How Do Historians Interpret the Changes in Perceptions of What Citizenship Means Between 1945 and 1970?

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Despite being the end of a battle, historians believe that the cold war, a new ideological conflict, began with the end of World battle II. The post-World War II era was marked by a number of topics that historians have long debated, including immigration, racial relations, the welfare state, women's rights, affluence, and poverty. Literature often examines whether there was a consensus during this time. (Rebel 2016).

Despite the fact that the concept of citizenship is a foundation for many of the topics historians typically choose to study when studying this time period, historian Mathew Grant explains that, traditional narratives of the post war period often neglect its importance opting to emphasize elsewhere. However, due to citizenship being foundational to many of these themes, it is an important area of study. Mathew grant concludes his article on nationality by arguing all three registers used to frame the concept of citizenship need to be taken into account to obtain an understanding of citizenship during the period changing meanings between being a practice and status (Billingham 2016).

When discussing citizenship, historians typically refer to three registers of citizenship. The first register is Legal and political citizenship which is concerned with one's right to vote, access to the welfare state and whether or not they have a passport. The second register is active 'good' citizenship which suggests that one's citizenship can be increased or earned by volunteering and participation. The final record refers to cultural citizenship 'belonging' which is concerned with the extent to which one is included in the national community.

Focusing on three key topics of interest which helped define citizenship during the period; Immigration, The Cold War, and issues with Northern Ireland, the following essay intends to reveal what historians account for the changing ideas of the meaning of citizenship (Billingham 2016).

Immigration and Race

Race, Immigration, and the Problem of Race

The United Kingdom Parliament in 1948 enacted The British Nationality Act 1948 which was meant to create and identify the status of a person supposed to belong to either the UK or its colonies. The act was never intended to promote immigration and instead was the result of a Commonwealth conference where member states agreed on legislation concerning citizenship. The law extended citizenship on an equal basis to all subjects of the empire meaning all subjects had the right to live and work in the UK. Kathleen Paul describes that how the post war period saw the immigration of three groups and she describes how they were welcomed by different experience (Hampshire 2005).

Racism can be split up into two registers; biological racism and cultural differentials. The post-war period sees a decline in biological racism with cultural differentials becoming more prominent as a justification to deny black citizens of their citizenship. In fact, the British government denied black citizens citizenship due to the fear that increased numbers of the black population would not be easily infused into the mainstream. However, they did not recognize the role played by these people in the construction of the British economy with their involvement in the various industries.

Rethinking 'Britishness' - increasingly seen in racial terms. To be British was to be White. A set of 'British' values defined against perceived values of Black 'others.' In fact, the differentiation of the British citizens became a significant determinant on how people received services. Those perceived non-indigenous or people of colour got far much worse treatment as compared to the fair treatment "Whites" received. Racial discrimination became the order of the day thus undermining citizenship and affecting the wholesome economic growth of the entire British establishment. Discrimination extended to public places whereby the White Britons got the priority when it came to employment opportunities and the Asians and Blacks occupied the last position in the hierarchy. Ideas of order, cleanliness, noise, and sexuality issues also found their way into the mainstream of the UK and British politics affecting the majority of citizens detrimentally (Hampshire 2005).

The emphasis that non-white migrants were both culturally and physically different and that they needed to overcome this differences brought about mass action from a few nationalists. However, racism got a new excuse and became blamed on the difference in colour, race, ethnicity, religion, and political ideologies. Racist ideas that Black people were fundamentally different to White people in cultural terms, and a threat to national cohesion led to two effects: firstly, denied any idea of Black agency. Denied any concept of 'worth' to Black culture and identity. The government also fell for this fallacy that limiting the number of Black immigrants could contain the height of differences between the White and Blacks. Though it was widely felt that limitation would help both the white population and the black migrants, that did no good instead it heightened the enmity between the two groups.

The government also thought increasing immigration would lead to increased racial problems hence the notion that it would be easier to integrate the Black population if it was kept smaller. Ideally, the less Black people, the less the danger to national cohesion. This all highlighted that the government acknowledged the different meanings of citizenship (Joppke & Morawska 2014).

