Brexit and Notions of British Citizenship

By Dr Devyani Prabhat, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

DevIn a recent article, published in the inter-disciplinary journal Law, Culture, and Humanities, I have argued that a surge in number of cases of cancellation of British citizenship indicates a return to a loyalty-protection model of citizenship which was popular earlier during the two World Wars. Here, I will go further, and say that Brexit and the debates of exclusion of EEA nationals from the UK, are also influenced by the very same loyalty-protection view. The loyalty-protection view had become unfashionable in the aftermath of the Second World War but is now back in vogue.

A loyalty-protection citizenship model

In the loyalty-protection model, the protection from a government and state machinery is the primary benefit of formal, legal citizenship, and this protection is available only to those who deserve it by demonstrating genuine loyalty. By implication, a citizen has to be a ‘good’ citizen in order to enjoy citizenship rights or benefits.  Thus, in cancellation cases, citizens fail to remain citizens once they are no longer ‘good’ or ‘loyal’. Nationals who have connections to other countries in addition to the UK, such as dual nationals, are at greater risk of losing their British citizenship for certain kinds of conduct. The loyalty-protection model however conflates the desirable qualities of citizens with the qualifications that determine eligibility for citizenship. This is fuzzy logic at best and has created several operational problems in cancellation cases, such as how to determine the extent of involvement in conduct that prejudices national security and how to evidence it.

A substantive citizenship model

For a number of reasons, the loyalty-protection model was overshadowed in the post second world war period by a more substantive view of citizenship famously sketched out by T.H. Marshall in his essay on citizenship and social class. One key factor for more substantive view of citizenship was the emergence of the international human rights framework which emphasises universal rather than conditional rights. Further, notions of global citizenship as exemplified by large numbers of mobile people who acquired multiple nationalities through work and residence, or family and residence, also made it difficult to make protection conditional on exclusive national loyalty. Another trend that challenged this model of loyalty-protection citizenship was the development of a thicker understanding of citizenship in the personal sphere. Words such as sexual citizenship or cultural citizenship evoked meanings that reached far beyond the state centric legal membership of a selected few into the domain of belonging.

A resurgence of loyalty-protection

A resurgence of loyalty-protection has been piloted by national security concerns in recent years.  These have challenged substantive ideas of citizenship because of heightened suspicion of the conduct of those with connections to other countries: dual or multiple nationals and naturalized citizens.  Recent legislative and case law changes in the area of cancellation of citizenship for suspicion of conduct which puts at risk national risk are mostly about naturalized citizens, particularly those who retain other nationalities. That the international human rights framework is ‘universal’ has now become a sign of its vulnerability in the face of terrorism rather than evidencing its moral high ground as in the past after the devastating wars of the last century.

Implications for Brexit

Although there has been much talk of the economy, the political swing towards Brexit also demonstrates a return to the loyalty and protection model of citizenship.  A general distrust of foreigners or other nationals who live and work amongst British citizens in an undifferentiated manner is a likely overspill from the distrust of naturalized or multiple nationality holders who share the same rights as those born British. Thus, the zone of exclusion widens to separate a more homogeneous and deserving ‘us’ from a heterogeneous ‘other’ (in this case the EEA long term residents in the UK along with other foreigners). It is not surprising then to see a commensurate rise in racist abuse of anyone who seems ‘foreign’.

The Perceptions of EEA applicants for British Citizenship

As an ESRC funded researcher on British Citizenship, I have been interviewing nationality practice lawyers as well as ordinary people who have experience of the nationality legal processes. Some of them have clients or family and friends currently submitting citizenship applications. While prior to Brexit, the interview data concentrated on the importance of identity and belonging, now there is an overwhelming sense of urgency in having the right paperwork in place so that those who are long term residents do not suddenly lose their right to reside.  Political citizenship has also taken on a personal significance; a general election every few years does not arouse the passions of many, but a direct referendum which affected their right to reside without their own participation, has woken up many EEA long term residents in the UK to the importance of political citizenship.  For many, encountering racist abuse has been a new experience of ‘foreignness’.


What can we learn about British citizenship in the times of Brexit? The narrative of the hour appears to be about the importance of formal legal and political membership rather than any thicker meaning of citizenship. It is not surprising that in a time of uncertainty, contemplating ‘belonging’ is a luxury; it is about first making sure the correct card or paperwork is processed to ensure life can go on. New EEA applicants for British citizenship now share the paramount concern of citizenship applicants from all over the world: how to document their lives in order to fully satisfy bureaucratic requirements.  How much of this documenting correlates to a profound understanding of being British is unclear, but for many applicants documenting their lives is a means of establishing their credentials as worthy prospective citizens. More importantly, for most applicants, it is a means of being rid of the uncertainty of holding a conditional legal status. But, as demonstrated in the cancellation cases, it is doubtful that holding British citizenship is an unconditional status any longer. After all, loyalty-protection is by nature a conditional relationship. It is a relationship that looks for the foreigner amongst us rather than seeking to welcome those who live and work with us.



  1. Devyani Prabhat, Political Context and Meaning of British Citizenship: Cancellation as a National Security Measure, Law, Culture and the Humanities, 1–19, 2016, DOI: 10.1177/1743872116655305
  2. Devyani Prabhat, Unleashing the Force of Law, 2016, Palgrave Socio-Legal Studies
    (see Chapter 8).
  3. Diane Richardson, “Constructing sexual citizenship: theorizing sexual rights.”Critical social policy 1 (2000): 105-135.
  4. Rieko Karatani, Defining British citizenship: Empire, commonwealth and modern Britain, 2003, Psychology Press.
  5. Thomas H. Marshall,Citizenship and social class, Vol. 11., 1950, Cambridge.
  6. Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman. “Return of the citizen: A survey of recent work on citizenship theory.”Ethics 2 (1994): 352-381.


ESRC research grant on British Citizenship: RC Grant reference: ES/L010356/1.


D. Prabhat, ‘Brexit and Notions of British Citizenship’, University of Bristol Law School Blog (27th July 2016) (available at:

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