On the 7th July, the Guardian, the BBC and the Daily Mail all reported the sad case of Darrell and Darren Roberts, two brothers in their twenties, born and raised in the UK, who now face deportation to two different Caribbean countries that neither of them has ever visited. They are to be deported because despite being born in Britain, never living anywhere else, and being orphans taken into Social Care at the age of 13, they are not British Citizens. As such, having both served prison sentences of more than one year, they face automatic deportation upon release.
For all its shortcomings, under traditional, historic British law this particular absurdity was not possible: anyone born in British territory was a British Subject and that was that. With the retreat from Empire though, British nationality has been defined and redefined over and over again. In 2020 there are five types of British Nationality that don’t give British Citizenship, or the right to live or work in the UK; and there are millions of people with the right to live and work in the UK, claim benefits and use the NHS, who aren’t British Nationals or Citizens. This latter group largely have the administrative legal status of ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’.
This is, what is commonly known as, a complete mess. As anyone who has had to negotiate the system will attest, nobody ever found it difficult to distinguish between Home Office bureaucracy and a ray of sunshine. But in fairness to the Home Office, they can only implement the byzantine legal framework successive governments and parliaments have given them.
While the shift from Empire to Commonwealth left various types of UK-British Nationality that involve neither citizenship nor the right to live and work in the UK, the massive immigration since the 1990s has seen a huge increase in the number with ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’. This piecemeal approach has accelerated recently, with the ‘Settled Status’ scheme for EU citizens, creating over 3.4 million people following this unique route to Indefinite Leave to Remain.
Last month it was Boris Johnson’s turn to propose the creation of another large class of people with residency rights in the UK but without British citizenship, with his offer to over 3 million Hong Kongers. As is almost traditional now in these circumstances, he did not propose to extend them citizenship, or use one of the current routes to Indefinite Leave to Remain, but rather suggested the creation of an entirely new visa scheme.
While this all makes excellent work for the bureaucracy, there are downsides to this approach to residency, nationality and citizenship. And not just for the millions who must navigate the labyrinth every year, or those who fall foul without even realising they don’t have the papers they need, like the Roberts brothers and the victims of the recent Windrush scandal.
The historic perspective, where everyone born in Britain was a British subject, was based on a reflexive assumption that both rights and duties were innately linked in the foundations of a national community. British subjects or citizens could not be cast aside, and at the same time every citizen had clear responsibilities to their country. There is a positive equality possible in this idea of citizenship. The phrase ‘second-class citizen’ cannot be neutral, it contains an implicit, essential rebuke: that it is an injustice by definition, an ethical oxymoron.
In recent years this whole conception is increasingly out of favour with either side of the political spectrum. On the progressive left any idea of a national unity founded on a shared, patriotic history and geography is enough to make many people’s hair stand on end. But the neo-liberal right is equally suspicious of the idea individuals might be constrained by duties and responsibilities to their community, including the nation. To be fair though, nativist conservatism bears as much historical responsibility as other political poles, the practical destruction of a unified British citizenship was achieved from the 1960s to 80s in an effort to legally constrain immigration. The result also has as much to do with administrative convenience (meaning convenience for the administration, not the other way round) as any ideological motivations.
The current approach results in citizenship not being an essential feature of living in Britain, but rather an optional extra
Either way, the result is a replacement of a concept of citizenship in an organic community, involving rights and duties; with various forms of purely administrative ‘Right to Remain’, legal statuses of residence without presumption of any deeper commitment. The accompanying macro-concept of the country goes from being a shared national story, with a land brought alive by the history it shares with a people; to an arbitrary geographic area over which an administration provides services to whoever happens to be living there.
This idea spreads, by inertia as much as anything else, because it is convenient in different ways to the administrative, corporate and cultural elites, in other words, the left and right liberals who run society. At the same time, it goes unquestioned by many conservatives because if you don’t look very hard you might mistake it for immigration restriction. The reality, though, is that it undermines the sense of national community and mutual responsibility while leaving a large population at the administrative mercy of the bureaucracy. But what would an alternative look like?
Perhaps a system that aimed for almost everyone in Britain to be either citizens or temporary visitors (whether for work, education, tourism or another reason). One where immigration was controlled and permanent residents were actively encouraged to gain citizenship and thus solidify their status and formally join the national community. A citizenship that required a demonstration of commitment to the UK, but did not cost thousands of pounds to secure. A more genuinely, conservative approach to immigration and integration might offer citizenship to anyone who serves in the British Armed Forces for more than two, three or five years; but tighter limits on generic routes of immigration. At the same time, it would oppose dilutions of citizenship such as spreading voting rights to all residents.
The current approach tends to result in citizenship not being an essential feature of living in Britain, but rather an optional extra, an aesthetic preference sprinkled on top of the real meat and veg of rights to live, work, claim benefits and use public services in the UK. But if we do wish to promote unity, community and responsibility within our remarkable diversity, then this is one unconscious trend we may wish to consciously reconsider.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe