The future of the left since 1884

Real belonging

What does being British mean? The answer to that question is very different depending on the colour of your skin, argues Zubaida Haque.


Long read

Over the August bank holiday weekend, I received a text message from Jade [not her real name]. “I’m finally applying for citizenship again,” it said. “I’ve finally saved all the money and gathered all the paperwork”. I couldn’t be more pleased for her. Jade was born in the UK and had never been abroad, but because no one had registered her as a British citizen before the age of 10, she had – due to a number of petty crimes as a teenager while in care – lost her eligibility to apply for British citizenship for an indefinite period. Jade’s biggest concern was that even though she had no experience of any other country, she could be deported at any moment.

Her fears were not unfounded. Given the Conservative government’s Windrush scandal, in 2018, Theresa May’s post-2012 ‘hostile environment’ policies (now renamed as ‘compliant environment’) and controversial deportation charter flights of people from mostly black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, Jade had every reason to believe she would be deported at any time. Not only were her parents ’foreign’ but she had also failed one of the many controversial citizenship tests which disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority and foreign people living in the UK compared to people with white British heritage.

Jade is in her early 20s and a woman of colour. Until recently she had always assumed she was British but when she went to apply for a British passport (so she could take a work trip abroad) she was told she was not eligible for British citizenship because she had failed the ‘good character test’ – an assessment carried out on all citizenship applicants, including children, in which potential citizens must be deemed ‘of good character on the balance of probabilities’.

It is difficult to have a strong sense of British identity when your citizenship is conditional.

Jade’s case is not anomalous; in fact, her experience is one shared by many BME and foreign-heritage citizens who have lost their rights to citizenship (temporarily or permanently) because they are not native-born.

Birthright citizenship was removed in the UK in 1983 through the Nationality Act in 1981. The motivations of Margaret Thatcher, then Conservative prime minister, had undoubted xenophobic undertones, echoing of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968. In a TV interview for Granada’s World in Action in 1978, Thatcher said: “Well now, look…there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”

Despite Thatcher’s concern about being ‘swamped’, parliament at the time sought to protect ‘non-native’ children born or growing up in the UK from being denied British citizenship through provisions emphasising ‘close connection to the UK’ and the importance of maintaining ‘good race relations’. It was actually the Labour government which subsequently undermined parliament’s original intentions to protect the citizenship of children with foreign parents by introducing the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act in 2006. It not only blurred the distinction between registration for people entitled to citizenship with ‘naturalisation’ for people migrating to the UK, but more significantly inappropriately extended the ‘good character’ requirement to children as well as adults. This ill-conceived Labour policy has meant that since 2006, hundreds of children over the age of 10, from predominantly BME backgrounds, as well as those growing up in care and with learning difficulties have been deprived of citizenship protection because of some form of (often minor) contact with the criminal justice system. It has also exposed these children, once they have become adults, to risks of detention and deportation.

The vulnerability of citizens in limbo – ‘undocumented’ citizens – has been painfully evident in the frequent use of mass deportation charter flights since 2010. The Home Office has argued that these flights contain only ‘foreign national offenders’ but appeal cases on a Jamaican charter flight this year revealed that 13 people on the flight had come to the UK as children, nine of whom were under the age of 10 when they arrived, 11 had indefinite leave to re-main and one person even had a British passport. Not only is there evidence to suggest that people (predominantly of colour) on these mass charter flights are ‘more British than foreign’ but there’s also strong evidence to suggest that these so-called ‘foreign national offenders’ were being punished twice (three times if you include detention) for crimes they had already served sentences for.

What these citizenship cases illustrate is that if you have ‘foreign’ or non-white British parents in the UK you have every reason to believe that you will be treated as a second-class (or non) citizen if your behaviour is deemed to not meet ‘good character’ requirements, to be ‘unacceptable’ or against the ‘public good’. Most of these criteria are vague in their definitions (for instance, there is no statutory definition of good character) and range from acts of terrorism to instances of ‘notoriety’ and ‘other non-conducive activities’. What is for certain is that these criteria are applied disproportionately against people of colour by politicians seeking popular votes and because of well-documented racial biases within the British criminal justice system.

Shamima Begum’s citizenship is a case in point. While the British teenager’s case is emotive because she ran away at the age of 15 to join ISIS in Syria, it is a stark example of how British citizens with BME parents or foreign heritage are vulnerable to losing their citizenship because of citizenship criteria which only applies to them and not their ‘native’ white British counterparts. British nationals can only be stripped of citizenship if they have dual citizenship and are not made stateless.

What is clear is that the test of Britishness for people of colour, or indeed for anyone with foreign heritage, is no longer about birthright, length of stay, ‘close connection’ or even having a British family or children; it is about ‘whiteness’ and whether you’re able to pass good character citizenship tests which are highly racialised in their application.

The time is ripe for a wholesale reform of nationality and citizenship laws. Questions about identity and belonging for BME, European and indeed any citizens with ‘foreign’ heritage in Britain are not only important because of the Conservative government’s hostile environment policies; they have also been thrown into sharp focus by the Brexit vote. There is substantial evidence to show that hate abuse and hate crimes against BME, European, Muslim and Jewish people have gone up since 2016. Fundamentally, such hate crimes show us that racists believe that it’s possible to tell whether someone is ‘truly British’ based on the colour of their skin, their religion, ethnic dress or even accent. Arguably, these attitudes are reflected in our citizenship laws.

A general election is increasingly likely to take place soon. When the country goes to the polls, then we will have the chance to elect a new government which could seek to rectify this unequal and unfair citizenship status for people of colour and those with foreign heritage. A good place to start would be to reintroduce birthright citizenship since, as we have seen, acquiring or registering British citizenship for people whose parents are not British, have indefinite leave to remain or settled status at the time of their birth is hugely problematic. In addition, a new government could remove provisions/nationality clauses (eg good character tests) which disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority citizens because of well-evidenced racial biases within the British public sector and the criminal justice system. And as controversial as it will be, a new government could amend legislation which makes it easier for home secretaries to strip UK dual nationals of British citizenship when the government of the day deems their behaviour to be not conducive to the public good.

It is true that these acts alone would not remove the second-class status of black and ethnic minority citizens in this country. That has been a significant challenge since post-war migration from former colonies in the late 1940s. But legislation around both nationality and race relations – would send a strong signal to both the public at large and to BME citizens or citizens with foreign heritage in particular: your rights as a British citizen should not be conditional based on your heritage. This would not only facilitate belonging, it would also contribute to a strong sense of British identity.

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Zubaida Haque

Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director of the Runnymede Trust.


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