Royal Colonial Institute
British Citizenship an Inquiry as to its Meaning
Royal Colonial Institute Northumberland Avenue. W.C. 1911
Every schoolboy might be expected to know what is meant by British Citizenship. But the fact is that the answer to this seemingly elementary question is far from easy. In an interesting article which we publish this month Mr. E. B. Sargant points out how loosely the terms "British citizen" and "British subject" are used and interchanged even by the Empire's leading statesmen, and how unsatisfactory is the guidance of learned authorities in the matter. It would be easy to extend his selection of illustrations, and also to emphasise the practical importance of the question, by dipping into the mass of documents in which, for instance, the grievances of British Indians in South Africa or British Columbia have, from time to time, been set forth. Such phrases as the "rights of British citizenship," or the "rights of British subjects," or the "liberties" of one or other, are frequently used in protest against legislative or administrative action which the responsible parties uphold as perfectly legitimate. Those who argue, not without reason, that the first essential of Imperial thinking is to define the meanings of conventional terms, and to call things by their right names, might more usefully occupy themselves in elucidating the significance of "British citizen" and "British subject," than in seeking a substitute for "British Empire," What are the rights, privileges, liberties, or responsibilities of a British subject? Is a citizen the same as a subject? If not, what is the difference? And does "British" applied to citizen mean the same as "British" applied to subject? As Mr. Sargant reminds us, subject and citizen are terms inherited from ancient conditions of society widely dissimilar to those of to-day. Conventionally speaking, the instinct of democracy associates "citizen" with a right of voting, in regard to which there is little prospect of uniformity within the Empire; while the idea of Imperial unity postulates a certain status held in common by all "subjects" who are born or naturalised under the British flag. On that view, all citizens would be British subjects, but all subjects would not be citizens; and British citizens would mean citizens of Britain only, which seems unsatisfactory. In point of fact, a common status of British subject has not yet been established, though lately a strenuous effort has been made, by the machinery of the Imperial Conference, to rectify the anomalies whereby a British subject in one part of the Empire may be a foreigner in another. Simple as the problem seems at first sight, it is vastly complicated when statesmen come to deal with it, largely owing to differences of opinion in various parts of the Empire about the colour question, and the specification of undesirable immigrants. The records of the Imperial Conference, especially those of the last two sessions, certainly seem to show that the effort at improvement has been embarrassed by the absence of any definite understanding as to what constitutes the rights of a British subject within the Empire. In foreign countries a British subject, when he finds himself in danger or trouble, may realise with precision both the privileges and the limitations of his status; but not as a migrant within the Empire. It is to be hoped that some of those who have studied this most important question will follow up Mr. Sargant's observations.
What do we mean by British Citizenship? My own observation leads me to believe that even the most practised speakers and writers use these words with quite different connotations.
I might not have been spurred to write upon this theme, bad not the proceedings of the recent Imperial Conference shown that its members were no more in agreement than the rest of us as to what makes a British citizen, Anyone who takes up the Blue Book, and reads the report of the discussion on Naturalisation, will be convinced that some of His Majesty's Ministers ignored altogether any difference between a British subject and a British citizen, while others felt that the confusion of these terms would make it impossible to bring the discussion to a successful issue. The Minister who drew the most careful distinction between the subject and the citizen came from South Africa.
In explaining to the Conference the difficulties experienced by Canada as regards the present laws of naturalisation within the Empire, Sir Wilfrid Laurier said:
In Canada, where we receive annually at the present time some 100,000 American citizens, who generally take out letters of naturalisation as soon as it is possible for them to do so, we are in this condition: those 100,000 American citizens are British subjects in Canada, but if they come to Great Britain they are still American citizens. . . . I think this principle may be laid down as an object to be ultimately reached—a British subject anywhere, a British subject every who are, . . . A measure ought to be adopted whereby it should be universal that if a man is made a British subject somewhere in the British Empire under authority delegated by this Parliament of Great Britain, then legislation to that effect should carry the power of naturalisation not only in the country in which naturalisation has been granted, but all over the British Empire, or, indeed, all over the world. In other words, civis Britannicus is civis Britannicux not only in the country of naturalisation, but everywhere.*
All the difficulty lies in the last sentence. It might be understood to include the proposition that adult British subjects, women no less than men, coming to Canada from Australia, should have as full political rights in the former Dominion as in the latter. Moreover, the use of the Latin words suggests, though it does not affirm, the right of all British subjects as citizens, whether inhabitants of a self-governing Dominion or not, to move freely within the Empire. We cannot suppose that the then Canadian Prime Minister intended to convey these ideas to his colleagues, but that his words were open to a number of such constructions is clear from the statement of the South African point of view by Mr. Malan, in which he tries to guard against any possible confusion between the status of subject and the status of citizen.
* P. 252, Cd. 5745.
Sir Joseph Ward's remark "that no reasonable objection could be offered so far as New Zealand is concerned, to the exercise of power by the Imperial Legislature in defining for the whole Empire the conditions of British citizenship"† was made before this speech of the South African Minister On the contrary, Mr. Churchill was in possession of the views of all present when he used the same phrase in connection with the proposed general certificates of naturalisation:
Therefore I welcome with the greatest satisfaction the strong statements made by every one of the representatives of the Dominions present here today in favour of the desirability of securing a uniform and worldwide status of British citizenship which shall protect the holder of that certificate wherever he may be, whether he be within the British Empire or in foreign countries.‡
These are clearly no loose or hasty utterances. They show that in the highest conclave of our Empire, British citizenship had an essentially different meaning in the mouths of different speakers. My first suggestion, then, is that the Editor of United Empire should invite both past and present Ministers ol the Crown, not only in the United Kingdom but also in the Dominions overseas (including the Crown Colonies and India), to define the term as carefully as may be, especially in connection with the relation between a British subject and a British citizen. The replies to this question might throw an unexpected light upon modern thought in regard to the political development of the Empire.
But uncertainty as to the use of the term does not end with statesmen. Writers upon political institutions are in no closer agreement than they as to the difference between a subject and a citizen. Let me first take two statements valuable for the comparison made between British citizenship and the citizenship of the Greek States and of Rome. Freeman, in his "Greater Greece and Greater Britain," says:
The Greek would have deemed himself degraded by the name of subject. To him the word that best translates it expressed the position of men who, either in their own persons or in the persons of the cities to which they belonged, were shorn of the common rights of every city, of every citizen. We use the word "subject" daily without any feeling of being lowered by it.§
Gibbon, in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," commenting on the laws which were finally superseded in the reign of Justinian, remarks:
But in the eye of the law, all Roman citizens were equal, and all subjects of the Empire were citizens of Rome. That inestimable character was degraded to an obsolete and empty name. The voice of a Roman could no longer enact his laws, or create the annual ministers of his power.‖
* P. 256, Cd. 5745.
† P. 254, Cd. 5745.
‡ P. 256, Cd. 5745.
§ P. 23, edn, 1886.
‖ Chap xliv.
Full citizenship (Vollbereditisung) implies membership in the nation, but more than that, it implies complete political rights; it is thus the fullest expression of the relation of the individual to the State. . . . Women and minors are excluded.*
If by British citizenship we mean this full citizenship, ignoring such compound terms as citizen-elector and citizen-subject, then not only would women and minors be excluded, but also every British subject with electoral rights in the oversea Dominions, since as a colonial citizen he may not join in the making of laws inconsistent with any Act of the British Parliament,† We should thus have to speak in a descending scale, first of parliamentary electors within the United Kingdom as alone possessed of British citizenship, then of those in the self-governing Dominions overseas as Canadian citizens, Australian citizens, etc. Next would follow various classes of Crown colonists, distinguished as citizens of Jamaica, etc., then a group of British Indian citizens (since the word "citizenship" is used in the Indian Proclamation of the late King-Emperor), and, lastly, women electors, who would be merely citizens of London, Montreal, etc., unless they were domiciled in Australia or New Zealand, when they would rise in the foregoing scale. Finally would come the class of unenfranchised (and disfranchised) persons and minors, who, if not aliens, would, like all the classes already mentioned, be British subjects. Such would be the result of not recognising that British citizenship is multiform in character. On the other hand, if we agree to include more than one status of citizen in our definition of the term, at what point are we to stop?
