Working Paper

The Weight of Public Opinion: Tracing the Social and Political Genealogy of the British Nationality Act 1981

Published 12 November 2020 / By Carl Altaner

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By the time of Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in May 1979, it was clear that the UK’s nationality and citizenship regime was no longer fit for purpose. Previous attempts to create a British Citizenship that delineated who ‘belonged’ in the UK in 1962, 1968 and 1971 failed to achieve cohesion. This paper traces the development of efforts by the Conservative Party to streamline nationality, both during its time in opposition and in office. Borrowing from Ruth Wodak’s discourse-historical approach, I examine declassified government documents, relevant speeches in the House of Commons and polling data to assemble a partial picture of the 1981 Act’s turbulent development. Polling data revealed the synonymity of immigration with race relations in public political discourse, and that the electorate is heavily opposed to further immigration. I examine how both Labour and Conservative governments attempted to address this anti-immigration sentiment, and how Thatcher’s Conservatives ultimately were able to harness a palatable yet xenophobic discourse, in the vein of Enoch Powell, in order to push through their Act.

About the author: Carl Altaner is a graduate of MSc Migration Studies, 2019-20 and an alumni of St Cross College. Before coming to Oxford, he proudly studied History and English Literature at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in beautiful western Cornwall and in Mannheim, Germany.

Keywords: Margaret Thatcher, British nationality, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, immigration


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