In his most recent column, Yuan Yi Zhu offered a striking description of Justin Trudeau’s political project:
“For Trudeau, such symbols are but obstacles in his quest to create “the first postnational state” where, in his own words “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada”, but only a list of vague shared values and shared public services everyone pays their taxes towards.”
Labour is busy disowning the suggestion, floated over the last few days, that it will extend full voting rights to every permanent resident of the United Kingdom. But be that as it may, the idea is clearly percolating, and once an obviously self-serving idea enters the constitutional imagination, it seldom leaves.
So before we end up, like the boiled frog, following the Trudeau trajectory without really noticing, it’s worth engaging now with the question: what is the proper importance of citizenship?
Traditionally, citizenship marks the human boundaries of the polity; it defines the group with whom the state holds its primary covenant. When we refer to “the national interest”, citizens are the nation referred to. It is not an exclusive covenant, and the state can and does have other obligations, whether to visitors, long-term residents, or to people overseas. But those obligations, however important, are secondary.
Such an arrangement is, necessarily, exclusive; any distinct group must be distinguished not only by what unites its members but what distinguishes them from other people. Yet this latter point sits uncomfortably with some – especially in the British establishment, who seem prone to degrees of deracination and pessimism that would be unthinkable in (equally modern) France.
British history is full of sin and, in any event, patchily taught; a strongly-defined common culture is exclusive of those who do not share it; most of our pageantry is centred on the monarchy, which is horribly un-modern.
Even the idea of a shared loyalty is too much for some, and not just those for whom any enthusiasm for the Union Jack is a portent of authoritarianism. Witness the objections to reviving and modernising the charge of treason: how can this be appropriate, asks Charles Falconer, when “people might feel their strongest allegiance to be towards their religion or even, say, to an organisation like Greenpeace”.
Once you’ve removed all that, there is not much left. Into that void politicians try to place values. But coming from such a starting point, the task is hopeless. Whether modern liberal platitudes or Margaret Thatcher’s more muscular, cold-warrior sort, the supposedly British values offered by politicians are all, if not universal, the at least not especially specific to Britain.
This doesn’t make them bad values to have. But it is too slender a reed upon which to rest a definition of nationhood.
The UK is not, like America, a nation conceived as a political project. There is not and has never been, as Theresa May once suggested, a “British dream”; Margaret Thatcher may personally have thought she fought the Falklands War to “defend our values”, but most of the troops would probably, like Enoch Powell, have served their country under a communist government.
Duck this question for long enough, and of course the Trudeau option starts to appeal. Why not conceive of the state as essentially a regulator and provider of services, dressed up in such odds and ends of holy writ as pass the smell test – one tax base under the NHS and the Equality Act? Citizen or resident, our money all looks the same to the Treasury.
But this inverts the proper relationship between the people and the state. As I argued in a previous piece about the philosophical quandary of the economically inactive, and in various pieces about the ethics of authoritarian public health legislation, it is a strange creed which holds that people should live their lives to maximise the revenues or convenience of the state.
Extending the franchise would be another big step in that direction. If fitness for the polity is participation in the economy, the idea that government ought to respect or support people’s aspirations that don’t align with its own interests, such a long retirement or being a stay-at-home parent, grows faint indeed, as does any hope of revitalising civic participation – people do not go above and beyond for the sake of their fellow taxpayers.
And even in our self-consciously modern times, the commitment signified by obtaining citizenship still carries some weight. The very fact that some long-term residents are so resistant to applying for it is strong evidence that the covenant matters.
In response to the row, some have argued that we ought instead to make obtaining citizenship easier.
This may or may not be good policy, but it is not a moral obligation. A citizenry is entitled to set its membership criteria, and there is nothing inherently unjust about the idea of non-citizen residency.
(Cracking down on the Home Office’s penchant for charging usurious fees, which Andrew Yong and I outlined in our paper, would be good policy; the entry criteria should be explicit and in the rules, not applied by stealth at the card reader.)
It’s true that the UK does offer a more flexible franchise than many nations, extending voting rights to Irish citizens and Commonwealth nationals.
But such policies are of a very different kind to Labour’s post-national proposals, reflecting as they do an older, imperial citizenship. Within living memory, the idea that a Canadian, Australian, or other imperial citizen was British was not controversial. Whether or not we think those connections justify special treatment today, they do not justify dismantling the boundaries of citizenship altogether.