“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Citizenship and the fall of the British Empire: A system of exclusion

16 July 2020 | Rachel Pougnet, Researcher in citizenship and national security

After 258 years under British and French colonial rule, Mauritius gained independence in 1968. The new Constitution of Mauritius created different pathways to Mauritian citizenship for former British colonial citizens or ‘subjects’. As a result, individuals who qualified as Mauritians lost their British citizenship. One such individual was my grandfather, whose story highlights the racial inequality and privilege underlying access to citizenship in the fall of the British Empire.

French or British?

My grandfather was born in Bordeaux in October 1916. His father was a British subject from Mauritius who had emigrated to France at the beginning of the 20th century. His mother was born in Bordeaux but lost her French citizenship because she married a foreigner, a discriminatory legal framework which continued in France until 1927. At that time, France was obsessed with ‘native growth’. During the debates in 1927, a French MP contended that the legal change was not a “progress for feminism in the sense that feminists would have it” because “we do not grant the French women voting rights, but we ensure that she will be able to perform her social influence for the benefit of her country and the future of her race by giving to France little Frenchman”.

Despite this gender discriminatory approach to citizenship, as an individual born in France to foreign parents, my grandfather could still claim French citizenship once he reached the age of majority (then 21 years old) under the provisions of the law of 1889. But when he turned 21 in 1938, he renounced his right to French citizenship and opted for British citizenship instead. He later enrolled in the British armed forces during the Second World War and served until 1946. Upon returning to France, he was issued a British passport by the Foreign Office in London that stated, “British subject by birth”.

The re-structuring of imperial subjecthood

Two years later, the British Nationality Act (BNA) 1948 was enacted and restructured the concept of British subjecthood. All British subjects in the Empire were to enjoy the right to abode in the UK and territorially protected rights. The BNA also created two derivative citizenship statuses: Citizen of the UK and the Colonies (CUKCs) and Citizen of the Independent Commonwealth Countries (CICCs). Individuals who were born in the UK or in a territory under colonial rule automatically qualified as CUKCs, whereas individuals who were born in independent countries such as Canada or India qualified as CICCs. Both enjoyed the right of abode to the UK. The BNA of 1948 constitutes a turning point in the history of British citizenship. Its inclusive approach to freedom of movement and access to rights for imperial citizens was almost unprecedented. From the 1950s onwards, thousands of imperial subjects boarded ships such as the Empire Windrush and headed to work in the UK. 

Racial exclusion of imperial citizens through immigration legislation

From the 1960s however, the law’s inclusivity was put under heavy strain. Successive governments worked hard to undo its main provision and to introduce immigration checks for imperial citizens. The Immigration Act of 1962, for example, limited entry to the UK to individuals who were born in the UK and/or held a passport issued by the UK government. The law essentially excluded non-white imperial subjects and was challenged in parliamentary debates at the time. Labour MP Charles Royle argued that any member who voted for the bill should make no mistake that they would be: “voting for a colour bar in this country and this legislation will be based on racial factors alone” while fellow Labour MP Harold Hayman asked Conservative MP Cyril Osborne whether: “he believes in the brotherhood of all men or merely in the brotherhood of white men?”. Eventually, the bill went through with a significant opposition.

By the end of the 1960s, the discourse had shifted. The “colour bar” had been normalised. The Immigration Act 1968 further restricted who could come into the UK. The lines of belonging were re-drafted around ancestry. Those who could enjoy freedom of movement needed to have a parent who was born, naturalised, adopted or registered in the UK, thereby furthering racial exclusion. There was much less opposition to the bill in 1968 than in 1962 and the citizenship of imperial subjects was further devalued. For my grandfather, it is unclear whether he should have been exposed to immigration checks in 1962, but he certainly would have been by 1968.

1968: Mauritian independence and loss of British citizenship

However, the story took a different turn for my grandfather with Mauritius’ newfound independent. In 1968, UK Lords and MPs considered the possibility of some former colonial subjects retaining their British citizenship such as those who did not qualify as Mauritian under the new constitutional provision. The aim was to provide theoretically watertight legislation against statelessness. Yet, under Article 20 of the new Mauritian Constitution, which granted automatic citizenship to individuals who were born abroad to a Mauritian father, my grandfather qualified as Mauritian. 

In 1968, my grandfather was notified by the British Consul in Bordeaux that he had lost his British citizenship but was eligible for Mauritian citizenship and Commonwealth citizenship (CICCs). Aged 52, he had never been to Mauritius and had few contacts with his family there. For unknown reasons, it took nine years before he asked for a Mauritian passport, meaning he was left stateless from 1968 to 1977. His Mauritian passport was valid for 5 years, and from the day he received it, he spent two years initiating procedures to recover his lapsed British citizenship. In my research, I found records of letters from the British legion in Bordeaux petitioning on his behalf to high-ranking individuals in the UK, including Charles, Prince of Wales and the then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Frank Judd. All these endeavours failed.

In 1968, some parliamentarians proposed extending the retention of UK citizenship to individuals who could demonstrate “special reasons” - for example, if they had fought for the British Army during the World War(s) and had expressed their wish to keep their British citizenship. Lord Shepherd, Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs at the time, categorically dismissed the proposal on the ground that British citizenship was not up for bargain. His justification emulated the political context of the end of the 1960s. As he then put it: “it has […] never been a principle of our law that citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies is open to anyone who desires it. [….] There must always be a connection with the United Kingdom or with an existing Colony by way of residence or employment”.

My grandfather showed no such connection with the UK, neither by ancestry, residence or employment. He no longer qualified under the provisions of the UK’s nationality legislation. Nothing could be done. The story does not end there though. Before the end of the validity period of his Mauritian passport, he engaged in yet another administrative procedure: an application to be reintroduced into French citizenship. He was granted French citizenship in 1981, 9 years before his death. He thanked the person that had helped him in this final administrative hurdle by quoting Heredia, a Cuban born Spanish ‘subject’ who later naturalised as French:  “Grâce à vous Monsieur et, je ne vous en saurais trop remercier, je suis deux fois français’ (“Thank to you Sir and I could not thank you enough, I am now doubly French”).

Citizenship, privilege and belonging

In many, considerable ways, my grandfather was luckier than others. A white privileged man, he was able to get through the hurdles of administrative procedures with relative ease. He received critical help and used the multiple levers he had access to in order to petition to high-ranking individuals in the UK. He was never policed in the way that others would have been in France - even during the time when he had no passport. His foreign heritage never mattered, as he was white. UK parliamentarians in 1968 even seemed to consider Mauritians to hold a different relation to the UK than other imperial subjects. Debates were filled with racist comments where MPs and Lords despaired that Mauritians had not come to the UK in “large numbers” as a result of the BNA 1948. Labour MP John Dunwoody, for example, said that it was “[…] a pity, because Mauritians are far more readily absorbed into our community than are the large numbers of immigrants who have come to us from many other countries” and that, by “Afro-Asian standards it [Mauritius] compares remarkably well”.

Like many, however, my grandfather’s failed attempt to restore his lapsed British citizenship, and the struggle to secure both his Mauritian citizenship and, later, his French citizenship, deeply affected him and his sense of belonging. This story and the ongoing struggles of minorities in the UK, as a result of hostile environment policies, increased securitisation, heightened conduct requirements, citizenship deprivation, and, among other issues, Brexit, tells us one thing: that change is a constant feature of citizenship and immigration policies. The security of citizenship and immigration status are constantly being challenged as UK laws, policies and practices have made only too clear.

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