Skip to main content

Lessons from Windrush: national identity and citizenship

My mum was born in the UK, near Cambridge, in 1957. She came to Australia a year later, when my grandfather retired from the air force and left England with his Australian wife. That makes her, roughly speaking, about as Australian as migrants of the Windrush generation - who came to the UK from Commonwealth countries as children around the same time - are British.

You can tell: she's come to England a few times, but a couple of years ago when she considered taking a job here, the idea was clearly a dramatic one, with no sense of 'coming home' about it. Last time she was here to visit me, she left me to pay a dinner bill while she waited outside because she couldn't stand to keep hearing the English man next to us complaining.

So she is Australian, not British, and neither her lifelong British citizenship or the fact that she didn't become an Australian citizen until she was 40 make any difference to that. The other side of my family left Yorkshire almost two hundred years ago, so this goes even more strongly for me. It would be silly to suggest I'm British at all, and transparently absurd to say I'm 'more British' than members of the Windrush generation who've been here their whole lives.

But in the view of British immigration enforcement, I am.

I have a passport, with the royal coat of arms, that's uncomplicated: it doesn't mention the colonies or the Commonwealth or indefinite leave to remain, but just says 'British citizen'. So I'm in the clear, whenever I arrive back in the country, or start another bloody internship, or go to a new doctor.

The details of the nationality law that entitles me to this citizenship are, to put it bluntly, a tangled nightmare. If my dad rather than my mum had been born in Cambridge, I'd be out of luck. In the Windrush cases things are much worse: they were citizens on arrival, subsequently stripped of citizenship (because their citizenship category ceased to exist) but granted leave to remain; most will have become entitled to citizenship over the course of their lives but not taken it up, or realised that they could or needed to; now they will by decree of Amber Rudd be made citizens again for free. 

The root of the whole trouble is that the government wants to restrict rights to British people, but the administrative categories they had to use to do so are, in practice, not very good at delineating the boundaries of Britishness. Outlier cases like the Windrush generation, who are clearly British but sit in a liminal category of citizenship and residency, or me (and a bevy of Australian politicians), who are not British but are clearly British citizens, show the system up.

The immediate instinct is to fix it: make the Windrush migrants citizens, get rid of the silly no-dual-citizens rule. The truth is harder: that something like national identity is not really amenable to legal definition at all. The law will necessarily carve out a category that bears little relation to what you'd intuitively judge as Britishness.

It's not that the law makes something up, that there's no such thing as British national identity. I think it's obvious that there is. People - British people - occasionally say to me that they don't feel British and don't feel like anything about Britain has much to do with them. (Maybe this sentiment is what Emily Thornberry was being accused of, with that tweet about the St Georges flag.) It's meant to be woke - you can tell because they will sometimes hasten to add, "apart from the legacy of colonialism" - but is in fact just criminally unreflective. Ninety percent of the time when people make some reference to TV or radio, I have no idea what they're talking about; I routinely pretend to recognise apparently-famous names; abandon a story because I realise the background that makes sense of it just isn't there. And you can think of British people queuing, and being taken aback by Americans, and realise that there are things they all have in common. There is, clearly, a there there.

Describing this, what national identity really is, makes sense of why people who've been living here for decades simply must be British, whatever the law says. But it also makes it seem nothing short of ridiculous to give people different rights on the basis of their nationality. Nobody is ever going to write a law that can take your parentage and place of birth and time of residence, put them in a formula, and spit out the right answer about your national identity. Those are probably not even the main ingredients, and it might be impossible to say what are. (We know it when we see it.)

So why keep pretending that using nationality to decide who can go to the doctor, or work, or get government support to be kept from destitution, makes any sense? There is an instinct, but there's no way to make a black-letter law fit that instinct, and no way to defend its ethics once we realise what it boils down to. On the other hand, for cosmopolitans who already agree with that, why act as if the very idea of a national identity, of people having more in common with each other because they've shared a place and a history and a culture, is a threat?