What is a Citizen?

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Citizenship is a relationship with, and responsibilities to, a country or community. It entails rights, such as voting or access to public services. It also has duties, such as obeying laws and paying taxes. Different nations, states or commonwealths may have different laws for citizens and different processes for granting citizenship. Citizenship can be formalised by a process called naturalisation, in which a person is granted citizenship by being formally recognized as such. Citizenship can also be informalised, in which a person is recognised as such by being treated as a good citizen – that is, being helpful, respecting others and obeying the law.

Citizenship can be taught as a subject in schools, and it is included as a component of other courses in the United Kingdom, including democracy, human rights and the British constitution and its relations with other countries. It is also an integral part of the National Citizen Service, which is a scheme run by charities to encourage young people to take responsibility for their local communities and develop leadership skills.

The term originated in ancient Greece, where it was associated with the small-scale organic community of the polis. Citizens were expected to fulfil a range of social obligations and civic duties, but they also enjoyed the benefits of property ownership and free access to municipal services. These were privileges that distinguished them from women, slaves and aliens, who did not enjoy the same status and rights as citizens.

In modern times, the concept of citizenship has evolved, and it now covers the relationship between an individual and a government, the state, nation or region to which they belong. It is often a contested issue, based on concerns about social cohesion and the need to integrate new arrivals. Some governments have adopted a restrictive approach to citizenship, with restrictions on immigration and rights for those already living in the country. Other governments have a more expansive view of the scope of citizenship, and promote civic engagement and active citizenship as key elements of national identity.

The debate on citizenship and integration is inherently complex, because it is impossible to separate the legal status from the broader issues of national identity and belonging. The current emphasis on tests and other restrictions for those applying for citizenship runs the risk of making it a mere instrumentality, rather than a vehicle for promoting social cohesion. It is also likely to narrow the space for a meaningful sense of belonging, and make it harder for those who do not have citizenship to participate in a meaningful way in society. This may not have been the intention of policymakers, but it is a result of their actions nonetheless. The legal status of citizenship will remain an important policy area, but it must be managed within the broader contexts of ‘Britishness’ and ‘citizenship’.