The second effect manifested in the 1965 Race Relations Act which sought to eliminate the illegal barring of people from places of general public use such as swimming pools and hotels. The Act allowed for the setting up of the Race Relations Board and instituted the crime of incitement to racial hatred. However, this piece of legislation is often considered by many to be a weak Act. Thus reflecting the belief that promotional and educational initiatives would be more efficient in tackling discrimination than 'outlawing racism,' it was important as the first political recognition that racism was an embarrassing part of British life and that the state had a duty to fight against it (Hansen 2000).

Powell and the 'River Of Blood' Speech

Powell expression and response saw a return to the initial views regarding citizenship and highlighted the consensus that the British were different. Go back to where we started: Non-white people are being defined as non-British unwilling or unable to 'integrate' with proper 'British' (i.e., white) society (Crines, Heppell & Hill 2016). Black people are seen as a danger to the traditional way of life of the British people. The insinuation that blacks are different culturally posed the risk of diluting the British culture hence the need to contain and outlaw migration into the UK. However, such a step displays the backwardness in thinking exhibited by the racial segregation strategists of the time. In fact, Black also possess equal abilities, talents, and skills of which the country would benefit from improved economic standing. Because the population of the migrants provided much of the required labor in most farm plantations (Joppke & Morawska 2014).

The policymaking class strived so much to formulate policies that could protect the British identity constructed by profiling the migrant groups by where they "belonged." The understanding of the national identity as the sole identification criteria, each group of migrants received a differential treatment, and this affected the level of encouragement on future prospective immigrants. The Britons put upon themselves the idea that they deserved to receive recognition in international affairs. They also thought that they had a position in the fervour of anticommunism, stratified comprehension of the role of gender diversity which relegated the women to inferior pragmatic passive positions (Crines, Heppell & Hill 2016).

However, the result of the perception in respect to the three migrant classes discussed above evidently produced a population that judged the other on the skin colour, and race and its denotation. The Powell statement in 1968 shed some light into what the Conservative Party stood for in respect to the issue of immigrants. Additionally, he pointed out that the party did not advocate for the country to be profiled into "first class" and "second class" citizens. However, that did not prevent any citizen to behave in a particular manner as much it is within the constitutional limits (Crines, Heppell & Hill 2016).

Powell was keen to note that the migrants were not the cause of resentment and discrimination but lied on the perception and tolerance of the communities that received them. And as such enacting of legislation barring migration at that time could detrimentally cause a lot of harm than doing well. Therefore, those proposing and in support of the containment did not surely recognize the effect of what the course they had chosen. In fact, the migrants cannot receive blame for finding themselves in Britain because many came in as full citizens eligible to enjoy all freedoms, rights, and privileges the Britons had as compared to the Negro community in the United States. The Negro population in the US initially consisted of slaves who had got emancipation and awarded rights gradually unlike the Commonwealth refugees.

The Cold War

Britain and the Cold War

The ending of World War II saw the birth of a new era commonly referred to as the cold war which was a period of tensions between two conflicting ideologies: communism and capitalism. At the conclusion of the cold war, Britain became the first nation in the world to form a task force to investigate the use of weapons believed to cause massive destruction and loss of human life in World War II. However, after the investigations, the government embarked on plans to develop its weapon system to restore its supremacy glory. Additionally, the aftermath was the ultimate financing, completion, and testing of its first evidence in 1952 (Grant 2010).

The post-war period was unique to previous eras due to the creation of nuclear weapons which posed the threat of mutually assured destruction as the two opposing powers raced to build them. Nuclear weapons, however, would as a deterrent during this period with only one use. Fear of communism was a prominent feature of this time with British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, arguing in 1948 that communist agenda adopted 'cold war methods' to achieve their aim of global domination birthed by a global monolithic communist movement. He was adamant that a policy of resistance was the appropriate strategy to be undertaken concerning communism. Political parties of the period followed a consensus with the cold war issue, with their anti-communist stance reflecting in attempts to undermine communism through spy scandals, rearmament and other policy implemented.

