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26 February 2021

The Shamima Begum ruling does not mean the UK can disregard British Isis fighters

The government’s attempt to pretend that those who went to join Islamic State are not its problem will end in disaster.

By Stephen Bush

In a unanimous verdict, the Supreme Court has ruled that the safety of the British people as a whole takes priority over Shamima Begum’s right to return to the UK to appeal against the government’s decision to remove her British citizenship. 

While it is a major legal victory for the government and the former home secretary Sajid Javid, it deprives the Conservatives of both a fruitful attack line against so-called activist judges and an argument for yet more draconian powers to fight terrorism. I suspect this judgment will come as a relief to Keir Starmer as much as Boris Johnson, perhaps more so.

But it’s important to remember the questions this judgment does not answer: the legal rights and wrongs of Begum’s case are but one part of another set of questions. The first concerns our responsibility, as a state, for the problems we create: can it really be right that we can wash our hands of the British fighters still either roaming free or currently incarcerated in what remains of the so-called Islamic State? Can it really be moral to revoke the citizenship of someone born in the UK on the grounds that they can, owing to their parents’ citizenship, claim citizenship of another country? And if it is, is it really an appropriate or responsible thing for one state to pass off its responsibility for that person to another?

The political argument for the government’s position is that there is no electoral downside to “tough” posturing on this issue: that no matter what, you can always win more votes by promising to unambiguously revoke Begum’s citizenship. But the policy reality is that no matter what the courts say, no matter what legal loopholes the Home Office lawyers might find, what happens to the foreign fighters who went to join Isis is very much the UK’s problem. 

The consequences of this can’t be confined to Syria and its neighbours – and the government’s attempt to pretend they can will only end in disaster sooner or later.

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[See also: The case of Shamima Begum shows there are no easy choices for the West as IS collapses]