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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder