Commonwealth Citizens

It is just this kind of manipulation of membership status for the purposes of rendering citizens vulnerable to expulsion that I will consider in the rest of this chapter. While one might be tempted to see the vulnerability of members to deportation—or, more controversially, ‘banishment’—as a thing of the past, a closer look at recent practices by the United Kingdom shows that this is far from being the case. My first example considers the circumstances under which Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom became subject to deportation power, an event that occurred in the early 1960s.

Before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, citizens of Commonwealth countries could freely enter and reside in the United Kingdom and were, along with Britons born there, immune from deportation power. Their rights were consistent with a conceptualization of membership that emphasized subjection to the British Monarch rather than national citizenship as the basis for belonging. Under this conception, membership was based not on citizenship in the British nation but rather ‘allegiance between individual subjects and the King’. ‘These ties of allegiance’, moreover, ‘knit together the British Empire not the British nation’ (Brubaker 1989: 11). Put simply, immunity from deportation for members of the Commonwealth, and rights to reside in the United Kingdom, reflected a conception of common imperial subjection rather than civic membership. Commonwealth citizens’ insulation from deportation power stood in stark contrast to the situation of (non-Commonwealth) non-citizens—aliens—resident in the United Kingdom. Since the beginnings of the First World War, they had been subject to frequently renewed Alien Orders which meant that their right to reside in the United Kingdom could be revoked whenever a Home Secretary deemed their presence—whether or not recommended by a court in sentencing—not conducive to the public good (McDonald and Toal 2010).

Parliamentary consideration of the extension of deportation power to Commonwealth citizens from 1958 was sparked by widespread public concern over rising immigration to the United Kingdom from the so-called New Commonwealth countries of India, Pakistan, and the West Indies. Under the British Nationality Act 1948, almost one billion members of the Commonwealth had the right to settle in the United Kingdom. Before 1945, however, few such people had availed themselves of the right. Things changed dramatically after 1948, when the number of non-white entrants started to grow from several hundred a year to 11,000 by 1954 to well over 100,000 annually by 1961 (Hansen 2000). This test of the Commonwealth idea of membership sparked social and political anxieties about competition for jobs, public housing, and the possibility of integration reflecting, amongst other things, racist attitudes amongst large sections of the British public and elite. Yet, in the face ofsuch public concern, as Hansen notes, the Conservative government was extremely reluctant to legislate restrictions because of its desire not to impede the entrance of people from the Old Commonwealth countries— Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc—and to avoid the appearance of entrance restrictions based on race (Hansen 2000).

The mounting pressure on the government for restrictive legislation during the late 1950s was reflected in parliamentary debates. One manifestation was a push by parliamentarians in favour of immigration restriction (‘restrictionists’) for new legislation that would, for the first time, enable the deportation of Commonwealth immigrants convicted of crimes in the United Kingdom. This push was led initially by two conservative MPs with a track record of racist hostility towards the New Commonwealth migrants: Cyril Osbourne and Norman Pannell. In defence of new deportation powers, Osbourne argued that New Commonwealth immigrants were disproportionately involved in ‘organized prostitution and the traffic in dangerous drugs’ (HC Debates, col 199, 29 October 1957). Pannell, on the other hand, produced statistics attempting to show that ‘practically the whole of drug trafficking in the country’ was attributable to ‘Colonial and Commonwealth immigrants’ (HC Debates, col 1967, 17 February 1961).

The focus on deportation by restrictionists was a strategic move on their part to attack Commonwealth immigration at its most vulnerable point. Somewhat disingenuously, restrictionists presented criminal deportation provisions as beneficial not just to the indigenous British public, but also to the Commonwealth immigrants themselves because ‘evil men’ put a smear on ‘all the people with coloured skins’ (HC Debates, October 1958). The initial parliamentary response of the government was to reject this call on the grounds that Commonwealth immigrants were members: ‘the Mother country does not deport British people of this sort’ (HC Debates, cols 545-547, November 1957). However, the emphasis on deporting criminals successfully exposed the limited commitment of inclusionists to seeing the Commonwealth entrants as members. For, in response to the call for deportation powers, many who supported wide-ranging entrance rights conceded that any right to reside should be conditional on good behaviour. Once the conditionality of residence had been conceded, the claim that Commonwealth citizens were equal in entitlements and rights to UK-born citizens started to erode.

Other restrictionists used the concession as the basis from which to argue for different, more expansive grounds to deport. Martin Lindsay claimed that ‘the unfit’ should also be expelled and ‘those who prefer to live on National Assistance here rather than in poverty in their own country’ (HC Debates, col 1561, 5 December 1958). By the late 1950s the government too was conceding that the case for deporting criminals was ‘reasonable’.

By 1962 the government had drafted and introduced to Parliament a Commonwealth Immigrants Bill that, in addition to controlling Commonwealth migration by requiring that immigrants possess work vouchers before arriving, proposed that the Home Secretary be given the power to deport Commonwealth immigrants if they were convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment and a court recommended their deportation. This proposal might have made Commonwealth citizens closer to aliens in their vulnerability to deportation power, but they still possessed a distinct and elevated status. The position of the government was summed up by McColl, who noted in debate on the Bill that ‘we want to reduce to the absolute minimum the power ofdeportation ofCommonwealth citizens. It is profoundly distasteful’ (HC Debates, col 534, 7 February 1962). The real question in the debate that followed was where Commonwealth citizens should be located on the spectrum from national citizens to aliens in terms of the state’s power to deport.

Those hostile to new controls on Commonwealth citizens—‘inclusionists’— took issue with a proposal in the government’s Bill that the age that an individual should become vulnerable to deportation power be 17, proposing instead that the age be 25. Michael Foot argued that it was unjust to expel people of such youth as ‘they are criminals who are manufactured here and sent there’ (HC Debates, col 523, 7 February 1962). While an amendment to raise the age limit was not successful, another issue was a matter of concern to the inclusionists: at what point in their residence should Commonwealth citizens be treated as full members and thus freed from deportation power?

The inclusionists argued that the period be 24 months. One MP suggested that ‘if a person has established himself here as a resident for a couple of years, even though he may commit an offence ... he should, as a member of the Commonwealth, have the same protection against deportation as a native born British subject or anyone else who has made this country his home’ (HC Debates, col 547, 7 February 1962). However, restrictionists pushed back, and sought to make deportation power for Commonwealth citizens virtually equivalent to that applied to aliens generally. In the midst ofthis heated discussion, the government’s position of five years took on the appearance of a compromise and subsequently won the day (HC Debates, col 557, 7 February 1962).

When the 1962 Act received Royal Assent, Commonwealth citizens became, for the first time, deportable. However, as is evident from the previous discussion, they were not thrust unambiguously into the status of aliens. Unlike non-citizens in the United Kingdom who were not from Commonwealth countries, Commonwealth citizens could only be deported if recommended by a court after being convicted of an imprisonable offence; moreover, they were subject to deportation power only during the first five years of their residence. Unlike aliens, they were not subject to the discretionary judgment of the Home Secretary that their presence was not conducive to the public good. The status of Commonwealth citizens thus looked like something of a compromise, one that treated them neither as fully citizens nor as non-citizens. However, this position as quasi-members of the British state was a precarious one and it was not to last. In 1969 the Home Secretary acquired the power to ‘initiate deportation proceedings against Commonwealth citizens’. And with the Immigration Act 1971, the position of aliens and Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom was made ‘broadly the same’ (McDonald and Toal 2010: 1272).

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