Citizenship is a concept whereby a citizen is an individual who is fully recognised by a state as being a member of that state. Citizenship, which is a legal concept, grants individuals who have some sort of legal status within a state, certain rights, and they are expected to perform certain duties:


‘the citizen should be understood in the first instance not as a type of person…but as a position in the set of formal relationships defined by democratic sovereignty’ Donald (1996)


The balance between these rights and duties varies from state to state and from time to time. For example, in times of war, the duties expected by your state may far outweigh the rights and liberties received at the same time; though when peace returns, the situation may be reversed. This was true during the Second World War from 1939 to 1945 and during the Cold War in the 1950s when many Britons were obligated to serve for their nation, though war time patriotism generally made this a duty that many were willing to accept.

The exact balance between rights, liberties and duties is always changing, and it is a matter that citizens in particular societies at different times choose to resolve either by negotiation or sometimes conflict. Citizenship implies that everybody has access to the same rights and is protected by the same laws. Most people living in the UK have certain rights as the majority are British citizens. They have the right to vote in elections if they are over the age of eighteen, and, for example, the right to free education from the ages of five to sixteen and the right to freedom of speech – so long as they do not break the laws of libel or slander. People living in the UK are subjects as well as citizens. They were subject to the monarchy up until the execution of Charles I in 1649, but the drive for equal rights put an end to the belief that monarchs had absolute power, and from then on citizen’s rights became more obvious and UK citizens were made subject to the law of the land rather than to monarchical power.

Unlike in the USA and many other states, the rights and liberties of British citizens are not set out in a single constitutional document; instead they are included in the uncodified British constitution. Some of these rights and liberties are the results of custom and convention, whereas others are contained in the written Acts of Parliament.

The rights and liberties contained in these Acts have resulted from the struggle waged by people and their representatives against the absolute power of their rulers at the time. The key acts are the Magna Carta in 1215, Habeas Corpus in 1679 and the Bill of Rights in 1689. Further acts have subsequently been passed extending the rights and liberties of British citizens, for example slavery was abolished in 1833, a Race Relations Act was passed in 1976 and the Data Protection Act was passed in 1984. In addition to this internal legislation, three international agreements have a bearing on rights in the UK. The first is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, agreed in 1948; the second is the European Convention on Human Rights, signed in 1950; and the third is the Maastricht Treaty which had been approved by all EU member states by the end of 1993.

As a result of the above agreements, British citizens have the following basic rights and liberties:

freedom of movement;
freedom from arbitrary arrest or unjustified police searches;
freedom of conscience in matters of religion and politics;
freedom of expression;
freedom of association, including the right to protest peacefully;
social freedoms – such as the right to marry, divorce, procure abortions or have homosexual relations; the right to vote and to stand for election;
the right to a fair trial;
the right not to be coerced or tortured by agents of the state;
the right not to be subjected to surveillance without due legal process;
the right to own property.

Since the late 1980s, there have been three main reasons why the debate about what citizenship is and what it should be has risen up the political agenda. Firstly, there was a campaign by the Conservative government under John Major to promote ‘active citizenship’. Secondly, there was public concern that legislation passed in the 1980s and early 1990s resulted in the decline of many of the rights and liberties enjoyed by British citizens. Thirdly, the Labour Government elected in 1997 promised to take the debate in a new direction:


‘The millennium symbolises a new era opening up for Britain…Our aim is no less than to set British political life on a new course for the future’ Labour, 1997


The concept of active citizenship was a result of the Conservatives’ government experience in the 1980’s. The government began to look for solutions to the problems of rising crime and rising public spending which did not involve government intervention. One solution was to suggest that responsibility for society’s problems did not lie within the government, but with the whole community. In other words, every British citizen had a duty to take an active part in solving society’s problems. To promote the idea of this active citizenship, John Major launched the Citizen’s Charter initiative in the summer of 1991. Together these two notions demonstrated the dual nature of citizenship, with its concern for both the responsibilities of citizens towards each other and also with what can be expected as a right from the state.

Since Parliament is sovereign, it can pass laws that take away, or add, to any or all of the rights enjoyed by citizens. This means that the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by British citizens are entirely dependant on the government of the day. Citizens have no right of appeal if the government chooses to take away a right or liberty that it is of importance to them. This can be seen as unsatisfactory especially when a single party holds office for a prolonged period, especially given the fact that no single party has won 50% of the vote in all general elections since 1945. There were a number of occasions in the 1980s and early 1990s when Conservative opponents were outraged at the government’s erosion of civil liberties. As an example, in 1990, many protesters at an anti-poll tax demonstration in London complained that they were being denied their right to peaceful public protest.

It was clear from Labour’s 1997 general election manifesto that citizenship was high on their agenda, and that they had a new approach to the issue. In their manifesto, for example, a number of pledges were made which had been designed to clearly strengthen the rights of British citizens. These included a Freedom of Information Act; the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law; the promise of legal aid for those seeking to enforce their rights; improved rights for workers through a minimum wage and signing the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty; and statutory trade union recognition. Labour’s commitment to strengthening citizen’s rights suggested that it had a different approach from the previous Conservative administration. At the same time as promising to strengthen citizen’s rights, the Labour government placed emphasis on the idea that citizens have responsibilities to uphold.

In July 1997, the government published a white paper that gave the commitment to ‘strengthen education for citizenship’. The government’s commitment to education for citizenship indicated that citizenship was high on its agenda. On the 2nd October 2000, the Human Rights Act came into force. It was billed as the biggest change to the justice system since the Magna Carta, and gives the right to life and a fair trial, freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and freedom to marry and have a family.

Citizens should be able to use the Act instead of resulting to the lengthy process involved in taking a claim to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Home Secretary of the time, Jack Straw, said the Act would ‘develop a culture of rights and responsibility’, and denied that the Act limited Parliament’s power to make law. The pure fact that a change to citizenship legislation has been made under the current Labour government that was described as the biggest change to the justice system since 1215, certainly proves that the government is committed to citizenship and highlights its relevance to Britain in the year 2002.