Brexit Opposition And The Quiet Death Of Citizenship

It is difficult to have a serious conversation about citizenship in the Age of Brexit when so many people hold a such transactional, materialistic and reductionist definition of the concept as meaning little more than benefits received in exchange for taxes paid

One interesting and overlooked aspect of the Brexit debate is the extent to which the basic concept of citizenship has decayed and virtually evaporated from our public discourse, right under our noses, with barely any note of alarm being sounded in the process.

This decay reveals itself in manifold ways, from the furious pushback one inevitably receives when pointing out the obvious fact that citizens should (and do) have more rights than non-citizens to the outraged, moralising vitriol hurled at anybody who dares to suggest that illegal immigrants are technically lawbreakers and therefore maybe not universally worthy of respect, sympathy or amnesty.

These are now controversial positions to hold. To be steadfast in the belief that British citizenship confers more rights than those held by permanent residents or temporary visitors is to mark oneself out as something of an extremist, at least as far as the media and chattering classes are concerned. Yet many politicians in Britain and America who now wrap themselves in the mantle of conspicuous compassion for all illegal immigrants and effectively agitate for open borders could themselves not so long ago be found calling for tougher immigration enforcement.

This applies to the likes of Hillary Clinton in America, who once supported and voted for the same strengthening of the United States’ southern border which she now denounces as being tantamount to racism. Of course, Clinton has since positioned herself as a tireless champion of the “undocumented”, together with virtually all of the American Left. Similarly in Britain, many commentators who once dared to express reservations about uncontrolled immigration from within the EU have now taken up rhetorical arms against anybody who proposes a more rigorous immigration policy.

In both countries, but particularly in Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

This responsibility goes much deeper than just paying one’s taxes. It means making a serious commitment to community and, ideally, the enthusiastic acceptance of and assimilation into one’s home (or adopted) culture. Traditionally, the sign that an immigrant was willing to accept these broader responsibilities was their decision to apply for naturalisation as a citizen. Historically, if an immigrant were to build a life in another country, working and raising a family there, they would ultimately become a citizen of that country in most cases.

But today, many people demand the perks without accepting the responsibilities – hence the outrage of and on behalf of EU citizens who have built permanent or semi-permanent lives here yet refuse to see why they should formalise that commitment through the naturalisation process (or at least the acquisition of permanent residency following Brexit). They forget that the European Union is an aberration, that nowhere else in the developed world would countries offer so much while asking for virtually nothing in return.

Yet to point this out is to invite accusations of callousness and amorality. Of course there are exceptional cases where joint citizenship cannot be taken or some other bureaucratic or financial obstacle stands in the way of an EU migrant formalising their commitment to the United Kingdom. Such cases should be treated generously, with the aim of reducing any uncertainty for the migrants involved.

But this blog has very little sympathy when people demand something for nothing. Freedom of movement and other EU benefits are political entitlements. They are not – repeat, NOT – fundamental, inalienable rights.

A fundamental right is intrinsic to one’s humanity, as applicable to somebody in China, Russia, North Korea or Venezuela as to someone living in Britain. These are best summed up in the US Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, though one can also drill down a level further and acknowledge the universal human right to property, due process under law and so on. Fundamental rights are inherent; political entitlements are nice-to-haves, often given (in the EU’s case) partly as a means of securing support for a dubious political project which would otherwise be utterly unloved.

Of course we should have a degree of natural sympathy for anybody at risk of losing their current political entitlement to live and work in the United Kingdom without going through the arduous and expensive process of applying for permanent residency or citizenship – though a deal between Britain and the EU to secure reciprocal ongoing rights for UK and EU citizens is all but inevitable. Personally, I would offer expedited indefinite leave to remain to all current EU migrants at a greatly reduced fee. But others’ rights as EU migrants do not trump the sacrosanct (though not quite exclusive) right of British citizens to participate in our democracy and determine the course of the country.

