The Meaning of Citizenship – A Policy Primer

posted in: News | 0

Citizenship is a legal status that confers the right to live in a state and to claim benefits, voting rights and access to public services. It can be granted by birth or naturalisation and is usually a precondition for employment. It can also have social and cultural dimensions, providing a sense of belonging to a community and a sense of responsibility to the state. But the definition of citizenship varies between nations and can be shaped by political culture, values and beliefs. In this policy primer we explore the meaning of citizenship, its relations to ideals of cohesion and integration and how it is shaped by the law.

There is an enduring debate over what citizenship means. It is often framed by the question: Is citizenship an end point, a reward for being integrated, or is it part of the process of constructing a cohesive society? If it is the latter, then it would suggest that citizenship should be widely available. But if it is the former, then restricting access would undermine its value.

In the United Kingdom citizenship policy is a particularly fascinating example of this debate as it involves both the legal concept of citizenship and broader questions about belonging and Britishness. The current government has reframed the debate by making settlement and citizenship acquisition more difficult (by breaking the link between length of stay and the right to settle) and by introducing tests to promote citizenship. In doing so it is creating an increasingly narrow space for a sense of belonging without formal citizenship and sharpening the distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

This move has been prompted by the Bradford disturbances of 2001 which led to a new emphasis on community cohesion and a sense of belonging in the UK. The Cantle Report, and later the Building Cohesive Communities document commissioned by Home Office highlighted the importance of English language acquisition and an oath of national allegiance for migrants. These ideas were then taken up by the Life in the UK Advisory Group and incorporated into the government’s policy on naturalisation and citizenship.

The aims of this policy are ambiguous and the relationship to ideals of cohesion, integration and equality is unclear. There are many ideas being brought to bear on citizenship acquisition processes, and these inevitably bring competing priorities and pressures. This policy primer argues that it is important to understand the nature of these competing ideas and how they affect the policy process. This will help to inform the development of policies that have a positive impact on society and avoid those which are detrimental.