As part of the ongoing efforts by the Home Office to make life in Britain as difficult as possible, it emerged two weeks ago that the department under Theresa May had shredded thousands of landing cards proving the right to live here of most of the Windrush generation who came to the UK between 1948 and 1971.
The argument for their disposal was that the slips were no longer needed, and were in violation of data protection legislation. But there is another much older piece of paper that the Home Office have clung onto.
Among documents that the Home Office decided to retain, such as the Handbook on the Peculiarities of Foreign Names and the Imperial Gazetteer of India, there is a family tree of a German aristocrat who died more than 300 years ago, the Electress Sophia of Hanover. And it is still used to this day to hand out passports.
In 1701, the government of the newly formed Great Britain realised it had an issue. It had, after the abdication of the Catholic King James II, installed his daughter Mary and her husband William – both protestant – as ‘co-monarchs’. As the pair had no children, the throne was then taken by Mary’s sister Anne, who, despite being pregnant 17 times, had no children make it to adulthood. With the future of protestant Britain hanging in the balance, politicians scrambled to find an heir and the Electress Sophia was declared by Parliament to be next in succession. She also became a naturalised British subject, and it was decreed that any of her descendants would also become citizens provided they “shall not become a papist or embrace the Popish religion.”
In 1948, having realised the ridiculousness of a situation in which thousands of European aristocrats remained entitled to a British passport, the government repealed the law, presuming the matter was closed.
However, in the 1950s the British Government began offering compensation to citizens who had their property nationalised by Communists or destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Suddenly out of the woodwork came a bevy of German princes who had never stepped foot in the UK, each seeking British passports and compensation on account of their ancestor Sophia. Claimants included a “Mr Friedrich Preussen”, in reality Prince Friedrich of Prussia, who, after dropping his title, was described by Michael Foot in the House Commons as “the Wedgwood-Benn of Central Europe.”
Desite initially being dismissed, the cases of Mr Preussen and others went to the courts.
Following a long legal battle, the House of Lords in 1957 eventually agreed that getting a passport was begrudgingly their right, through a ‘legal absurdity’ and commanded the government to register them as British subjects.
After seven of the newly minted citizens then lodged claims for money for their ancestral farmland taken by communist Poland, the Foreign Office was then forced to get an emergency order passed to exclude them from receiving any money.
The centuries-long saga persists to this day. While the concept of the Windrush Taskforce is new, there has, for some time, been staff in the Home Office on what is in effect an Electress Sophia Taskforce, tracking down and giving passports to her descendants. Recent Home Office guidance says that the “effects will continue to be felt” for some time. There is only one catch, the applicants must send their caseworker a written statement swearing “to have never been a Roman Catholic”.
Ned Donovan is a freelance journalist and writer. You can follow him on Twitter @Ned_Donovan.