Between discipline and dissent: revoking citizenship is dangerous whatever the crime

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Attempts to render terror suspects stateless, represent a dangerous step towards revoking the citizenship of anyone who dissents, and highlight a shift in the meaning of citizenship from emancipation to conformity.

tonkiss (1) Stories emerged earlier this week about Home Secretary Theresa May’s plans to make terror  suspects stateless by revoking their UK citizenship. The Government is already able to revoke UK citizenship from those with a dual citizenship, however according to these reports options are being explored to overturn international human rights conventions in order to strip citizenship from those with only a UK passport – rendering them stateless.


Not really British

It is interesting that the powers are intended to remove citizenship from ‘terror suspects’ and not ‘convicted terrorists’, implying that judgments over whether or not suspects are involved in types of behaviour that are ‘seriously prejudicial to the UK’ could be made outside of a formal legal proceeding.

Furthermore, the UK legal system – while it does not allow convicted criminals to vote – does not strip citizenship from those criminals. Could this power be extended to others, or is there a working assumption here that all terror suspects are ‘not really British’, and therefore can have their citizenship removed at the discretion of the state?

Discipline or dissent?

This points to a wider shift in the meaning we attribute to citizenship today. Traditionally, citizenship has been defined as a set of civil, social and political rights, and as such was conceptualised as emancipatory: the right to vote, the provision of basic social rights, the right to be treated equally, and so forth.

However, increasingly that meaning is changing, and particularly this has been in relation to how citizenship is gained. As May has continually commented, citizenship is now understood as a ‘privilege’ not a right, and it is something that is ‘earned’ through ‘good character’, citizenship testing and pledging allegiance.

All of this implies the requirement to conform to the state in order to gain citizenship. The citizenship test itself has been revised to include more content on history and culture, something which – as I have argued elsewhere – implies a greater demand for conformity to a specific type of state-sanctioned British identity.

The idea that citizenship can be revoked is dangerous no matter what the alleged crime, because it implies the ability of the state not only to demand conformity in gaining citizenship, but also that the state can revoke that citizenship at any time if someone is judged to have dissented. This is not the ideal of citizenship that lies at the heart of liberal democracy.

Dr Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham. She is interested in migration, citizenship and post-nationalism – particularly in relation to policy-making in the UK and the EU. Her book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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