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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