'Serving': National Service and Voluntary Civil Defence

The cold war was viewed by the political elite as a chance to recreate the patriotic citizenship that had existed during wartime. The hope was that it would create a new sense of purpose for British citizens and contribute towards the national community. Another consequence of the cold war was a new opportunity for citizens to demonstrate their citizenship by serving in the national service or the voluntary civil defence. Active 'good citizenship' could be shown by participating and volunteering in the protection of the entire nation from the aggression of the enemy in case war erupts. However, those who did not or shied away from participating in the national or voluntary defence services got perceived as the 'bad citizens' and the governments began castigating them. There was vast propaganda which had the intention of persuading citizens to support the effort and had employed rhetoric which excluded those who did not support the effort from the national community. The fast spread of this propaganda intensified the political temperatures and affected the relationship among different states (Grant 2010).

'Guarding': Anti-Communism

Anti-communism since the end of the Cold war has caused many groups to hold different political dimensions such as anarchist, socialist, conservative, liberal, and capitalist viewpoints. Whereas anti-communists are opposed to the centralized planning which perverts the basic ideology of social ties, the communists believe that by bringing societal resources to a shared pool would strengthen citizenship. Despite the sturdy religious stand taken by the Catholic Church, they are strongly opposed to any form of communism.

The Nuclear Bomb

Post war, Britain had been doing joint nuclear weapon development and testing with the United States making it over dependent on the later for weapons. The dependence threatened to weaken its global supremacy as a super power. Therefore, the Britons embarked in developing their first atomic bomb in 1952 which detonated the same year (Taylor & Pritchard 2013). The project was kept secret until its completion when the Churchill administration had taken up power. However, testing proceeded as planned in collaboration with the Australian government on the Monte Bello Islands. The rationale behind the pursuit of the creation of its first atomic weapon solely lied on the regaining of global power (Burke 2016).

Protest: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Years later, we see a change in what it means to be a citizen under the guise of morality, Britain attempting to lead a campaign for unilateral disarmament. This was just an attempt to create a sense of purpose and global leadership reminiscence of wartime Britain. The campaign advocates for the peaceful coexistence devoid of military action which can lead to the employment of chemical, nuclear weapons as well as the building of nuclear power stations. Since its official formation in 1957, it has continued to operate under the strategic objective of eliminating British nuclear weapons along with the abolition of these arms globally. Again, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) attempts to sensitize the British region against the use of nuclear and biological weapons (Taylor & Pritchard 2013).

Hill (2015) points that the CND moreover campaigns on the premises of abolishing all weapons believed to be of massive destruction such as atomic bombs and hence is trying to enforce the restriction on the manufacture and testing of the same. Apart from calling for the closure of nuclear weapons industry, CND has recently included in its campaigns the opposition against US' involvement in Vietnam and the Middle East. On the Middle East topic, the UK organized and staged several anti-war marches with the most profound being that dubbed "Don't attack Iraq." The efforts by the UK to spearhead international peace through disarmament of nuclear weapons is considered a mockery gave that it does not respect its citizens. Its residents are divided by race thus lacking the social and national cohesion (Burke 2016).

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland and the Limits of Citizenship

Along with the rising popularity, Unionism received much opposition from the Catholic and protestant classes of people as a result of reducing majority and inclusion of members of these two classes in the labour force. Not only this group of citizens became excluded in the formal employment sector; they too got an exclusion from the political life (Greer 2015). Their standards of living dwindled and worsened with every passing of the day. Increased opposition to unionism as well as indifference to moderation contributed a significant chunk of the heightening insecurity, fights, political instability, and more importantly discrimination of certain groups of the citizens (Mitchell 2014).

According to Greer (2015), despite the fall in the Nationalist Party and the regurgitated unity of the opposition, the formation of a movement to liberate the aggrieved Catholic politicians stalled as a result of the leaders fronting their interests. Moreover, the process delayed further for one whole year from 1969 to 1970 when SDLP became officially formed. However, in spite of this challenge, when the leaders finally shelved their interests and united, the party became one strong movement through which majority of the Catholics received a monopolistic representation in politics.

Politicians from all the divides of Protestants and Catholics had a strong belief at this time that their grievances would be solved through gaining a majority representation in the government. More significantly during the 70s, most of the regions received very little development with a few of the urban elite class continued to expand the physical size of their investments. Northern Ireland won the biggest share of this embarrassment as far as economic expansion was concerned (Kirkland 2016).

