British citizenship

Why does it matter?

What is british citizenship and why does it matter?

In its strictest sense, citizenship is a legal status that means a person has a right to live in a state and that state cannot refuse them entry or deport them.

This legal status may be conferred at birth, or, in some states, obtained through ‘naturalisation’. In wealthy liberal democratic states citizenship also brings with it rights to vote, rights to welfare, education or health care etc. In this formal sense, citizenship acquisition for oneself or one’s children is seen as principally related to migrants. However, it is important to recognise that citizenship isn’t only about migrants, but is more generally about individuals’ relations to the state and to each other.

Liberal ‘republican’ positions in particular have emphasised the relation between citizenship and political participation such as voting, engagement in civil society and other forms of political mobilisation. Moreover, as well as a legal status, citizenship can also indicate a subjective feeling of identity and social relations of reciprocity and responsibility. Sometimes these are described in words like ‘loyalty’, ‘values’, ‘belonging’ or ‘shared cultural heritage’. This also points to the complex and often assumed relation between citizenship and belonging to ‘the nation’.


The British debate on immigration and citizenship occurs within a context of more than a decade of policies and reviews on citizenship more generally. When the Labour government came to power in 1997 it strongly emphasised ‘active citizenship’, an attempt to transform citizens from what was perceived as ‘passive recipients of public services’ to actively engaged participants in public life (Mayo and Rooke 2006). In 1998 a policy review of citizenship education in England was conducted by Sir Bernard Crick. In September 2002, following its recommendation, citizenship education was introduced as a statutory subject in English secondary schools.

Also in 2002 The Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration (ABNII) was established, again chaired by Sir Bernard Crick, to develop proposals for language and citizenship courses and tests for applicants to British citizenship. It took place against the background of a number of disturbances in towns in Northern England, including Bradford, in 2001, which given rise to concerns about ‘community cohesion’ and a lack of ‘shared values’ (Home Office 2001a; Ryan 2010).The ‘Life in the UK Advisory Group’ situated its work within a much broader policy remit however, including ‘a wider citizenship agenda’.

In 2007 then Prime Minister Gordon Brown requested a review of British citizenship to clarify the legal rights and responsibilities of different categories of citizenship and nationality, and the incentives for residents to become citizens. The ‘Lord Goldsmith Citizenship Review’ was also requested to ‘explore the role of citizens and residents in civic society, including voting, jury service and other forms of civil participation’. The review, while focussing on the legal aspects of citizenship, was again therefore set within a broader policy context.

The new coalition government has continued to emphasise the importance of citizenship, but situating it within the context of the Big Society. This emphasises the responsibility of individual citizens and communities to solve problems build communities. In November 2010 the government announced who had been selected to run the pilot projects for the National Citizen Service. These will run programmes for 16 year olds to develop the skills to be “active and responsible citizens” In sum, the debate on the legal status of citizenship is taking place within a broader debate about Britishness and ‘national identity’.

The legal status (but often not the broader debate) also has to manage both the legacies of the British Empire and Britain’s membership of the European Union. The Labour Government of 1997-2010 increasingly moved to incorporate aspects of subjective identity and social relations into the process of attaining the legal status of citizenship and introduced significant changes to the processes of citizenship and settlement. The naturalisation policy of the coalition government is not yet clear but there is likely to be a policy announcement in the coming months.




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