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’.