The decision of the British people to secede from the European Union can not and must not be vetoed by or on behalf of people who refuse to assume the responsibilities and privileges of full citizenship. That such an obvious statement now sounds harsh or controversial is itself an indicator of how deeply corroded and devalued the concept of citizenship has become in our society. Yet this would have been the mainstream view in Britain a decade or more ago, and still very much is the accepted wisdom nearly everywhere else in the world.

Many Brexiteers – myself among them – did not spend 2016 tirelessly campaigning for Brexit because they hate immigrants, want to kick out existing migrants or even significantly lower net migration. But neither will we allow the protestations of those who refuse to share the commitment and mutual connection of citizenship with us to overshadow or overrule our vote.

This is not extreme, nor is it unreasonable. It is merely the consequence of adhering to the same traditional definition of citizenship which allows us to flourish as a society precisely because we are all bound to one another by something deeper than momentary convenience.

It remains to be hoped that Brexit will spark a renewed discussion about citizenship and the proper relationship between citizen, resident and government – indeed there are some early encouraging signs that such conversations are starting to take place.

But the furious reaction of the establishment Left to political developments both in Britain and America suggests that defenders of the concept of citizenship will be starting at a considerable disadvantage.


A British citizenship certificate is seen in London

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17 thoughts on “Brexit Opposition And The Quiet Death Of Citizenship

  1. fergusmeiklejohn September 29, 2017 / 11:02 PM

    Citizenship and identity generally have always been matters of personal choice to the extent that this was practical. The pilgrims on the Mayflower were making a choice. A “Briton” aspiring to become a Roman Citizen was making a choice. Now, of course, we have many more choices, and more people have the money and power to exercise them. This can put pressure on our other loyalties and previous choices.

    We need to remember that there is a difference between loyalty to our various identities (place of birth, religious group, ethnic group, adopted home, for example) and loyalty to the state. Imagine the following:

    Nazi Germany 1938. As a German citizen do you remain loyal to this new Germany which you despise? As a German in 1938, what are you loyal to? And where is that defined?

    Britain 2030. Brexit has caused poverty and economic disaster. The government rules by diktat and emergency powers. As a British citizen who voted and fought to the last to Remain, do you still offer loyalty to this British state? What are we loyal to? Where is it defined?

    Britain 2021. Faced with a hard Brexit the people narrowly vote to remain and elect a government, with a mandate to join the Euro and Schengen area. The EU has reformed to make it more democratic and accountable to the people, but that means ever closer union towards a federal state. As someone who fought for Leave, and believes in your heart that Britain is a sovereign nation which must be defended at all costs, where do you place your loyalty? To the state?

    I think the state can reasonably expect a good deal of loyalty in exchange for citizenship, but that loyalty will always be measured against our convictions and deeply held beliefs, about which we have a choice. It’s not just snowflake liberals who believe this. Far-right Christian white supremacists are also perfectly at ease crossing national boundaries to commune with their brethren in other nations. They seek to harness the power of the state to get what they want, but it’s what they want that’s important and if they were faced with the choice between loyalty to state and loyalty to their convictions most would choose the latter.

    This is all diminishing the state. And that might be considered a bad thing. But it’s an inevitable consequence of globalisation and the expansion of possibilities and opportunities at our fingertips.


  2. Ben September 16, 2017 / 10:13 AM

    “In both countries, but particularly in Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.”

    Can you point me to an article or other commentary made in pursuit of this argument? I cannot recall it having been made in those terms by anyone.


    • Samuel Hooper September 16, 2017 / 10:06 PM

      As far as I know this is a Sam Hooper original observation (TM). Others may have independently made similar arguments but I arrived at this view by noting how people talk about citizenship when I discuss it with them, how journalists and commentators write about it and the general tone of media coverage pre and post-Brexit. A skim of the Guardian’s Brexit coverage (or really any publication which publishes a lot of Remainer-sympathising viewpoints) show this attitude to be fairly widespread. A skim of the American mainstream media’s coverage of illegal (or “undocumented”) immigration will also reveal the same thing.


  3. Oaktree September 14, 2017 / 4:15 AM

    Sam Hooper: this is a good article. Can you consider a further one soon on the subject of dual citizenship? Brexit has caused (we are told) applications for passports from people who already hold passports – that is, people who are citizens of one European country seeking to become a citizen of a second country too.

