Is Britain's nationality bill, now more than midway in its bumpy passage through Parliament, a legal clock for racism? THe insistent question -- voiced amid signs that the colored youth of the large English cities remain restive and feel disadvantaged -- is making it one of the most controversial government measures in years.
The bill, which sets out to create three distinct types of British citizenship, is now before the House of Lords, where it has already been significantly modified in two ways.
In one upper-chamber vote, rebel Conservative peers defied governmnet whips and insisted that the people of Gibraltar, one of Britain's last remaining colonies, should retain rights as full British citizens. (As if to emphasize their Britishness, the 30,000 citizens of the colony gave the Prince and Princess of Wales a jubilant reception as they arrived on the first leg of their Mediterranean honeymoon.) Later the lords voted to require the government to give reasons for denying citizenship to individual applicants.
The two votes reflected concern that the nationality bill, submitted to Parliament at a time when widespread rioting has been hitting British cities, will convince racial minorities that society is tipped against them.
In the House of Commons the bill passed through its stages, although Labour opposition leaders voted to repel it at the first opportunity.
The bill has also come under fire from the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Euro-MPs claim its method of difining citizenship could lead to the creation of significant numbers of stateless persons.
For example, a child born to British parents in a Commonwealth country other than the United Kingdom would no longer automatically receive British nationality, and it could be that their country of birth would deny them nationality as well.
Another voice raise against the bill is that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. He accused the government of promoting an unnecessarily complicated piece of legislation that most people find hard to understand.
African, Asian, and West Indian immigrants were feeling insecure and anxious, Dr. Runcie said. This was happening at the time of social unrest and economic hardship.
The government's defenders of the bill in both chambers have countered such charges by saying that it is high time British nationality provisions were clarified. A largely unspoken government fear is that at some time in the future, citizens of British colonies may inundate Britain unless nationality laws are changed.
While nobody really doubts that the nationality bill will become law, there are clear signs that the government of Margaret Thatcher is nowadays much more sensitive to its racial implications. This is a direct result of urban rioting.
When the former Conservative minister, Enoch Powell, proposed voluntary repatriation of colored immigrants, his view was sharply repudiated by a senior Home Office minister. "The purpose of the bill is not to divide communities," the minister declared.
The Labour Home Affairs spokesman said one of the bill's chief weaknesses was its erosion of the 700-year-old principle that a person born in Britain was British by birth.
Meanwhile, the government is redoubling its efforts to analyze the causes of urban rioting. An inquiry being carried out by Lord Scarman has been allowed to draw conclusions concerning cities other than London.
The government has expanded its job opportunity scheme, hoping white and colored youths now on the unemployment register will find work by the end of the year.
These moves, however, have not stilled the voices of immigrant groups whose leaders claim the government, in sticking to its new nationality blueprint, is sowing the seeds of immigrant resentment and therefore of fresh racia l tension in the future.