As the Nationality and Borders Bill passes through the UK parliament, it is urgent to consider the role of citizenship in postcolonial Britain. Indeed, the threat of losing one’s citizenship without warning looms large for people of colour. At the same time, incoming asylum seekers also saw their hopes of acquiring British citizenship one day evaporate, as the Home Office struck a deal with Rwanda to process asylum claims offshore. Both of these developments have a larger history, firmly grounded in the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970s. The ideas of the father of British neoliberal politics, as Robbie Shilliam calls Enoch Powell, offer crucial insight into this history.
Already in the 1950s, Hannah Arendt understood that citizenship was the basis of all rights. Yet, when she wrote On the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, a world entirely comprising of nation-states, each with their own citizens, did not yet exist. It would take until the late 1970s, with decolonization (almost) complete, that citizenship gained the unabated monopoly over people’s legal identities. In the colonial context, legal identity had long been a patchwork of statuses, especially in Britain. While the world changed, British legal realities regarding identity did not immediately follow. It is precisely in this context of a world transforming from colonial empires to nation-states that Powell started to translate neoliberalism, which had fascinated him since the 1930s, into politics and eventually policy.
Powell became infamous for his Rivers of Blood speech on April 20, 1968, at a meeting of the Conservative Party in Birmingham. Reacting to the Race Relations Act of that year, Powell warned against immigration. He illustrated the perceived danger by giving racist examples, most notably a story about the maltreatment of a widow by her non-white lodgers, the authenticity of which was later contested. But why was Powell so opposed to the Race Relations Act, whose stated purpose was to harmonize relations between different racial groups in society by combining combating discrimination with reducing immigration from the Commonwealth? The answer can be found in Powell’s ideas on citizenship within the context of British imperial losses.
In 1964, Powell set out his agenda on race and citizenship in his review of a book by the neoliberal thinker William Hutt, a prominent member of the Mont Pelerin Society that brought together thinkers and proponents of the free market and open society. The piece gained Powell membership of the society too. In The Economics of the Colour Bar, Hutt had warned against democracy in South Africa, where a one-man-one-vote system would lead to “black imperialism” over a white minority, or “black supremacy (a mere turning of the tables)”. This conclusion let Hutt to renounce universal suffrage and instead plead for a system of weighted franchise in South Africa. Powell extrapolated Hutt’s proposal to the British context, seeing British nationals of colour as a threat for they could enter unrestricted, often with full citizenship and voting rights. For him, this immigration undermined British democracy itself. He wrote, “The idea of them as an unassimilated element in our society, living apart in certain districts and following certain occupations, is unsupportable.” From that moment onwards, he became very outspoken against non-white nationals, who threatened “a homogeneous community, local and national.”
The British Nationality Act of 1948 had expanded entry rights for colonial and Commonwealth nationals. With the Act, Britain abandoned its system of imperial subjecthood, in favour of a highly complex system, mixing citizenship, subjecthood, and nationality. Under the new law, some people could hold a British passport, and so nationality, without being a citizen or a subject. The system accommodated Commonwealth countries, particularly Canada, which wanted to maintain a legal bond with Britain but create its own national citizenship. The unforeseen side effect of the 1948 Act, however, was that virtually everyone in the colonies gained free access to the British Isles. As a result of immigration from the colonies, Britain became a more visibly multicultural society in the 1950s and 60s.
In view of rising race-related societal tensions, in 1962, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government would install the first restrictions against this movement of non-white nationals: the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. It introduced a system of employment vouchers for all Commonwealth immigrants, regardless their origins. However, it was skewed towards white immigrants from the start as it favoured so-called ‘high-skilled’ labour.
Powell’s aversion to non-white citizenship was linked to his well-documented grief for the loss of empire. As historian Quinn Slobodian argues, neoliberalism was more than just an economic program of hyper liberalization and free market orthodoxy. It had a political agenda, that is, restoring the “totality” of the world system that was threatened by fragmentation caused by the end of empire.
Yet, as a true neoliberal, Powell actually did not oppose immigration entirely. While he was Health Minister in Macmillan’s first Cabinet, between 1960 and 1963, he invited foreign workers into the NHS, especially doctors from the Indian subcontinent and West Indian nurses. His Rivers of Blood speech, surprisingly, does not contradict this former initiative. Powell warned that “the Commonwealth immigrant came to Britain as a full citizen, to a country which knew no discrimination between one citizen and another, and he entered instantly into the possession of the rights of every citizen, from the vote to free treatment under the National Health Service.” He clarified that he was not against immigration per se, but against “settlement”, saying “this has nothing to do with the entry of Commonwealth citizens, any more than of aliens, into this country, for the purposes of study or of improving their qualifications, like (the Commonwealth doctors who, to the advantage of their own countries, have enabled our hospital service to be expanded faster than would otherwise have been possible. They are not, and never have been, immigrants.” In other words, Powell was not opposed to foreign labour, such as the NHS workers, as long as they would not possess citizenship rights in the UK.
Powell’s thought had massive impact on policy. His speech pressured the newly elected Labour government to tighten the existing Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968. Harold Wilson’s government thus introduced the concept of ‘belonging’ in the updated Act. “United Kingdom belongers” could only be those who were born, naturalized, or adopted in the United Kingdom or had at least one parent or grandparent in that category. “Non-belongers” were subject to migration control and non-white British passport holders could no longer freely travel to Britain. In other words, their (valid) passports no longer guaranteed that they could even enter the country that had issued them. For many people in the British colonies, independence allowed them to acquire local, national citizenship that granted them legal protection. For some other groups, however, independence did not automatically mean that they lost their British citizenship: for example, the Asian diaspora, the quintessential symbol of British colonialism.
Through a glitch in the law, large numbers of Asians (estimated several million), especially from East Africa, retained their right of entrance to Britain. Powell’s largest problem was with this situation. He fulminated against complex legal constructions, such as the Immigrants Acts and the Race Relations Acts. Instead, he wanted to eradicate non-white British citizenship once and for all, by changing the 1948 British Nationality Act.
The reason why Wilson’s government opted for a (racist) change in immigration law over a new nationality act is rather cynical. Britain had ratified all international conventions to prevent statelessness and changing its nationality law would invariably leave millions across the globe without legal protection from any state. It had not yet ratified all human rights conventions, which stipulated that citizens should always be able to return to their state of citizenship. Wilson’s Home Secretary, James Callaghan, simply found it easier to err against an international rule that the UK government could not be held accountable for. Nevertheless, Powell’s ideas were and are perfectly executed by his political heirs. In the first place, of course, Margaret Thatcher changed the 1948 British Nationality Act in 1981. From that moment onwards, British citizenship outside of Britain was eradicated and replaced by substitute legal statuses that made people stateless in everything except in name. They had no right to travel to Britain or to claim other forms of protection. Still, they often had (and have) no other nationality than a British one.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is an amendment of the 1981 British Nationality Act. The most impactful change is that British citizens of colour living in the UK can be deprived of their citizenship without warning. Home Secretary Priti Patel thus goes one step further to realize Enoch Powell’s neoliberal vision. The message is clearly that black and brown bodies can never be secure in their right to be British citizens. In essence, the conservative reaction against Britain’s loss of empire is still shaking the basic human right to nationality – the precondition to have rights in Arendt’s vision – to its core.
Sara Cosemans obtained her Ph.D. at KU Leuven (Belgium), after graduating from the joint program in International and World History at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on late twentieth century migration and refugee movements caused by imperial transitions, such as decolonization and Cold War power fluctuations.