    This apparently includes UK citizens applying for Irish passports (without abandoning their UK passports) and people from continental countries who live in Britain applying for a British passport too (presumably this means going through the naturalisation process?). One wonders how many people who announce that they are planning to do it actually do – but it is evidently happening.

    It is questionable why people should be able to be dual citizens if they live in democracies and are free to travel and work abroad. The ability to claim benefits in a second country seems to be one impetus. But it can cause people costs, like two tax liabilities. Some countries do not allow their citizens to take another citizenship without renouncing their existing one, but there seem to be many countries which are happy to agree to dual citizenship.

    You article of 12 September explains well how citizenship is becoming a sort of transaction – benefits for taxes,and no longer an allegiance to a nation. The large increase in people obtaining (why not triple?) citizenship could further undermine the significance and value of being a citizen of a country.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. rapscallion September 13, 2017 / 7:36 AM

    Citizenship, of whatever country carries with it certain rights and responsibilities. Dependent on the country involved you may have more rights than responsibilities or vice versa; the point remains however that as a citizen you accept them or go somewhere else. We are back to my house, my rules again aren’t we.

    I agree with Sylvia – much more should be made of this ceremony – even utilising the US way of doing it wouldn’t go amiss.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Seen2013 September 13, 2017 / 12:17 AM

    “In both countries, but particularly in Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.”

    In the US, it’s respectively:
    -Secular Law interpretation of the US Constitution such as “The US Constitution grants rights” rather than enshrines unalienable rights.
    -Guilty until proven innocent-guilty by association catalyst of open border policies.
    -National Sovereignty that encompasses citizenship-residency. It’s also in direct conflict with Secular Law given under Sacred Law (unalienable rights) ordinances, decrees, legislation, and laws cannot bypass the Bill of Rights.

    It reminds me of Empires of old via Oligarchy, Kleptocracy, Plutocracy, or otherwise Aristocracy given the foundations are governmental fiefdoms, public-private partnerships, and public-private mergers cupped with extended periods of rule; it shouldn’t really be surprising in a historical prospective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper September 13, 2017 / 12:31 AM

      Agreed – and of these, the most pernicious idea is that the US Constitution (or indeed any government) “grants” rights as opposed to limiting the state and enshrining inalienable rights.


  6. Sylvia September 12, 2017 / 9:20 AM

    This is utterly disgusting. The person reading sounded as if she was speaking to an eight year old and I agree with the comment above, there was no ceremony and no national anthem. I hope this new Subject knows the words of our anthem?


    • Samuel Hooper September 12, 2017 / 9:26 AM

      It certainly was not the best or most formal ceremony. There should certainly have been the national anthem played, and the officiator’s tone is somewhat patronising, as you point out.

      But for all that, you can tell how much the new citizen is moved and affected by being conferred with British citizenship, twice pausing to dry her eyes. The ceremony clearly means something to her, which is as it should be – she takes her newfound citizenship seriously, more so frankly than many natural-born citizens.

      And though this ceremony is not the best example, I do quite like the intimate nature of it, given that there is only one candidate present. My wife will soon be attending a similar ceremony when her citizenship is approved, and I understand the ceremonies at Camden Town Hall – typically with 10+ candidates – to be a much more formal affair.


  7. dpl September 12, 2017 / 8:18 AM

    Getting citizenship should be a proud and moving moment – it clearly was at a ceremony I attended with new citizens belting out the national anthem showing that it clearly meant a lot to them.

    I genuinely feel great pride to see someone become a citizen of the UK but at the same not requiring that they lose the love and attachment to their original place of birth. In fact that kind of dual appreciation is one of the strongest contributions that naturalized citizens bring.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper September 12, 2017 / 8:52 AM

      I feel the same – hence including the video at the top of the article. Though this was a small and far from formal ceremony, with just one new citizen being naturalised, you can see how much it means to her. That is as it should be. Citizenship is more than a set of lifestyle benefits, and we should treat it as such.


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