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Citizenship has been widely debated in post-war British history, yet historians discuss the concept in very different, and potentially contradictory, ways. In doing so, historians are largely following in the footsteps of post-war politicians, thinkers, and ordinary people, who showed that citizenship could – and did – mean very different things. The alternative ways of framing the concept can be usefully described as the three registers of citizenship. First, there are the political and legal definitions of what makes any individual a citizen. Secondly, there is the notion of belonging to a national community, an understanding of citizenship which highlights that legal status alone cannot guarantee an individual's ability to practise citizenship rights. Thirdly, there is the idea of citizenship as divided between ‘good’ or ‘active’ citizens, and ‘bad’ or ‘passive’ ones, a differential understanding of citizenship which has proved very influential in debates about British society. This article reviews these registers, and concludes by arguing that all three must be taken into account if we are to comprehend properly the nature and citizenship as both status and practice in post-war Britain.

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Corresponding author

Department of History, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, co4 3sq


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The author would like to thank Tracey Loughran and the journal's peer review process for a variety of suggestions regarding this article.



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1 The best recent surveys of the post-war British past have been Paul Addison, No turning back: the peaceful revolutions of post-war Britain (Oxford, 2010); and Brian Harrison's two volumes, Seeking a role: the United Kingdom, 1951–1970 (Oxford, 2009), and Finding a role? The United Kingdom, 1970–1990 (Oxford, 2010).

2 For example David Vincent, Poor citizens: the state and the poor in twentieth-century Britain (London, 1991); Wills, Abigail, ‘Delinquency, masculinity and citizenship in England, 1950–1970’, Past and Present, 187 (2005), pp. 157–86; Thane, Pat, ‘The “big society” and the “big state”: creative tension or crowding out?’, Twentieth Century British History, 22 (2012), pp. 408–29; Glen O'Hara, Governing post-war Britain: the paradoxes of progress (Basingstoke, 2012).

3 Lawrence Black, Redefining British politics: culture, consumption and participation, 1954–1970 (Basingstoke, 2010); Hilton, Matthew, ‘Politics is ordinary: non-governmental organisations and political participation in contemporary Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 22 (2011), pp. 230–68.

4 Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: race and citizenship in the postwar era (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Randell Hansen, Citizenship and immigration in postwar Britain: the institutional origins of a multicultural nation (Oxford, 2000); James Hampshire, Citizenship and belonging: immigration and the politics of demographic governance in postwar Britain (Basingstoke, 2005); Wendy Webster, Englishness and empire, 1939–1965 (Oxford, 2007); Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the place for me: Black Britons, citizenship, and the politics of race (Oxford, 2016).

5 Savage, Mike, ‘Affluence and social change in the making of technocratic middle-class identities: Britain, 1939–1955’, Contemporary British History, 22 (2008), pp. 457–75; Hilton, Matthew, ‘Social activism in an age of consumption: the organized consumer movement’, Social History, 32 (2007), pp. 121–43.

6 Pat Thane, ‘The impact of mass democracy on British political culture, 1918–1939’, in J. Gottlieb and R. Toye, eds., The aftermath of suffrage (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 54–69.

7 Pat Thane, The foundations of the welfare state (London, 1982).

8 See W. W. Daniel, Racial discrimination in Britain (London, 1968).

9 Black, Lawrence, ‘Which?craft in post-war Britain: the Consumer's Association and the politics of affluence’, Albion, 36 (2004), pp. 5282 .

10 Canning, Kathleen and Rose, Sonya O., ‘Introduction: gender, citizenship and subjectivity: some historical and theoretical considerations’, Gender and History, 13 (2001), p. 427 .

11 Andreas Fahrmeir, Citizenship: the rise and fall of a modern concept (New Haven, CT, 2007), p. 1.

12 Ruth Lister, Citizenship: feminist perspectives (2nd edn, Basingstoke, 2003), p. 13.

13 See, for example, Neil, Edmund, ‘Conceptions of citizenship in twentieth century Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 17 (2006), pp. 424–38.

14 My definition is influenced in particular by Lister, Citizenship: feminist perspectives.

15 A recent example being Robert Saunders, Democracy and the vote in British politics, 1848–1867 (Aldershot, 2011).

16 Eugenia Low, ‘The concept of citizenship in twentieth century Britain: analysing contexts of development’, in Peter Catterall, Wolfram Kaiser, and Ulrike Walton-Jordan, eds., Reforming the constitution: debates in twentieth-century Britain (London, 2000), p. 178.

