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UK nationality law timeline


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As a companion piece to our earlier immigration law timeline, here is an attempt at a nationality law timeline. I know that UK nationality law is complex but I confess I had not anticipated quite how long this one would take. With immigration law, much of the detail is set out in secondary legislation, so a timeline of Acts of Parliament paints a very incomplete (but I think still interesting) picture. With nationality law, the detail is set out in the primary legislation, making this exercise somewhat more difficult.

I have gone right back to the start and I have tried to capture the major changes as they occurred. Where something did not really change (such as rules on acquisition by descent) I have not mentioned it even if the rule was preserved in new legislation.

This exercise owes a huge amount to Fransman’s British Nationality Law (3rd edition) and the scholarship of its authors, Laurie Fransman himself but also Adrian Berry and Alison Harvey. Mistakes in the timeline are my own, though; please do point any out and I’ll look at doing a revised version. I’ve already made a few minor tweaks to the immigration one after feedback.

Common law

Any person born within the King’s “allegiance” is a British subject.

De natis ultra mare 1350

Established that children born outside the King’s allegiance to a father or mother who at the time of their birth owed “ligeance” to the King were natural-born British subjects.

An Act for naturalising Foreign Protestants 1708

Enabled naturalisation of alien Protestants; confirmed De natis ultra mare rule of descent.

Naturalisation Act 1711

Repealed naturalisation provisions of 1708 Act due to influx of aliens.

British Nationality Act 1730

Amended previous understanding on descent to apply to fathers only, not mothers.

British Nationality Act 1772

Extended transmission of British subject status to second generation born abroad.

Naturalization Act 1844

Introduced administrative form of naturalisation at discretion of Secretary of State; private Act of Parliament no longer required. Women marrying a British subject deemed to be naturalised.

Naturalisation Act 1870

Refined naturalisation process; introduced requirement of five years’ residence; introduced renunciation; introduced general rule that women adopt nationality of husband, with effect that British woman marrying an alien lost British status.

British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914

Put British subject status on statutory footing; limited transmission to children born abroad to one generation; introduced citizenship deprivation on ground of fraud.

British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1918

Extended transmission to children of parents who had naturalised as British or were in Crown service abroad. Expanded citizenship deprivation to conduct including disloyalty (but still only for naturalised citizens).

British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1922

New descent rules: indefinite transmission by descent but conditional on registering child concerned.

British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1933

New rules for wives: British woman would not lose British status if would be stateless; alien wife of alien who naturalised no longer automatically British, had to make a declaration.

British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1943

Expanded descent rules to allow registration out of time.

British Nationality Act 1948

Retained British subject status but redefined it as being conferred by means of one of two sub-classes: Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies or citizenship of an independent Commonwealth country. Transmission of CUKC by descent limited to two generations; abolished rule that women cease to be British on marriage to an alien.

Ireland Act 1949

Addressed in British law full Irish independence and retained British subject status for residents of Northern Ireland.

Adoption of Children Act 1949

Provided that a child would become CUKC if adopted by one (see also Adoption Acts 1950, 1958 and 1964).

British Nationality Act 1958

Provision for independence of Ghana (an exception to the rule that provisions on nationality would normally appear in the independence legislation).

Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962

Removed right to enter and live in United Kingdom from British subjects other than certain CUKCs: some nationals of the United Kingdom could no longer enter the United Kingdom as of right.

British Nationality Act 1964

Enabled resumption of CUKC status for those who renounced it.

British Nationality (No 2) Act 1964

Various provisions against statelessness.

British Nationality Act 1965

Enabled women married to British subjects without citizenship to become British subjects by registration.

Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968

Further restricted number of CUKCs eligible for entry and residence, aimed specifically at the ‘East African Asians’.

Immigration Act 1971

Codified right of entry and residence as the ‘right of abode’, to be enjoyed by only certain CUKCs, designated as ‘patrials’. Still provides modern immigration control powers.

British Nationality Act 1981

Replaced 1948 Act. All but abolished British subject status and replaced it with British citizens, British Dependent Territory Citizenship (BDTC) and British Overseas Citizenship (BOC).

British Nationality (Falkland Islands) Act 1983

Reclassified Falkland Islanders from BDTC to full British citizenship.

British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990

Enabled around 50,000 selected British national Hong Kong residents and their families to register as British citizens.

British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1997

Enabled Hong Kong residents without Chinese ancestry who would otherwise be stateless to register as British citizens.

British Overseas Territories Act 2002

Renamed British Dependent Territories as British Overseas Territories.

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002

Introduced citizenship tests and ceremonies; extended English language requirement to spouses of British citizens; introduced automatic transmission of citizenship by unmarried British fathers; enabled most British nationals without any other nationality to register as British citizens; widened citizenship deprivation criteria and extended power to British nationals by birth or descent (not just naturalised as previously).

Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006

Widened citizenship deprivation to ground of “public good”.

Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009

Introduced new “probationary citizenship” as initial stage of naturalisation (never been brought into effect); enabled final tranche of BNOs with no other nationality to register as British citizens.

Immigration Act 2014

Corrected historic gender discrimination in earlier laws; enabled citizenship deprivation for naturalised person where will be stateless but Secretary of State reasonably believes the person can acquire another nationality.

It is interesting to see how the phases of obsession with different aspects of nationality emerge from the timeline. Until 1948 the principal issue in British nationality law was transmission from parent to child abroad, outside the British empire. As international travel grew, it transpired the common law rules of allegiance were insufficient. In parallel with that, presaged by an abortive experiment in 1708, the nineteenth century saw the introduction of a proper naturalisation process in order to accommodate and integrate the wave of migration from the rest of Europe during the years. The nineteenth century also saw Parliament legislate to treat women as the property of their husbands, a position only reversed in 1948. Women continued to be discriminated against in passing on their nationality status to their children until at least 1981 and those injustices were only retrospectively corrected in 2014 – far too late for many.

The post war period from 1948 to 1997 was primarily about the end of empire, although further legislation to address various outstanding issues continued up until 2014. Changes to address the status of adopted children and the stateless were also made. The thirty-year period from 1962 to 1981 witnessed the unedifying demotion of some citizens to a second class status which denied them residence in their country of nationality. Finally, from 2002 onwards we see a number of measures aimed at “integration”, including tests, ceremonies, the abandoned probationary citizenship measures, and widened citizenship deprivation powers.

If you spot any mistakes or glaring omissions, get in touch and let me know.

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Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.