Unionist Divisions

Post-war administrations became majorly centred on the industrial revolution undertaken by the various enterprising holdings and much of them coming from American companies. The multinationals contributed millions of pounds worth investments, especially in large scale projects. However, despite the sharp recession witnessed in the 70s, the level of contribution made by the multinational corporations in Northern Ireland suffered a small blow (Evans & Tonge 2017). The enterprises picked themselves up because the degree of capital outlays in the so called economic and political endeavours were little compared to the province government.

Apart from individual investment in enterprising activities, the Unionist government of Northern Ireland cashed in and pumped more money to some individually owned corporations such as the Cyril Lord carpet firm. The grant ensured the company continues operations thus employing many citizens while in the long run helping alleviate poverty as well as stimulate fast economic growth (Hull 2015).


In 1971, 35% of Northern Irish people lived in Council Housing (41% of Catholics) Council Housing allocated by the local government in areas of majority Catholic population (in West and South of NI), massive discrimination as Protestant families given preferential treatment. Catholics are twice as likely to be living in housing with one or two rooms (and to be waiting longer) (Evans & Tonge 2017). Royal Ulster Constabulary which constituted only around 7% Catholic officers. Special Powers Act, 1922 allowed people to be interred without trial. It gained controversy since the Northern Ireland nationals regarded it one of the oppressive tricks of the Ulster Unionist administration.

However, come 1973, the British government instituted a direct rule in Northern Ireland (NI) by abolishing the NI parliamentary system as well as deleting the Special Powers Act. Ulster Special Constabulary ('B' Specials), a reserve force armed and uniformed, called out in a moment of the disorder. Disbanded in 1970 and likened to a Unionist paramilitary organization. Marching: police ensure Orange Order marches can be routed through Catholic areas, reinforcing physical and political control of Protestant hierarchy (Mitchell 2014).

As a result of gerrymandering, discrimination especially in the sectors of housing, electoral role, policing, employment as need arose for the formation of Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association which pioneered the civil rights moving campaign for civil rights for the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland (Hull 2015). The Civil rights movements spearheaded battles for equality, inclusivity, and participative leadership. The political systems and vessels were also required to hold the highest level of integrity, accountability, and responsibility for public resources.

Battle of the Bogside, Northern Ireland riots became the major consequences of the civil rights groups' actions. The reaction from such happenings included the ban to marching and violent response accruing to further nationalistic violence (Miller 2014). The Northern Ireland administration under dire pressure from the UK has tried to tackle and handle the consequences of its discriminative housing system through enacting rehabilitative reforms.

Moreover, people demanded democracy despite the prime minister's insistence on the use of police to crack down resistance. However, such an action prompted citizens to ask the nature of their citizenship. More terribly still, others were denied an opportunity to access proper modern housing facilities by their political affiliation something that forced some individuals to view themselves as half citizens. James Chichester-Clark had taken up power from O'Neil who had resigned and introduced what is now so called democracy, where people were allowed to vote and choose the leaders of their choice. Several claims concerning the repression of the civilians and exacerbated violence from the police became reported sparking calls for mass action by civil society groups in the state. These groups played a big role in sensitizing the citizens of their civil rights.

Historical discrimination highlights the limits of citizenship in the United Kingdom. People in Northern Ireland demanded to be accorded with voting rights to be able to elect representatives of their choice. Proper housing still a problem for many and hence the need to harmonize regulations regarding the sector. Political ramifications of protest went beyond citizenship and civil rights and struck at the sectarian divide at the heart of NI society. It couldn't be only reformed when the whole basis of NI state was a Protestant ascendancy. After 1968-69, State and Loyalist opposition to Civil Rights movement became part of a cycle of radicalization that led to enormous violence for decades (Jarman 2016).


In conclusion, historians account for the meaning of citizenship between 1945 and 1970 by identifying the activities as well as the interpretations of the events. Moreover, the historians also give their accounts and thoughts objectively to allow readers and students to formulate their conclusions. Many historians too realize the importance of citizenship as a significant historical topic given the fact that many nations have held the debate about the recognition of their nationality for a long time. Other citizens do not yet feel full citizens despite being accorded equal rights, opportunities, and privileges by the constitution. Therefore, historians discuss the topic of citizenship by tackling political, social, and cultural aspects of citizenry. More importantly, as it regards political dimension of citizenship, the historians evaluate whether one has the right to vote or not.


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June 26, 2023
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