“Unbecoming British”: Kamila Shamsie at UCL

“Unbecoming British”: Kamila Shamsie at UCL

Uri Inspector reflects on Kamila Shamsie’s Orwell Lecture.

At some point in the past few years, the notion of citizenship underwent a slow and disorientating renovation. In the UK, regardless of which box you ticked in the referendum, Brexit has forced us to re-negotiate our understanding of national identity. Placard-swinging Remainers at the gates of Whitehall lament the long death of the “European Citizenship” they cherish, while those of continental origin living here prepare to be ejected by the new demarcations of Britishness, redefinitions celebrated by many who voted Leave.

In recent pan-EU Eurobarometer polling, 70 per cent of Europeans, including Brits, said they feel they are ‘citizens of the EU’, yet the rise of Euroscepticism across much of the continent suggests this title hangs in the balance. We should remind ourselves that this year also saw the wrongful arrest and deportation of 83 British Citizens who came to the UK from Caribbean countries before 1973 as part of the Windrush Generation.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has expressed his aim of abolishing Jus Soli, or ‘birthright citizenship’, for the children of migrants born on US soil. The rise of the far-right across Eastern Europe and South America has likewise foregrounded questions of national inclusion and exclusion. The idea of being a ‘citizen of the world’ has never seemed more spurious since perhaps the 19th century. In short, we’re now faced with the sobering reality that citizenship is more fluid than we thought; in the words of a certain former Home Secretary, “citizenship is a privilege and not a right”. As many view citizenship as a cornerstone of their identity, there’s something deeply disturbing about this.

When conducting research for her seventh novel, the Man Booker long-listed Home Fire, British-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie found herself trawling through a dark labyrinth of UK citizenship law and making some shocking discoveries. For instance, until 1948, a British woman who married a foreign man had her British citizenship revoked. Before that year, if you chose to be naturalised in any other country, you were no longer British. During the writer’s 2018 Orwell Lecture – titled “Unbecoming British” – cold, hard facts like these forced an engrossed audience of academics, students, and even George Orwell’s own kin to rethink the notion that their (currently) red passport is an unconditional guarantor of fundamental rights and identity.

The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave millions from former colonies the right to become UK citizens; to settle and rebuild our cities, industries and communities following the destruction brought by the Second World War; it birthed our multiculturalism, a principle which now sits at the very heart of urban British life. However, geopolitical reality changed after 9/11 and our relatively open doors began to creak and stiffen. The 2002 Nationality Asylum and Immigration Act meant that for the first time since 1948, any Briton could be deprived of their citizenship if they are guilty of acts of prejudice against the national interest. Not only naturalised nationals, but the British-born fell under the threat of deprivation.

Yet crucially, because it is illegal to deprive an individual of citizenship if it would render them stateless, the risk fell disproportionately on dual nationals: immigrants and their children. The ‘Deprivation Order’ was only used once between 1973 and the 2010s. Yet, due to an expansion of its range of power, this number shot up to 23 in 2014, and between just January and July of 2017, 40 people had their citizenship deprived. Even if a person of White British Anglo-Saxon stock with a single passport commits the most heinous act of treason, they will still be protected by all the rights that come with British citizenship and a right to remain, while a young British-Pakistani with absolutely no experience or connection to Pakistan will face deportation, Shamsie says.

The novelist argues that this creates a ‘tiered’ system of citizenship, in which some people are “more British” than others. It brings to mind the age-old questions second and third generation immigrants encounter on a daily basis, ‘but where are you really from?” and “And how often do you go back home?’; ultimately, Shamsie states, ‘there are too many people who think you are not really British even if you have spent your whole life here’. More worrying is the potential that these citizenship laws could be used for racial exclusion.

Although many would rightly argue that British members of IS, or the Rochdale Grooming Gang for example, should have their citizenship taken away due to their repugnant crimes, Shamsie spun this assumption on its head. “I obviously condemn both paedophiles and terrorists with every fibre of my being”, she said, “but deporting the three British-Pakistani members of the Rochdale gang will put them in a country that has no criminal records and a vastly inferior law enforcement system that will mean they will find it easier to rape young girls and get away with it”. This amounts to Britain “dumping its own problems on other countries far less equipped to deal with them”, she concludes.

More disturbing are instances where the Deprivation Order effected the innocent, something we also saw during the Windrush Scandal. Shamsie tells the story of Mahdi Hashi, a Camden-born boy of Somali descent, wrongfully accused by the Home Office of plotting terror and reportedly harassed and blackmailed by MI5 to become an informer on innocent friends. Somalia does not allow dual citizenship, which meant that when Mahdi’s British nationality was revoked, he was illegally made stateless. “How many of you have considered the words on the first page of your British passport?” she asks at this particularly arresting moment of her address. “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”. These words imbue legal rights, protections and respect, none of which Mahdi was given in his 9 years in solitary confinement in the US following a questionable “guilt by association” conviction: as Shamsie sums up, ”statelessness takes away the right to have rights”. The novelist then aptly quotes Orwell, whose archives are housed at UCL: “What we call democracy in a capitalist country only remains in being when things are going well – it quickly turns to fascism when things are difficult”.

“So we seem to have two categories of people in the UK: There are ‘British british’ people of White Christian descent, and the ‘British until the home secretary decides otherwise’, who are invariably not white”, she concludes. Born in Pakistan and becoming a UK citizen in her thirties, this idea keeps Kamila Shamsie awake at night. What her lecture calls for is both a more pragmatically humane and internationalist way of fighting terrorism and a closer, Orwell-esque scrutiny of our institutions and their increasingly strict citizenship deprivation laws: a trend started by Theresa May, expanded under Amber Rudd and further elaborated by Sajid Javid. Under the guise of perfectly reasonable legislation, the Home Office may hide unsettling implications of insecurity for the people we call our compatriots.

Many thanks to the Orwell Foundation. Kamila Shamsie’s 2018 Lecture can be viewed via the UCL YouTube channel:

Image Credits: Kevin Lake & The Orwell Foundation