17 T. H. Marshall, ‘Citizenship and social class’, in his Citizenship and social class and other essays (Cambridge, 2005).

18 A far from exhaustive list of rewarding work engaging with Marshall includes: Martin Bulmer and Anthony M. Rees, eds., Citizenship today: contemporary relevance of T. H. Marshall (London, 1996); Peter Dwyer, Welfare rights and responsibilities: contesting social citizenship (Cambridge, 2000); White, Robert and Donoghue, Jed, ‘Marshall, Mannheim and contested citizenship’, British Journal of Sociology, 54 (2003), pp. 391406 .

19 Jose Harris, ‘“Contract” and “citizenship”’, in David Marquand and Anthony Seldon, eds., The ideas that shaped post-war Britain (London, 1996), p. 122.

20 See, for example, Dwyer, Welfare rights and responsibilities.

21 Marshall, ‘Citizenship and social class’, p. 94.

22 Lydia Morris, Dangerous classes: the underclass and social citizenship (London, 1994), p. 53.

23 See Stephanie Ward, Unemployment and the state: the means test and protest in 1930s South Wales and north-east England (Manchester, 2013).

24 Wills, ‘Delinquency, masculinity and citizenship’, p. 175.

25 Nicholas Deakin and Justin Davis Smith, ‘Labour, charity and voluntary action: the myth of hostility’, in Matthew Hilton and James McKay, eds., The ages of voluntarism: how we got to the big society (Oxford, 2011); Jose Harris, ‘Voluntarism, the state and public–private partnerships in Beveridge's social thought’, in Melanie Oppenheimer and Nicholas Deakin, eds., Beveridge and voluntary action in Britain and the wider British world (Manchester, 2011), pp. 10–11.

26 Thane, Foundations of the welfare state; Nijhuis, Dennie Oude, ‘Rethinking the Beveridge strait-jacket: the Labour Party, the TUC and the introduction of superannuation’, Twentieth Century British History 20 (2009), pp. 370–95.

27 Perhaps the key conceptual work on race and citizenship is Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, MA, 1992).

28 For an example, see Williams, Callum, ‘Patriality, work permits and the European Economic Community: the introduction of the 1971 Immigration Act’, Contemporary British History, 29 (2015), pp. 508–38.

29 Kathleen Paul, ‘From subjects to immigrants: Black Britons and national identity, 1948–1962’, in Richard Weight and Abigail Beach, eds., The right to belong: citizenship and national identity in Britain, 1930–1960 (London, 1998), pp. 223–47.

30 Waters, Chris, ‘“Dark strangers” in our midst: discourses on race and nation in Britain, 1947–1963’, Journal of British Studies, 36 (1997), pp. 207–38.

31 Hampshire, Citizenship and belonging; Rieko Karatani, Defining British citizenship: empire, commonwealth and modern Britain (London, 2003).

32 Hampshire, Citizenship and belonging, p. 203n.

33 On the other hand, Jodi Burkett has highlighted the emergence of a coherent, radical attempt to re-imagine Britishness in this new context: Constructing post-imperial Britain: Britishness, ‘race’ and the radical left in the 1960s (Basingstoke, 2013).

34 See Bill Schwarz, The white man's world (Oxford, 2011); Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the making of postcolonial Britain (Cambridge, 2013); Whipple, Amy, ‘Revisiting the “rivers of blood” controversy: letters to Enoch Powell’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), pp. 717–35; for an interesting analysis of Powell's speech in the context of citizenship debates, see Stapleton, Julia, ‘Citizenship versus patriotism in twentieth-century England’, Historical Journal, 48 (2005), pp. 151–78.

35 Perry, London is the place for me, p. 4.

36 Richard Bourke, Peace in Ireland: the war of ideas (London, 2003), p. 55.

37 See Coulter, Colin, ‘“British rights for British citizens”: the campaign for “equal citizenship” for Northern Ireland’, Contemporary British History, 29 (2015), pp. 486507 .

38 Michael Freeden, ‘Civil society and the good citizen: competing conceptions of citizenship in twentieth-century Britain’, in Jose Harris, ed., Civil society in British history: ideas, identities, institutions (Oxford, 2003), p. 286.

