The power of the Home Office to revoke citizenship, which dates from 1914, originally applied only to British identities acquired after birth. It first became possible to act against UK-born citizens after 9/11, and the law now allows for deprivation whenever the home secretary is satisfied it’s ‘conducive to the public good’. For a century, however, an important safeguard was retained. Even the most troublesome citizen couldn’t be left stateless.
Things started to change with the Immigration Act 2014, which authorised home secretaries to disregard the rule against statelessness when it came to naturalised individuals, if it was reasonable to believe they could get citizenship somewhere else. A court ruling two years ago against Shamima Begum (the former Tower Hamlets schoolgirl who went to Syria as a fifteen-year-old to join Islamic State) affirmed that much the same applies to British-born people. Judges upheld the deprivation of her citizenship on the basis she was a dual national. They found she was Bangladeshi by descent, despite expert opinion to the contrary and a statement disavowing her from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. She has never set foot in Bangladesh.
The 22-year-old’s fate won’t be conclusively determined before November, but that preliminary finding illustrates that there are two tiers of British citizenship. Anyone eligible to be foreign – in the opinion of this country’s judges – may lose the right to be British. Suspected terrorists aren’t the only people disadvantaged by this. The law jeopardises anyone whose family ties arguably give rise to dual nationality. People of African, Asian or Caribbean heritage are disproportionately affected. According to one estimate, 5 per cent of the UK’s white population is vulnerable, compared to 41 per cent of non-whites.
A provision of the Nationality and Borders Bill that’s currently going through the House of Lords would make arbitrary enforcement more likely still. The home secretary’s power is already akin to banishment, thanks to a Supreme Court decision that Begum can’t return to the UK to fight her appeal. If Priti Patel gets her way, another procedural safeguard is going to crumble. Under Clause 9 of the bill, it will become justifiable to remove someone’s citizenship without telling them, whenever the Home Office finds notification impractical or thinks it ‘otherwise in the public interest’ to keep shtum. It won’t even be necessary to disclose a deprivation after it’s happened.
The clause was a late addition to the bill, and Patel hasn’t yet explained why it’s necessary. That’s because it’s a statutory afterthought, intended to circumvent a recent adverse court decision. It’s also myopic. Citizenship isn’t a ‘privilege’ (contrary to the Home Office’s repeated assertion) but an implicit promise from rulers to the ruled. In a phrase made famous by Hannah Arendt, it constitutes ‘the right to have rights’ – a foundation for stable societies, without which international order wouldn’t endure.
Eroding a civic cornerstone to disown national enemies is counterproductive, and no country should unilaterally worsen global statelessness. Patel and her colleagues might not agree with that, but a previous generation of Conservatives did. In September 1972, when Lord Hailsham outlined arrangements to admit Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin – refugees with UK passports who’d been hastily disqualified from British citizenship four years earlier – he conceded that ‘a state is under a duty as between other states to accept in its territories those of its nationals who have nowhere else to go.’
Comity has given way to widespread expediency (powers to strip citizenship from alleged or convicted terrorists have expanded in at least a dozen countries since 2010), and the UK has gone furthest. Even oligarchies and autocrats are showing more restraint. Laws recently tabled in Russia and Belarus threaten to repudiate citizens who perpetrate ‘crimes against the state’ and ‘extremist activities’, but they retain, in theory at least, a tradition that British governments have abandoned: if you’re native-born, you can’t be cut loose.
Plenty of parliamentarians will object when Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill is properly scrutinised for the first time later this month. Expanding the limits of an already draconian power isn’t a technical abstraction; to many people, including me, it’s personal. Though I was born in Parsons Green, my father grew up in Pakistan, which acknowledges citizenship by descent. That means the home secretary could annul my Britishness, without even telling me, on the strength of a foreign entitlement I wouldn’t know what to do with. Apologists for executive discretion often argue that the innocent needn’t worry, but that complacent assumption misses the point. It isn’t only the notional risk of a despotic home secretary that’s disturbing. It’s the injustice of knowing that most citizens face no risk at all.
Oddly enough, Priti Patel’s citizenship is also provisional. She’s nurtured a backstory that might seem to exclude dual nationality, involving her family’s arbitrary expulsion from Uganda in 1972, but in reality her father came to England in 1965, several years before Ugandan Asians had to start worrying about their passport entitlements. He’d emigrated to Africa from India, because his own father had hoped Uganda would offer economic opportunities, and was born in the state of Gujarat. That gives Patel a right to Indian citizenship by descent. The law she wants to extend will devalue her own legal claim to be British.