After more than 30 years of argument about who is and who is not entitled to be a British citizen, the government has put before Parliament a bill intended to settle the issue.
But the measure has produced bitter complaints from nonwhite immigrant groups and is being assailed by the opposition Labour Party as racist and unfair.
The problem of defining British citizenship arises from three linked factors: the huge influx of nonwhite immigrants following dismantling of the British Empire; Britain's relative smallness as a place in which new, racially different arrivals attempt to find jobs and create new lives for themselves; and the ingrained suspicion of many "little Englanders" toward nonwhites.
There are an estimated 2 million nonwhites in Britain, a bit under four percent of the total population. They are mostly West Indian, Indian, Pakistani , and African immigrants and their families. The citizenships status of many of these people is in doubt and demands definition. Beyond that, there are tens of thousands more where they came from who would like to settle in Britain.
The new law proposes three categories of citizenship:
1. British citizenship for those born in the United Kingdom to a British citizen or to a person already settled here.
2. Citizenship in British dependent territories (for example, colonies like Hong Kong).
3. British overseas citizenship.
Only those in the first category would have an absolute right to live in Britain. The rest could be excluded by administrative decision of the Home Office, which regulates immigration.
This provision has raised the hackles of civil-rights groups. The National Council for Civil Liberties, calling the bill a "nightmare of bureaucracy," has claimed it was designed not so much to define nationality as to halt further immigration.
The Labour Party declared that the bill contained elements of racial bias and was a fruit of Tory antipathy to nonwhites. A Labour spokesman said almost every bona fide civil-rights and immigrants' organization in Britain had been in touch with party headquarters, expressing fears and doubts about the bill.
Home Secretary William Whitelaw, who will guide the measure through Parliament, indicated that he would proceed with it, though it could be modified at the committee stage in the House of Commons.
The new measure has a number of seemingly harsh provisions. Children born to parents who are not British citizens already, or who are not deemed to have "settled," could grow to maturity and then be denied a British passport.
Under this new arrangement, the rights of citizens born in Britain (most of whom are white) and who live abroad will not be altered. People already holding British passports, but who were not born in Britain, will find it extremely difficult to enter the country once the bill becomes law. While whites, such as Australians and New Zealanders, would still fall under this category, the new measure would screen out the much larger number of nonwhite immigrants.
In Malaysia, Singapore, East Africa, and India there are literally tens of thousands of nonwhites who consider themselves British. These people will be deemed "British overseas citizens," meaning that they have no right of entry into Britain.
Civil rights groups say this is a formula for splitting families and causing immense unhappiness and injustice. With its large majority in the House of Commons, the government is bound to get the bill through.