39 Linda Colley, Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, CT, 1990).

40 See David Miller, Citizenship and national identity (Cambridge, 2000).

41 Marshall, ‘Citizenship and social class’.

42 Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘The blood of our sons’: men, women, and the renegotiation of British citizenship during the Great War (New York, NY, 2002), p. 2.

43 Sonya O. Rose, Which people's war? National identity and citizenship in wartime Britain, 1939–1945 (Oxford, 2003), pp. 15–16 (emphasis in original).

44 Rose, Which people's war?, p. 20.

45 Sonya O. Rose, ‘Cultural analysis and moral discourses: episodes, continuities and transformations’, in Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the cultural turn (Berkeley, CA, 1999), pp. 217–39; see also Matthew Grant, ‘Citizenship, sexual anxiety and womanhood in Second World War Britain: the case of the man with the cleft chin’, in Sean Nicholas and Ton O'Malley, eds., Moral panics, social fears and the media: historical perspectives (London, 2013), pp. 177–90.

46 Rose, ‘Cultural analysis and moral discourses’.

47 Becky Taylor, A minority and the state: travellers in Britain in the twentieth century (Manchester, 2008).

48 Hampshire, Citizenship and belonging, ch. 4.

49 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 189.

50 Perry, London is the place for me, pp. 59–63.

51 Rose, Which people's war?, pp. 25–6.

52 This approach is outlined in more depth in Canning and Rose, ‘Introduction: gender, citizenship and subjectivity’, pp. 431–2.

53 Roper, Michael, ‘Slipping out of view: subjectivity and emotion in gender history’, History Workshop Journal, 59 (2005), pp. 58–9.

54 See Nikolas Rose, Governing the soul: the shaping of the private self (London, 1989).

55 As it was during the cold war: see Grant, Matthew, ‘“Civil defence gives meaning to your leisure”: citizenship, participation and cultural change in cold war recruitment propaganda, 1949–1953’, Twentieth Century British History, 22 (2011), pp. 5278 .

56 It is clear that people could negotiate the structures placed on participating in the black market in wartime and afterwards while still considering themselves ‘good’ citizens: Mark Roodhouse, Black market Britain, 1939–1955 (Oxford, 2013).

57 C. Andrew, The defence of the realm: the authorized history of MI5 (London, 2009), section D, chs. 4 and 5; Hennessy, Peter and Brownfield, Gale, ‘Britain's cold war security purge: the origins of positive vetting’, Historical Journal, 25 (1982), pp. 965–74; Goodman, Giora, ‘The British government and the challenge of McCarthyism in the early cold war’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 12 (2010), pp. 6297 ; Richard Stevens, ‘Cold war politics: Communism and anti-Communism in the trade unions’, in Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman, and John McIlroy, eds., British trade unions and industrial politics, i: The post-war compromise, 1945–1964 (London, 1999), pp. 168–91; Mills, Sarah, ‘Be prepared: Communism and the politics of scouting in 1950s Britain’, Contemporary British History, 25 (2011), pp. 429–50.

58 See Raphael Samuel, The lost world of British Communism (London, 2006).

59 See Nicholas Deakin, In search of civil society (Basingstoke, 2001).

60 Most surveys of citizenship point out this crucial divide: Richard Bellamy, Citizenship: a very short introduction (Oxford, 2008); Fahrmeir, Citizenship; Derek Heater, Citizenship: the civic ideal in world history, politics and education (Manchester, 1990); Charles Pattie, Patrick Seyd, and Paul Whiteley, Citizenship in Britain: values, participation and democracy (Cambridge, 2004).

61 See Julia Stapleton, Englishness and the study of politics (Cambridge, 1994).

62 See Martin Durham, Sex and politics: the family and morality in the Thatcher years (Basingstoke, 1991); Anthony Giddens, The third way: the renewal of social democracy (Cambridge, 1998); Jesse Norman, The big society (Buckingham, 2010).

63 See Department for Education, National curriculum in England: citizenship programmes of study for key stages 3 and 4, 11 Sept. 2013,, accessed 8 Apr. 2016; for background, see Bernard Crick and Andrew Lockyer, eds., Active citizenship: what it could achieve and how (Edinburgh, 2010).

64 A recent exception, concentrating on the Second World War, is James Hinton's Nine wartime lives (Oxford, 2010).

65 Geoffrey Finlayson, Citizen, state and social welfare in Britain, 1830–1990 (Oxford, 1994).

66 Jane Lewis, The voluntary sector, the state and social work in Britain (Cheltenham, 1995); Nicholas Crowson, Matthew Hilton, and James McKay, eds., NGOs in contemporary Britain: non-state actors in society and politics since 1945 (Basingstoke, 2009).

