarily removed by the state. Today, it is viewed as a privilege, which many possess only under sufferance. Houghton recognised what many no longer do: that the revocation of citizenship is an extraordinary step that not only shatters lives but can tear at the moral fabric of the nation.

It was in 1914, in wartime, that a government first successfully acquired the power to deprive Britons of their citizenship. Later laws, including the 1981 British Nationality Act, which redefined citizenship, affirmed the government’s right to do so. It was, though, a power used lightly. During the First World War, fewer than 40 Britons had their nationality revoked. During the Second World War, the numbers involved were even smaller: just four.

Not until this century, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and against a background of growing anxiety over immigration and multiculturalism, did the debate take a different turn. The overriding issue became not an unwillingness to provide the government with ‘transcendental power’ but the belief that certain people did not deserve to be British.

In a series of laws in the noughties, Labour allowed governments to deprive anyone of citizenship, even if they had been born in Britain, if it was ‘conducive to the public good’ to do so. After 2010, the coalition government went further. The 2014 Immigration Act institutionalised a ‘hostile environment’ and allowed for the revocation of citizenship even where a person may be left stateless.

Between 1973 and 2006, just two people had their citizenship revoked. Between 2006 and 2010, there were nine. Since 2010, more than 150 people have been stripped of citizenship on the grounds of it being ‘not conducive to the public good’ alone. More Britons had their citizenship revoked in 2017 than in both world wars combined. Many more have been deprived on other grounds, though the figures are difficult to obtain.

It’s not just the numbers that are startling but the two-tier system that is being created. As academic and terrorism expert Shiraz Maher has observed, ‘Anyone with recourse to other citizenship (regardless of their connection to that country) is effectively being told their ‘Britishness’ is contingent upon continued good behaviour.’ This would apply to ‘all children of immigrants, all Jews and everyone from Northern Ireland’. For what Maher calls the ‘British-British’ – those without recourse to another citizenship – ‘their citizenship is protected and exists into perpetuity’.

Because these changes apply primarily to jihadists or to criminals, most people support them. But the powers acquired by the state, and the discriminatory system being established, impacts upon all of us. MPs in 1870 understood that. We should do too.


The painting is Lubaina Himid’s ‘Weave’.


  1. damon

    I’ve been following the issue, but I’m not sure how useful it is to put things like this:
    “What links them is a transformation in our perception of citizenship.”

    Surely we’ve got to get past perceptions. Bureaucracies can only work with things which are verifiable.
    Like whether a person is or isn’t a citizen for example. I’m not a British citizen, and only have a right to reside there. I could be deported if I committed a serious crime. Perhaps everyone needs to know their own status and be aware of possible consequences of not being a citizen.
    I agree that it is wrong for Shamima Begum to be deprived of her citizenship.
    I also feel sorry for her as a person. But maybe that shouldn’t come into it.

    People who support open borders are going to really have to demand more clarity about what citizenship or being granted “leave to remain” or receiving refugee status all mean and at what ages these things will take effect.
    We are going to be having unaccompanied teenage asylum seekers coming to the U.K. for the foreseeable future.
    We need more than perceptions – we need rules, documents and modern databases.

    My own view is to reject both what David Lammy has been saying and also reject those people who leave comments on the Daily Mail website. Both sides are about as bad as each other on this.
    Maybe we should be telling young people who are getting into trouble with the law, that they could get deported if they aren’t British citizens. And they had better find out. Or they could be told directly when being given their first criminal convictions. Warned even.

    Because even though I’m not very supportive of these deportations, I’m now very much in the “something must be done” camp when it comes to the casual criminal culture that we have to live with in Britain these days.
    The criminal justice system is a failure. The people who go through it don’t fear it.
    We can’t even turn around one prison like HMP Birmingham. The former government minister Rory Stewart said he was going to sort it out, then three months later he’s gone and there’s someone else in his place.
    If people don’t fear being sent to prison, what else is there?
    If it wasn’t unfair to the countries we send our criminals “back” to, I’d actually agree with some criminals being deported for a set number of years. After which they could apply to come back.
    But that’s obviously a non-starter because we are now a weak and divided society without the spirit of previous generations.