I should like to be able to quote from Thorold Rogers' "British Citizen." But while with admirable skill he traces the citizen historically, he avoids any definition of the term at any period in the development of our institutions. He does, however, say that although there is no date assignable to the liberties and self-government of London, it was probably a municipality from Roman days, and that it had never lost the form which it then had.‡ If this be true, one element in British citizenship is directly connected with the political institutions of the greatest Empire which preceded our own. Upon the whole, it would, I think, be fair to quote Rogers as associating citizenship with electoral rights, though not to the exclusion of other privileges and duties.
Dicey, in his "Laws of the Constitution," lay a especial stress upon those other attributes of citizenship, when he speaks of personal freedom and of freedom of discussion nnd public meeting as "in fact the chief advantages which citizens hope to gain by the change from a despotic to a constitutional form of government."§ If it were necessary at this stage to range the author upon one side or the other, I should enter him as opposed to any distinction, between the citizen and the subject, But he is able to speak for himself, and I trust that he may be induced to state his own views on the subject.
* P. 217, 3rd edn. (English Translation.)
† P. 191, Hogan's Government of the United Kingdom. 1910.
‡ Chap. x.
§ P. 280, edn. 1908.
It would be possible to give extracts from several minor works upon citizenship, written in the last few years, which do not hesitate to define the citizen, either simply as a member or subject of a State or more precisely as a subject of a State as distinguished from a resident who is an alien. I might also give quotations (many of them conflicting) from various encyclopædias and dictionaries, bat these, or some of them, are doubtless ready to the hand of most of your readers. The new edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," however, directs the inquirer to two articles by Salmond on "Citizenship and Allegiance" in the [unclear: Law] Quarterly Review.* These cannot lightly be dismissed. The author finds the origins of citizenship and of subjectship or subjecthood—whichever term we prefer to employ to mark the status of a subject—the one in Roman, the other in [unclear: feudal] conceptions. He points out that under feudalism place of birth was substituted for descent as the chief title of state-membership. But it is clear that, in his view, "subject" and "citizen" are now used in current speech as interchangeable words:
This use of "subject," as the modern equivalent of "citizen," is awkward because in a wider, earlier, and still permissible sense, "subject" includes any person subject to the power and jurisdiction of the State, and therefore a resident alien no less than a subject in the narrower sense. A subject who is a citizen may be distinguished when distinction is necessary as a natural subject. One who is not a citizen may be termed an alien subject,
One of the chief obstacles to ascertaining the views of writers from their works is that many of them deal with forms of government rather than with citizenship itself. They are experts in political institutions, but they do not give the same-careful consideration to the individual subject and the realities of citizenship The framework is all. In a mere account of institutions, how much there is to admire in the arrangement for a double citizenship, Roman and provincial, which in the later Empire was designed to embrace the free population of the civilised world within a corporate whole. Yet Dill, in his "Roman Society in the [unclear: Las] Century of the Western Empire," shows, with a few quiet touches, how the unhappy citizens of provincial towns sought escape from their onerous burdens and unreal privileges by taking refuge in the hermitage or hiding themselves among charcoal-burners and serfs.†
In the same way, the problems of our own Empire, looked at from the [unclear: point] of view of the individual citizen, acquire fresh significance. Numbers, as [unclear: well] as political puwer begin to tell. We are reminded that our Indian fellow subjects, with their exiguous citizenship, form a large majority of all British subjects, and that in South Africa it is the exception for a British subject to be so descended as to be able to claim electoral privileges. We note the different status of women subjects as they pass from one part of the self-governing Dominions to another. We realise that the same man is an elector in various capacities in the same territory, and that his citizenship is a complex whole subject to internal strains.
* July 1901 and January 1902.
† Book III., chap. ii.
E. B. Sargant.