The unbearable lightness of citizenship

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, ConservatoryContemporary Controversies


In February this year, the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, stripped Shamima Begum of her citizenship. Begum had left Britain as a teenager in order to join ISIS. Javid’s argued that she wouldn’t be left stateless as she was already a citizen of Bangladesh, but Bangladesh refused to take her. In August, a similar decision was made in the case of ‘Jihadi Jack’ Letts.

In both cases, there was considerable criticism of the government’s decision, but others approved. At the root of the difference of opinion on this episode, there is agreement that citizenship is something to be taken very seriously. That seems to be at odds with a previously more relaxed idea that has become recently popular: that citizenship is something of a hindrance, a tie that binds, keeping people linked to places they no longer value. As an example of this thinking about citizenship as something more lightweight, it’s interesting to look at the anxiety at the outcome of the EU referendum. This was seen as stripping people of their ability to live and work in other EU member states. As a result, Ireland saw a significant increase in applications for Irish citizenship from British people.

Some citizens of other EU member states living in the UK have begun the process of applying for British citizenship, something that was previously a more urgent concern for immigrants from outside the EU. But if British citizenship is important, why did it take the Brexit decision for this to happen?

Do we even know what citizenship means? For example, there is wide variation in the way different states handle it. You can become a French citizen after living there for five years, but becoming a German citizen takes eight years. Some countries allow for dual nationality, while others do not. Perhaps these procedural irregularities reflect an absence of clarity on the nature of citizenship and its relation to language, culture, place and involvement in common goals and ideals.

If citizenship is more than visas, passports, pledges of allegiance, and other trappings of state organised process, what is it? Surely those who are already citizens should have a good sense of what it is and be able, with little or no hesitation, to articulate that meaning to each other and to new citizens. But if that’s true, why didn’t it stop Shamima Begum and others like her from leaving? What impact has the consternation at the treatment of Windrush-era immigrants had on the government’s approach? Should citizens have a role in granting citizenship, and should the government be able to take it away? Does something more fundamental – like language or culture or sense of place – underpin citizenship, and will it feel unbearably light if society can’t give an account of those?