How the British Nationality Act 1981 laid the foundations for a stateless population within Britain’s borders

“From Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, to the Windrush deportation scandal citizenship and the responsibilities of the UK government to the people of Hong Kong, it seems that citizenship and migration in Britain are never far from the headlines. Who do we think we are? explores all of this and more. Join Professor Michaela Benson and her guests as they debunk taken-for-granted understandings of who is a citizen and who is a migrant in Britain today.

What do we think citizenship is? When you think of citizenship you probably think of it as progressive, as giving rights to people. But what if it wasn’t? In this episode, we look at the darker side of British citizenship where, over time, who has access to the rights of citizens has become increasingly restricted. Host Michaela Benson explores the British Nationality Act 1981 (BNA1981) in a little bit more detail, which set the stage for British citizenship as we know it today. She highlights some of the headlines of this act from the how this mapped citizenship onto the territorial borders of the United Kingdom and stratification of citizens to how this removed some of the gender discrimination within nationality law by permitting women to pass on their citizenship to their children. George Kalivis goes back into the archives to explore the concerns raised about the proposed removal of birthright citizenship. They are joined by Imogen Tyler, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University who talks about how the changes to nationality legislation through BNA 1981 set the stage for people to be born stateless within the UK’s borders and explores how nationality legislation is designed to exclude Britain’s postcolonial and migrant populations from the rights of citizenship.” Prof Michaela Benson 2021   

Access the full episode transcript

In this episode we cover …  

  • The British Nationality Act 1981 
  • The removal of the right to citizenship for those born in the UK and its racialised consequences 
  • How citizenship is caught up in the global migration industry 


When we think about citizenship, our normative way of thinking about it would be as something that is quite progressive, something that gives in a way or something within a liberal framework that gives rights to people, and that people have these fundamental rights that are protected in law and protected in a constitution. 

I suppose when I was thinking about the relationship to Britain is because we don’t have that written constitution, that founding constitution, then when citizenship starts to appear in law, or in legal and parliamentary statutes, and in debates about those statutes, it really appears not in a progressive context; it starts to appear in relationship to borders and migration. 

  • Imogen Tyler  

Where can you find out more about the topics in today’s episode? 

You can find out more about Imogen and her work here. She is on Twitter @profimogentyler.  

The article we discuss in the episode is Designed to Fail (2010) published in the journal Citizenship Studies. We also recommend her books Revolting subjects and Stigma

If you are interested in understanding birthright citizenship and what this means in terms of global inequalities, our recommended book of this week is Ayelet Shachar’s The birthright lottery


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