Despite the headline, I actually don’t want to talk about Shamima Begum in the specific very much in this article. I don’t want to get lost in discussing what it is she did that led the Home Office to strip her of her British citizenship; I want instead to focus on why I think that move by the government creates extremely problematic issues for what British citizenship actually is – for every British citizen, whatever their race, background or birthplace.
Stripping existing citizens of their citizenship is something I feel instinctively hostile towards. If someone who has become a British citizen does something really terrible, well, we made them a citizen and so it’s kind of our problem now. That, to me, is the citizenship deal. You can argue that British citizenship should be more difficult to acquire – that is a separate conversation – but I really think that citizenship confers rights and responsibilities in both the person who receives it and the state that grants it. The state in question shouldn’t be able to just take it away, regardless of how bad a crime is committed by one of its citizens. There is the criminal justice system as a means of punishment available and the UK’s is robust and not corrupt.
Let’s think this out. Say a white English guy commits a terrorist atrocity. Let’s make this even easier as a comparison with the Begum case: he runs off to the Middle East and joins a fundamentalist jihadi organisation and then, just to up the ante here, returns to England and masterminds some horrible atrocity in London or another English city. Would we strip this person of their citizenship? Even if their English ancestry was provable for every one of their forebearers back to 1066?
Okay, I made that one a little too easy, since you could rightly point out that doing so would obviously make such a person stateless (although there seems to be some big question marks on this in the Begum case, but I digress). What about if you had the same scenario outlined in the paragraph above – except the terrorist in this instance was white, born in England, as were his parents and three of his grandparents, with one of his grandparents having been Irish. Would the fact that, although this person doesn’t have an Irish passport and has never even considered applying for one, the fact that they are entitled to one mean that citizenship revocation would be seriously considered by the Home Office in this instance?
I think you can see the point I’m making here, and the fact that this is intelligible says some scary things about what Shamima Begum having her citizenship revoked says about how we define British citizenship. Because it seems like the deal is that if you’re really English, then obviously having your citizenship taken away would be ludicrous and unthinkable; but for those who are very obviously of non-English heritage, that citizenship’s continuing validity becomes dependent on behaviour. Okay, behaviour involving joining horrific terrorist organisations that want to enslave the world, yes, but it’s conditional nonetheless. Further, the scale seems to be a sliding one: just how white are you that your British citizenship is unquestionable, regardless of what a horrible shit you turn out to be? How British are you ancestrally so that stripping your citizenship begins to become a possibility? Where is the genetic/geographic line in the sand where this starts to become relevant?
This is why Shamima Begum having her citizenship revoked is worth looking at for all British citizens. If someone can have theirs taken away for committing a crime, regardless of how horrible that crime may be, then it devalues the very idea of what British citizenship is for everyone. I think that’s worth talking about a little more than we are doing at present.
I am the son of the Windrush generation who obtained a British passport for my first school trip aged 10. My daughter obtained her British passport aged five to go to Disneyland with her aunt. I had assumed she, at least, was safely British.
The Shamima situation demonstrates the need for a new constitutional settlement and a written constitution. We need to seriously constraint the vile oligarchs of the political parties who govern us on whims.