Callooh! Callay! for the UK’s Antillean migrants. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised this afternoon that their applications for British citizenship would be fast-tracked, with the normal fees and citizenship test being waived. You might think that exam questions about whether the National Assembly for Wales meets in Cardiff or Glasgow (this is genuinely one of them) would be redundant for people who had lived on this island for decades. But I am not sure that we should be mollified here with common sense alone. Our own exam question is this: why should the state be ever required to process applications for citizenship? How is it that after a certain period of existing within a society, the individual does not receive citizenship unconditionally?
At the moment there is a fee to apply for citizenship and it can cost over £1000. These fees are clearly just imposed to scare poorer people away, though the Home Office has nonetheless raked in a happy £800m from its certificate-printing “services” since 2012. Next there is that patronising exam about “Life in the UK,” a test which 90% of one sample of indigenous entrants reportedly failed. Here is a question that I have picked out, entirely at random:
Q. What is British parliamentary sovereignty?
(a) A way in which we, the people, can wield power, over the government and our collective future. Parliamentary sovereignty is of such immense value because we fought a civil war against the monarchy and restricted the influence of the House of Lords in order to secure it. Generations of heroes and heroines – Chartists and Suffragettes and Battle of Britain pilots – are responsible for bringing us sovereignty.
b) Parliamentary sovereignty is of no value and you should cultivate a strenuous ignorance of its history and meaning. It is merely a tiny chip that can be traded away within the EU for tariff-free access.
If you have answered this question wrongly, then you are not British and you will have to leave the country immediately. Rudd’s helpful officials will frogmarch you to the next available EasyJet flight to Mogadishu.
It is surely far better for our values and cultural priorities, whatever they are, to be determined within the public sphere rather than dictated by the government. The concept of “the public sphere” – and specifically that outlined by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas – can potentially equip us with a radically alternative model of citizenship. This would not be a resource like the dole, whose provision is controlled and regulated by a state agency. Instead, it would be a civil liberty, rather like freedom of association, and it would ideally demarcate a prohibited space where, by a legal convention, the government could never tread.
Responding to the persecution of Caribbean migrants by delving into the technicalities of citizenship carries all the risk of letting the government off the hook. So let me be clear: Theresa May is enormously culpable. Indeed, I cannot think of a recent Prime Minister who has come into office being so squarely responsible for such an abuse of power. Margaret Thatcher had thieved milk from the nation’s schoolchildren – Gordon Brown is alleged to have sold off 58% of the UK’s gold reserves at a less than judicious juncture – but May’s Home Office had conducted the most extraordinary campaign of cruelty and terror.
It is estimated that more than 15,000 people are affected. They are part of the intake whose families had first arrived in the UK on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948 and who had been assured in 1971 that they enjoyed “indefinite leave to remain.” When, in 2012, the UK government suddenly dropped its surprise demand for written proof of this residency status, people who had assumed that they were as British as the Thames and the Times found their citizenship melting away into nothing. They lost their rights to benefits and healthcare; several were expelled from rented accommodation. Moreover, in 2014 Commonwealth citizens were stripped of a legal clause that had until then protected them from deportation.
Still, there is only so much headway to be gained by couching the Windrush scandal as a party political issue. Admittedly, the Tories’ target of reducing net immigration to fewer than 100,000 a year is foremostly to blame for the consequent scramble to boot out even de facto citizens of the country. There is nevertheless no qualitative difference between these immigration policies and those of every centrist government that has been in place during my adult lifetime.
Ever since the establishment of open borders with majority-white nations within the EU, it has become customary to treat immigrants from everywhere else with insolence and nastiness, almost as a kind of existential overcompensation for the broader loss of democratic control. Or perhaps the Windrush scandal has an affinity with older abuses. Under Jim Callaghan there was an immigration rule that women could freely enter the UK if they were engaged to marry a British citizen within three months. At least eighty Indian and Pakistani women were subjected to “virginity tests,” some of them at Heathrow airport. This must sit at the same dire end as the Windrush scandal on our “Welcome to the UK” spectrum.
Yet those who are criticising the mistreatment of Caribbean migrants are usually implying that the administration should have instead followed some more sensible procedures. The toxic assumption that the government is the ultimate decider of who gets citizenship and who doesn’t remains unregurgitated. And how can it be realistically possible to adhere to a spirit of liberal generosity within a system that is fundamentally queered against liberalism?
I do not know whether I am calling for unconditional citizenship or simply for a statute of limitations for deporting residents. After all, there are vast numbers of EU migrants in the UK who cannot be deported, and who enjoy numerous rights, even though they are not citizens. I deploy the term “citizenship” because it looks like the nicest thing in the shop, in, for instance, conferring voting rights upon its holder. For argument’s sake, I have nominated a period of three years, but this is a round figure and I cannot say that I have fully thought its implications through. It sounds like a number that the mass of the voting public might be satisfied with. You are presently required to have lived in the UK for over five years before you can apply for citizenship.
This is a moral reimagining of citizenship in which a person is judged after three years to be sufficiently woven into the social texture, through their presumed involvement in the public sphere, rendering their status as a citizen automatic. The unconditionality here affords an important update to prior notions of citizenship. Nations typically define citizenship based on jus soli (you were born within its borders) or jus sanguinis (you inherit your parents’ citizenship). Under my system, you are gradually implicated in your citizenship, purely by sticking around and being there.
Since the UK has no written constitution, my model of citizenship would have to be fixed in place by an ongoing political consensus. The government would need to pass a new law in which it relinquished its right to process citizenship and successive governments would need to respect this law as a convention. The NHS and the Scottish parliament can boast of no constitutional right not to be abolished. They continue to exist only for so long as the electorate remains enthusiastic about them. I am relaxed about relying upon the people to safeguard unconditional citizenship