With increasing frequency, the withdrawal of British citizenship is being used as a national security tool. Since 2002, 53 people have been stripped of their British citizenship; of these, 48 have had it removed during the Coalition government. Until recently, the Home Secretary had the power to take away a person’s citizenship if doing so was ‘conducive to the public good’ and did not make them stateless. Since the passing of the Immigration Act this year – after a brief scuffle with the Lords– the Home Secretary has gained the power to make naturalised citizens stateless.
The Home Secretary’s insistence on this particular clause is part of a wider move within government to change how the state considers citizenship. Earlier this month the Prime Minister announced new measures to seize passports to prevent suspected extremists from travelling, watering down proposed powers to ‘exclude British nationals from the UK.’ Boris would see foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq stripped of their citizenship, and David Davis would have their ‘short violent holiday’ transformed into a ‘life sentence to the lifestyle they claim to espouse.’ This pugilistic desire to cast British Islamist fighters into exile is understandable. Those who fight for Islamic State stand firmly against our core values, would relish our destruction, and indeed threaten it. The idea of taking away the citizenship of foreign fighters is also popular. In a recent poll, 61 per cent supported revoking the citizenship of British ISIS militants.
Despite its emotive appeal and its popularity, removing the citizenship of British militants fighting abroad is the wrong thing to do. In legal terms, making Britons stateless would be difficult to manage. For a start, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve argues that it would contravene ‘a United Nations convention of which we are signatories.’ Others have suggested that taking away a Briton’s citizenship might expose the British government to attack through the European Court of Human Rights. Certainly it does not serve the interests of the international community to have foreign fighters cast outside of the legal system of the UK and locked into the violence of Iraq, prevented from returning to face trial and sentence here. Taking away a British militant’s citizenship is not merely recognition of their failed responsibilities, but a rejection of the states’ responsibilities too. Once radicalised Britons commit atrocities in other countries, we are suggesting, it is no longer our problem; it is theirs. As well as undermining our pursuit of collective security in the international community, taking away the citizenship of those who pose a potential domestic threat or undermine our interests abroad sets a precedent for the worst kinds of abuse by authoritarian states. Taking away someone’s citizenship, in practice, amounts to the removal of their ‘right to have rights.’
More important than these practicalities are the principles behind citizenship itself. We are now at a crossroads. On the one hand, is citizenship as inviolate, a permanent – if transferable – bond of rights and responsibilities between a citizen and a state, a guarantee of a place within society. On the other is citizenship as defined by our collective adherence to a set of values and beliefs, binding citizens together conditionally. The ultimate vision this kind of state is Islamic State. To discard citizens based on their rejection of our values, rather than punish them within the bounds of our laws, is a radical if seductive proposition. It’s logic presents a distasteful vision of the future. What other problems might the withdrawal of citizenship solve? It is not hard to see how such a logic might feature in crime and justice, or even immigration.
Alternatively, we can resist the temptation for the hand-washing, quick fix solution that the withdrawal of citizenship represents. We can seek to reinforce our national identity. We can recognise the importance of these fundamental principles to our society. We can accept the burden of dealing – legally, protractedly, difficultly – with these militants. In short, we can embody with conviction those characteristics which are both the strength and the foundation of our society.