Lord Palmerston, the pugnacious Whig foreign secretary remembered as the
inventor of gunboat diplomacy, once sent a fleet to blockade Athens when the Greek authorities were harassing a Gibraltar-born Jew named Don Pacifico. Palmerston's reasoning was simple: the man was a British citizen, and in a famous speech in 1850 he defended his policy by quoting the proud slogan of the Roman Empire, Civis Romanus Sum (I am a citizen of Rome).
British citizenship isn’t quite the same these days, in the confused withdrawal from empire, with dispossessed ex-colonials such as the Ugandan-Asians fleeing in inconvenient numbers to Britain on the strength of their British passports, the grand ideal of Civis Britannicus was bound to go the way of history. Previous governments tinkered with immigration laws and introduced the notion of "patriality”— close family connections—to help define what seemed so simple a century ago. Last week, Westminster was left puzzling over proposals to redraw the boundaries of British citizenship which would have had Palmerston tugging his whiskers in amazement.
Based on an obscure clause in the Conservative manifesto on which Margaret Thatcher won power last year, the White Paper tabled by Home Secretary William Whitelaw aims to iron out some of the anomalies left by the British Nationality Act of 1948, the world and the Commonwealth having moved on considerably since then. The government hopes to legislate on the proposals by next summer. The basic change would replace the present citizenship categories of the United Kingdom and colonies by three new ones: British citizens, citizens of British-dependent territories and British overseas citizens. The first would include all present citizens of the U.K. and colonies with close personal connections with Britain, such as being born, naturalized, adopted or settled for some time in Britain.
Commonwealth citizens—Canadians, for example—who have lived in Britain since 1973 are currently entitled to citizenship and would automatically remain entitied to it for two years after the new proposals become law, but would then be required to register. Citizens of Britishdependent territories would mainly comprise the three million people living in Hong Kong, while British overseas citizenship would apply to residents of former British colonies, particularly Malaysia and East
Africa, who chose to retain the British connection.
Whitelaw’s officials stress that the changes would not deprive anyone at present in Britain of the right to stay, but they will clarify which potential immigrants will no longer have automatic right of entry. The White Paper’s biggest battles in committee, however, are likely to come not from immigrant organizations scenting discrimination-very few have even queried the proposals so far—but from Tory backbenchers who immediately pounced on Whitelaw’s statement that he planned no change in the right of Irish citizens to vote in British elections.
A typical British anomaly, dating from Ireland's pre-independence days, this privilege is a source of periodic controversy in Britain, along with the bilateral no-passport arrangement that permits free entry for citizens of the Irish Republic, and demands for change have invariably followed each new outbreak of Irish terrorist activity.
The White Paper estimates that only about two million of the present 59 million citizens of the U.K. and colonies (Britain alone has 55 million) will fail to gain full British citizenship under the new system. These would come mainly from Hong Kong and Malaysia but, ironically, one group due for reclassification will come from Gibraltar. Don Pacifico would find no Palmerston
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