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The story of how British citizenship developed and why this matters for questions of race, migration and belonging in 'Global Britain'

Hosted and produced by Michaela Benson.

Cover Art: George Kalivis

Production and post-production: Art of Podcast 

Oct 29, 2021

Why do changes in Britain's immigration laws matter for making sense of citizenship today? What is the relationship of these changes to Britain's shift from empire to nation-state? In this episode, host Michaela Benson explains how decolonisation and the independence struggles of Britain's former colonies set the stage for citizenship to emerge in Britain. She explores the shift from subjecthood to citizenship and what this meant for people around the British Empire. Podcast researcher George Kalivis goes back into the archive to explore the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1948. They are joined by Devyani Prabhat, Professor of Law at the University of Bristol, to talk about what citizenship means in law; how the development of citizenship in Britain was a process of inclusion and exclusion managed through immigration and nationality legislation at their intersections; and how this understanding helps us to see the entrenched racism at the heart of nationality and immigration law today, including the British Nationality Act 1981.

Access the full episode transcript

In this episode we cover …

  • The shifts in Britain's nationality legislation from the British Nationality Acts of 1948 and 1981
  • How the development of British citizenship was caught up in Britain's decolonisation
  • What immigration controls introduced in the 1960s and 1970s can tell us about the changing definition of what it meant to be British over time


Citizenship was not really defined in British Immigration and Nationality Laws for a very long time, in terms of the country.  So it wasn’t about the UK as such and the reason is very much historical, it’s based on the British empire and its relationship with colonies and former colonies and each stage of the Immigration and Nationality Laws we see certain elements being added in without actually describing who is a citizen or defining who is a citizen.

  • Devyani Prabhat


Where can you find out more about the topics in today’s episode?

You can find out more about Devyani's research on her University of Bristol Website (which includes links to many of her publications) and you can follow her on Twitter @ProfDPrabhat.

For the themes covered in this episode, we particular recommend her recent paper Unequal Citizenship and Subjecthood: A rose by any other name..? published in @NILegalQ, and her recent edited volume Citizenship in Times of Turmoil?

She has also written extensively about the people’s experiences of becoming British citizens in her book Britishness, belonging and citizenship and about several other timely issues relating to citizenship, including this piece about Shamima Begum: what the legal ruling about her return to the UK actually means:  for @ConversationUK and this for @freemovementlaw focused on Britain's unaccompanied migrant children.


For wider reading, this week's recommendation is Reiko Karatani's 2003 book 'Defining British Citizenship'.


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