This article has its roots in a very simple question: what was citizenship? I am a historian of modern Britain, and wanted to understand the interactions between individuals and the state and between individuals and other members of society. Yet when I sought to pin down how ‘citizenship’ was understood, I was confronted by an almost bewildering array of definitions. Truly, citizenship seemed to mean whatever people wanted it to mean.
Picking through the definitions, however, I realised there were three core ‘registers’ of citizenship used by historians, and that these mapped onto both contemporary and current understandings of the term. First, there was the legal sense, of being able to vote, holding a passport and claim welfare benefits. Second, there was a wider and more discursive notion of belonging which cut across ‘legal’ citizenship and which largely defined an individual’s ability to actually exercise their rights. Thirdly, there was a differential citizenship, divided between ‘active’ or ‘good’ citizens and ‘passive’ and ‘bad’ ones.
By looking at these three registers it is clear that ‘citizenship’ is not quite as amorphous as I first thought. The three registers are different, but they also overlapped. They also served much the same purpose, to simultaneously include and exclude people in defined communities, and to promote certain behaviours while deterring people from others. People of minority ethnicities, single mothers, and members of the Communist Party of Great Britain have all, at various points since 1945 seen their ability to exercise their rights challenged and curtailed despite their legal citizenship status.
At the heart of notions of citizenship, I argue, are notions of belonging that are historically contingent and are defined politically, socially, and culturally. After the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union last summer, the issue of who ‘belongs’ in today’s United Kingdom has become central. The idea of the UK remaining somewhere to call ‘home’ has seemed increasingly unlikely to many citizens of other EU states. My research highlights that such meanings of citizenship and belonging have been constructed and contested since 1945, that there is nothing innate or natural about these questions. As in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of who ‘belongs’ is one that need to be fought for.