state racism or why citizenship is an unbritish concept

nationality act 1981

State racism

a short extract from Imogen Tyler ‘Designed to Fail: The Biopolitics of British Citizenship’ free to download the follow article if you follow the link

Although a vast theoretical literature on citizenship (and of course numerous laws, policies, tests) have been imported into Britain, citizenship is an oddly undeveloped concept within British society and culture. The first substantive accounts of British citizenship emerged in the 1950s, inspired by economist John Maynard Keynes (1936), social reformer William Beveridge (1942) and sociologist T.H Marshall (1950). However, if “British citizenship” has its roots in the liberal welfarism that predominated after the Second World War, by the early 1980s citizenship had become dislocated from any redistributive ideals: the Marshallian constellation of welfare state, social rights and class equality was replaced with nationality, immigration and security.

For example, the 1981 Nationality Act was not concerned with the constitutional rights of citizens, nor with mapping out the relationship between citizen and state; it was an Immigration Act designed to define, limit and remove the entitlements to citizenship from British nationals in the Commonwealth (the former colonies) thereby restricting immigration to the British Isles and creating ‘aliens’ within the borders of the nation state. This Act instituted a ‘citizenship gap’ within the British state, and between the state and former British colonies, as large numbers of British nationals found they had been designed out of citizenship (see Brysk and Shafir 2004). Political geographer Brad Blitz argues that ‘the revocation of the rights to citizenship and residency’ often take place ‘during periods of state building’. The 1981 Act was passed by the conservative Thatcher government (1979–1990) during a period of intense institutional reorganisation that was to transform Britain into a neoliberal nation state – a transformation as significant as the social and infrastructural reforms that took place during the 1950s post-War period (2006, p. 453).

The 1981 Nationality Act created several categories of nationality and citizenship, including a category of ‘Commonwealth citizenship’, which removed from British nationals in the Commonwealth and Hong Kong their historic rights to residency in theUnited Kingdom. As The Sunday Times reported in 1981, the Act ‘for the first time seeks to define British Citizenship and those who “belong to Britain” [and] to abolish the historic right of common British citizenship enjoyed by the colonial peoples’ (in Baucom 1999,p. 195). Whilst race and ethnicity were never directly named, the 1981 Act effectively designed citizenship so as to exclude black and Asian populations in the Commonwealth while leaving ‘routes home’ for white nationals born within the boundaries of the empire. As postcolonial theorist Ian Baucom notes, ‘to be British, [the Act] mandated, one had to trace a line of descent to an ancestor born on the island. In effect, the law thus drew the lines of the nation [ . . . ] around the boundaries of race’ (1999, p. 195). The passage of this Act through parliament was thus a significant event in the history of British race relations, a moment when, through citizenship, racism was implicitly incorporated within the judicial body of the state becoming an active component part of its operational system of ‘legal justice’. Indeed, critical lawyer David Dixon described the Act as ‘constitutionalising racism’ (Dixon 1981).

The Nationality Act provoked public debate about the meaning of Britishness and the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. While the Act was being passed in parliament, riots broke out in Brixton, a borough of London with a significant black population. The Brixton riots marked the beginning of a significant period of civil unrest, sparking three months of intensive rioting between black and Asian communities and police across England. In Brixton, public anger was directed towards the Metropolitan police force, and the uprising was triggered by a police operation called
Operation Swamp 81. The operation’s name was widely interpreted as a reference to a notorious comment by Margaret Thatcher (1978) in a television interview in which she implied that a white native population feared being swamped by ‘people of a different culture’. Operation Swamp 81 was purportedly part of a city-wide operation to reduce street crime in London. In actuality, it focused on Brixton, employing ancient vagrancy legislation, the infamous ‘sus’ laws. In the first six days of the operation, 120 plain-clothes officers stopped and searched 943 people in Brixton, arresting 118 predominantly black male youths. Lord Scarman’s influential report into the causes of the Brixton riots, “The Scarman report: The Brixton disorders 10–12 April 1981” (1982), argued that the black population in Brixton had been subject to ‘disproportionate and indiscriminate’ policing. The ‘sus laws’ were abolished on the recommendation of his report. Scarman also acknowledged that social deprivation and racial prejudice had contributed to the riots but refused to accept claims of institutional racism within the police or indeed other parts of the state. The report argued that institutional racism referred to a society ‘which knowingly and as a matter of policy discriminated against black people’ and denied that this was the case in Britain (Scarman 1982, p. 28). However, others have insisted that the Brixton riots should be read as a response to the 1981 Nationality Act. The creation of a ‘second-class’ commonwealth citizenship and news coverage of the Act created palpable anxiety and growing rage within black communities across Britain. These communities perceived that a new form of imperial racism was driving the citizenship agenda. As an anonymous commentary in the journal “Race and Class” argued in 1981, the Nationality Act transformed immigration law into an instrument of domestic social control and formed ‘the administrative basis for what is tantamount to a pass law society. [This Act has] brought immigration law within doors’ (1981, p. 242).

This Act illustrates what Foucault termed ‘state racism’: a means of classifying, distinguishing and opposing a population on the basis of appeals to essentialist categories of origin. For Foucault, racism always disguises, or is an alibi for, an historical class struggle. In the context of Britain, a post-imperial class struggle over the resources of a diminished empire was underway. The 1981 Act produced ‘ethnic hierarchies’ in Britain which, combined with the existing class divisions, led to civil unrest. This in turn enabled minorities to be constituted ‘as a threat to the social body’ and targeted through policing and reform (see Nelson 2008, p. 33). The claim that the Act was ushering in a new period of ‘home rule’ through state racism was central to Salman Rushdie’s polemical 1982 essay ‘The new empire within Britain’. Rushdie argued that as the British empire contracted, the borders of the empire were being reproduced at home through newly legitimised practices of state racism, which in turn explained hostility towards the police as agents of state
power. As Rushdie wrote, ‘For the citizens of the new, imported empire, for the colonised Asians and blacks of Britain, the police force represents that colonising army, those regiments of occupation and control’ (1982).

The 1981 Nationality Act and the nostalgia for a British homeland expressed within it exposes a fear amongst the ruling elites that Britain was losing its sense of national identity as it lost its hold on its empire. Right wing MP Enoch Powell, who was in many ways the real author of this Act, declared on hearing that it had passed through parliament, ‘from the humiliation of having no nation to which we distinctively belong, the people of the United Kingdom are now setting themselves free’. The Nationality Act, Powell stated, marked ‘the end of our brief imperial episode . . . and the laying of that ghost, the
Common-wealth’ (in Dixon 1983, p. 175). The link between post-imperial national identity, democratic freedom and immigration control has become cemented into a form of common sense in Britain and drives the New Labour citizenship agenda. As Prime Minster Gordon Brown stated in a 2008 speech on citizenship:

“there is a real danger that while other countries gain from having a clear definition of their destiny in a fast changing global economy, we may lose out if we prove slow to express and live up to the British values that can move us to act together . . . Being more explicit about what it means to be a British citizen we can not only manage immigration in a way that is good for Britain – for our citizens, our way of life, our society, and our economy but at the same time move forward as a more confident Britain”. (Brown 2008)

State racism is legitimised predominantly through the need for security and the idea that non-citizens threaten to overwhelm the diminishing resources of the welfare state and are stealing the resources that rightfully belong to citizens. Perversely, appeals to Marshallian rights-based notions of citizenship, rooted as these are in welfare and distributive justice, are thus used to legitimise the abjection of ‘illegal’ populations from
the protections of citizenship and the enforcement of brutal and inhumane immigration controls.

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