67 Katharine Bradley, Poverty, philanthropy and the state: charities and the working classes in London, 1918–1979 (Manchester, 2009); Caitriona Beaumont, Housewives and citizens: domesticity and the women's movement in England, 1928–1964 (Manchester, 2013).

68 Peter Shapely, ‘Civil society, class and locality: tenant groups in post-war Britain’, in Hilton and McKay, eds., The ages of voluntarism, p. 100.

69 Pat Thane and Tanya Evans, Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried motherhood in twentieth-century England (Oxford, 2012), p. 169.

70 Matthew Hilton and James McKay, ‘The ages of voluntarism: an introduction’, in their The ages of voluntarism, p. 2.

71 Jose Harris, William Beveridge: a biography (2nd edn, Oxford, 1997). See the essays in Oppenheimer and Deakin, eds., Beveridge and voluntary action.

72 Freeden, ‘Civil society and the good citizen’.

73 David Marquand, Decline of the public: the hollowing out of citizenship (Cambridge, 2004).

74 Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson, and Nick Tiratsoo, England arise! The Labour Party and popular politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester, 1995), p. 213; for a strong rebuttal of the book's key arguments, see Hinton, James, ‘1945 and the apathy school’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), p. 272 .

75 Black, Redefining British politics.

76 Hilton, ‘Politics is ordinary’, pp. 230–68; see also Matthew Hilton, James McKay, Nicholas Crowson, and Jean-Francis Mouhot, The politics of expertise: how NGOs shaped modern Britain (Oxford, 2013).

77 Finlayson, Citizen, state and social welfare in Britain, ch. 4.

78 Lawrence Black, ‘There was something about Mary: the National Viewers' and Listeners’ Association and social movement history’, in Crowson, Hilton, and McKay, eds., NGOs in contemporary Britain, pp. 182–200.

79 Lister, Citizenship: feminist perspectives, p. 42.

80 Lawrence Black, The political culture of the left in affluent Britain, 1951–1964 (Basingstoke, 2003).

81 Hilton, ‘Social activism in an age of consumption’.

82 Neil, ‘Conceptions of citizenship in twentieth century Britain’, p. 424; much the same point is made in Ben Jackson, Equality and the British left: a study in progressive political thought (Manchester, 2007), pp. 201–4.

83 David Marquand, ‘Civil republicans and liberal individualists: the case of Britain’, in Bryan S. Turner and Peter Hamilton, eds., Citizenship: critical concepts, i (London, 1994), p. 241.

84 Recent work on this topic includes: Stapleton, ‘Citizenship versus patriotism in twentieth-century England’; Beaven, Brad and Griffiths, John, ‘Creating the exemplary citizen: the changing notion of citizenship in Britain, 1870–1939’, Contemporary British History, 22 (2008), pp. 203–25; Hulme, Tom, ‘“A nation depends on its children”: school buildings and citizenship in England and Wales, 1900–1939’, Journal of British Studies, 54 (2015), pp. 406–32.

85 Glen O'Hara, Governing post-war Britain: the paradoxes of progress, 1951–1973 (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 4.

86 Melissa Benn, School wars: the battle for Britain's education (London, 2011).

87 Scott Hamilton, The crisis of theory: E. P. Thompson, the New Left and postwar British politics (Manchester, 2011), p. 60.

88 Celia Hughes, Young lives on the left: sixties activism and the liberation of the self (Manchester, 2015).

89 For an explicitly feminist take, see Lister, Citizenship: feminist perspectives; for a radical left wing examination of the issue, see the essays collected in Geoff Andrews, ed., Citizenship (London, 1991).

90 Bernard Crick, ‘A subject at last!’, in his Essays on citizenship (London, 2000), p. 3.

91 Thomas Dixon, The invention of altruism: making moral meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 2008), pp. 37–8.

92 Schwarz, The white man's world, p. 38.

93 Lynn Segal, ‘Jam today: feminist impacts and transformations in the 1970s’, in Lawrence Black, Hugh Pemberton, and Pat Thane, eds. Reassessing 1970s Britain (Manchester, 2013), pp. 149–66.

* The author would like to thank Tracey Loughran and the journal's peer review process for a variety of suggestions regarding this article.

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