    There are many countries where they wouldn’t tolerate that generally antisocial street culture that’s developed in many places in Britain. That excessively narcissistic selfish criminal attitude that I can see within an hour or two of being back in London. If you tried to behave like that in much of the Balkans for example, either the police would come for you, or a group of the citizens would. They don’t tolerate their streets feeling like places you should fear walking in. It’s just not the accepted culture.
    But in England that era has gone now.
    We are poorly governed and poorly led by people who might have influence.

  2. I was appalled to discover from this that because I am Jewish by descent, and therefore entitled to a citizenship that I do not desire in a Middle Eastern state of whose policies I deeply disapprove, therefore, despite my having been born here, the Government may, if it considers it would be in the public good to do so, deprive me of my UK citizenship.

  3. damon

    I don’t know how it will be possible to regularise everyone’s citizenship status though. It’s too complicated and there are just so many variations and millions of individual cases.
    I just watched a video of a young guy born in the U.K. but brought up in care, who can’t get a passport as he can’t get details of his mother’s immigration status. That’s ridiculous.
    However, the people campaigning on the other side are no help to this situation (in my opinion).
    They are generally against any sort of controls and want an open society where people come and go from the country at will, which isn’t what a majority of U.K. citizens want I believe.

    What’s to be done? Nothing is to be done. Nothing positive and concrete can be done, as we’re not a country that can do things easily any more. HS2, a third runway at Heathrow – Brexit. The country is a shambles and completely divided. It could be argued that we were not a country that was going to be able to handle becoming diverse and open to the world. Listening to the conversation about it on radio stations like LBC is torturous.
    This was one of the presenters a couple of weeks ago:

    “One of those facing deportation next week came here aged 11, spent 2 months in prison 10 years ago for something he would no longer be convicted of, has a six month old British baby and a wife here.

    This policy is INHUMANE.”

    He kept emphasising how short this person’s prison sentence was, and spinning it to sound really trivial.
    And said several times that the person was released when the law on “Joint enterprise” crimes was changed.
    Maybe the guy shouldn’t have been up for deportation, but my mind immediately thought of what a “joint enterprise” mugging/robbery was like. It’s not something anyone should have to endure.
    It’s a gang of people robbing and mugging people. The radio presenter is such a wet liberal that it’s hard to take people like him seriously.

    The deportation situation is far from ideal. But I don’t know how people could have expected a “clampdown” not to have happened. Our immigration system has been in chaos for decades now and can’t deal with the number of cases it has to process. Every case becomes contested with lawyers and legal proceedings.
    That’s why it fails.

    • The “joint enterprise” law was abolished because it made people responsible for actions by other members of the group in which they did not take part. If it could be shown that an individual actually took part in the offence, then the law would have been superfluous.

      It is ridiculous that anyone born and bred in the UK could be denied citizenship. It is inhumane that anyone not clearly present danger should be deported on the basis of some official’s decision, without any kind of judicial review, when they have a partner in the UK, and UK-born children.

      The degree of discretion granted to the Home Secretary is clearly excessive, and the ways in which this discretion has been used in recent years is a matter for national shame.

      • damon

        I’ve got mixed feelings on “joint enterprise”.
        Our criminal justice system is so weak that sometimes I’d be OK with short cuts being taken.
        Since I read your post above a couple of hours ago, I’ve listened to a Guardian podcast about knife crime in my home borough of Croydon, where I went to school a few decades ago.
        It sounds like a different country. What happened? I used to get the bus to school through central Croydon every day and can’t remember any problems like those being described here.

        It’s an issue because the diversity of the borough has been transformed. It used to be pretty white and more middle class. Now, due to immigration – including a lot of newer immigration from Africa, it has got decidedly poorer and has many more problems.
        I really don’t know how the rules for when you become a British citizen should apply.
        If you arrive and start school by 12 years old? Or 15. Or maybe 16?
        Surely not 18. If you arrive at 18 and commit crimes, then is it ok to deport you then?

        Croydon had its own case of a foreign born “notorious gang leader” who was imprisoned then set for deportation a few years back.
        But they couldn’t be sure where he was from. He says he’s sorry now and would like to apologise and maybe get into working with young people to stop them following in his footsteps.

        If we had deported him, many people would have seen that as very unjust.
        And no doubt, point to his apology and say he must be a reformed character who deserved a second chance. Personally, I just roll my eyes and move on to the next story.
        Because there’s no fixing any of this.
        As we saw from the rapper Dave at the Brits, it’s actually all about “therapeutic alienation”.
        The young people are willing it on themselves. It’s a psychological problem and something to do with being a visible minority.

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