Home Secretary Theresa May wants to expand powers to remove UK citizenship. Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's citizenship-stripping proposal is worse than medieval banishment

The Home Secretary should remember the US Supreme Court's description of making someone stateless: "a form of punishment more primitive than torture".

In medieval England, those who had been forced to “abjure the realm” and go into exile would be required to walk barefoot, carrying a wooden cross, to the nearest port.  There, they were to take passage on the first available ship; until they were able to do so, they had to wade, daily, into the sea, as testimony to their willingness to leave the country.

This specific provision is absent from the Home Secretary’s proposed expansion of her powers to arbitrarily deprive Britons of their citizenship – expected to be considered again by MPs this week.  But the echo of the medieval punishment of banishment in the modern measure of ‘citizenship-stripping’ is impossible to ignore. It has perhaps been best summed up by the Supreme Court of the United States, which has described the practice of making someone stateless by removing their citizenship as “a form of punishment more primitive than torture.”

And in some ways, the modern procedure of which Theresa May is so fond is worse than its centuries-old equivalent.  By and large, those medieval unfortunates forced to abjure the realm were not at risk of further punishment from the state provided they stayed out of the country.  The same cannot be said of those who have been deprived of British citizenship under the current government's existing, limited powers, which they are currently seeking to expand.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, of the estimated 37 people who have had their passports torn up by the current British Home Secretary, two have so far been killed in covert US drone strikes, and one has been kidnapped and “rendered,” also by the US. 

Conveniently for both governments, the removal of British nationality from these people means that the obligations on the British authorities – in terms of the provision of consular services to those detained, or the carrying out of an inquest into the deaths of those killed overseas – are lifted.

As leading lawyer Baroness Kennedy QC put it during the Lords debate on these proposals, contained in the Immigration Bill:

“Is... the purpose of this change of law, that we might be able to do things that make people vulnerable and deny them their rights, creating yet more black holes where no law obtains but where we cannot be accused of complicity?”

Notably, this was not a question to which the government minister responded.  Despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating the UK's involvement in CIA activities ranging from rendition and torture to the covert drone programme, the British government – on the grounds that it must avoid at all costs embarrassing its US ally – has refused to come clean over its role in any of them. 

This way of thinking is not limited to parliament – it has also infected the British Courts.  Last year, a High Court judge told one of the victims of CIA torture that although he had a “well-founded claim,” he should not be allowed to pursue his case for fear of damaging UK-US relations.

Meanwhile, on the covert drone programme, despite a wave of reports demonstrating that the UK supports it by providing everything from intelligence to crucial infrastructure at US bases on British soil, UK ministers have stonewalled, refusing to go any further than the bland statement that “the use of unmanned aerial vehicles against terrorist targets is a matter for the states involved.”

The picture that emerges from all this is of a Britain which is prepared to take measures that even the US has long determined to be beyond the pale.  It is worth returning here to that US Supreme Court ruling mentioned above, which railed against “subject[ing someone] to banishment, a fate universally decried by civilized people,” and making them “stateless, a condition deplored in the international community of democracies.”

Home Secretary Theresa May's measures – which would lift the ban on depriving someone of citizenship, even where doing so would render them stateless – were defeated in the Lords last month.  But the government is expected to seek their return in the Commons this week.  Aside from putting Britain beyond the “civilized... community of democracies,” in the US Supreme Court's words, they will open up many millions of Britons to the threat of the arbitrary loss of their citizenship, and, potentially, leave them vulnerable to the lawless excesses of the ‘War on Terror’: kidnap or death by drone.

It seems safe to say that the sight of would-be exiles wading into the sea at the Channel ports is not set to return.  But the arbitrary nature of these powers, which allow the Home Secretary to act without any legal process and without any crime having been committed, would be all too familiar to the medieval despots of this country’s past.

Donald Campbell is Head of Communications at Reprieve

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.