Citizenship should be a right—whatever Priti Patel thinks

This government, like those before it, thinks citizenship is a privilege to be revoked. They have turned British nationality into a hollow shell

February 24, 2022
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“Far more British citizens are now aware of the conditional citizenship status of so many of us.”Thomas Krych / Alamy Stock Photo

The first of our parliamentarians to say out loud that British citizenship is a privilege not a right was David Davis in 2008. His fellow Conservative politicians Damian Green and Chris Grayling echoed the phrase in ensuing debates on a law proposed by Gordon Brown’s Labour government to introduce “earned citizenship.” They were all talking about foreign nationals seeking to become British.

The same words took on a more sinister tone in 2014, when then immigration minister Mark Harper repeated them. This time, it was existing British citizens who were in the firing line: including those who were born British or had already naturalised. “Those who threaten this country's security put us all at risk,” said Harper. “This government will take all necessary steps to protect the public.”

An anonymous Home Office spokesperson restated the principle more recently when justifying a new clause added to the Nationality and Borders Bill which enables the government to remove British citizenship without even giving written notice to the person concerned.

So, as far as our government is concerned, it’s official: British citizenship is a privilege, not a right.

Sadly, this is an accurate statement of the law as it already stands. Historically, the status of “British subject” was indelible and inalienable for those who were born with it. It really was a right; a birthright in fact. A “natural-born” subject acquired that status simply by being born in the crown’s dominions. It came with a two-way obligation of allegiance: protection in exchange for loyalty and service. A change to the law after the First World War enabled the government to take British nationality away, but only from those who had actively chosen to naturalise as British. Even this limited and relatively uncontroversial power was later modified to prevent the stripping of citizenship where it would leave the person stateless.

But in 2003 and again in 2006, a Labour government amended the law. This was driven almost entirely by the public furore around notorious cleric Abu Hamza. Two momentous changes were made. Firstly, the power to take citizenship away even from those born with the status was conferred on the home secretary. Secondly, the legal test for whether a person’s citizenship could be taken away was reduced from being a matter of vital national security to simply being “conducive to the public good.” The only limitation was that the power could not be used if it would leave the person stateless.

Citizenship-stripping was almost unknown until 2010, but since then hundreds have had their status taken away

Few protested at the time and there was zero public awareness. There seemed no need for alarm. Citizenship stripping was virtually unknown other than in one or two high-profile cases. But bad cases famously make bad law, and Labour had inadvertently created a two-tier system of citizenship. Where a British citizen had no other nationality, they were safe. But where they did hold another nationality, their citizenship was now conditional on their behaviour being conducive to the public good. And many children with foreign-born parents hold more than one nationality, often unknowingly.

British nationality is not the same as having a British passport. We don’t emerge from the womb clutching a passport, but almost all of us will be born with a nationality. It all depends on the laws of the country in which you are born and the country of citizenship of your parents, or even grandparents. Many countries, including the United Kingdom, automatically confer citizenship on the children who are born abroad to citizens of that country. So a person born in the UK as a British citizen to a foreign parent may well find that they also hold the same nationality as that parent. They are a dual national. And since 2006, that has meant their British citizenship can be taken away from them without leaving them stateless.

This is what happened to Shamima Begum. She was born British in the United Kingdom, but the British government argues she inherited Bangladeshi citizenship from her parents and therefore can lawfully be stripped of her British citizenship. Hers is not an isolated case. Citizenship-stripping was almost unknown in the United Kingdom until 2010, but since then hundreds of citizens have had their status taken away from them by the government, often leaving them stranded abroad.

The courts have been little help. The legal powers conferred on the government are so extensive and draconian that there is little scope for judges to intervene. And in early February the Supreme Court held that there is no common law or constitutional right to citizenship. The court was unwilling to interfere with the unaffordable level at which fees had been set for the registration of children as British citizens.

All this leaves British nationality as a hollow shell. There are no rights that are unique to it. The so-called “right of abode” is shared with some Commonwealth citizens and not all British nationals possess it. The right to vote is shared with some resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens. Access to the social security safety net is not linked to citizenship, nor is jury duty. British citizenship is today little more than a form of immigration status, and a revocable one at that. For the millions of British citizens who are dual nationals, many of whom are from minority ethnic backgrounds, their citizenship is contingent on their good behaviour.

The debate generated by clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill is very much to be welcomed. Far more British citizens are now aware of the draconian powers already possessed by the government and the conditional citizenship status of so many of us. But the fundamental problem is not with new proposals over the written notice given or not given when taking a person’s citizenship away from them. The problem is the breadth of the underlying power, which dates back to changes nearly two decades ago. British citizenship should be a right, at least for those who are born with it.