Blog: UK: Was Jack Letts’ deprivation of citizenship really necessary?

By Marie Beauchamps

Marie Beauchamps joined the School of Politics and International Relations as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoc fellow in May 2019. She is an Associate Researcher at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam. She authored Governing Affective Citizenship: Denaturalization, Belonging, and Repression (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2019)She completed her PhD at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam (UvA) in 2015. She taught at the College of Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (UvA) and the Literary and Cultural Analysis department (UvA). She is a guest teacher at the Amsterdam Academy of Theater and Dance. And she blogs at

It’s not hard to imagine why Jack Letts was eventually also deprived of his citizenship. The government had experienced pressure. They had to explain why they hadn’t yet deprived Letts had of his citizenship while Begum has lost her months ago, even though Begum had no other nationality, while Letts was a binational.

The juxtaposition of Shamima Begum’and Jack Letts’ case was one more example of the extent to which politics of citizenship are stained with racial power inequalities, where the white subject appears to have more rights than the non-white and non-Christians. The difference was just too blatant. Although the government had claimed that Begum’s deprivation of citizenship was legitimate because she could potentially acquire Bangladeshi nationality through her mother, the Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affair had been quick to comment that Begum was not welcome in Bangladesh and that there was no way she would acquire Bangladeshi nationality. De facto, Begum has thus become stateless with Sajid Javid’s decision to deprive her of her citizenship, making her deprivation of citizenship an illegitimate deed from the UK government.

In parallel, Jack Letts was known to have committed the same crime—both Begum and Letts had joined ISIS—but Letts was not immediately deprived of his citizenship, while he did have another nationality: he was a Canadian British dual national.

For the UK government, the easiest way to make up for the unequal treatment was to repair the inequality by also depriving Letts of his citizenship. He had also joined ISIS. Had admitted that he had been an enemy of Britain. And there is this law, allowing the state to deprive a citizen of their citizenship when the state consider them a fundamental threat to the country. The rhetoric about foreign fighters is clear: all citizens who travelled to Syria are considered fundamental threats to the country. So, the government had all the tools to also deprive Letts of his citizenship.

That was the easiest way. But that shows what kind of stamina the government is prepared to display. Don’t get me wrong. In this case, the stamina is weak, very weak.

I can imagine the pressure experienced when faced with the fact that one’s political play is stained by racism. This was not about subtle power relations. This is in plane face. But does the government really think that the racist stain on their politics of citizenship is by now resolved?

I do believe they are cleverer than that. Perhaps, they believe that for some of their electorate, Letts’ deprivation of citizenship will resolve the anger and set the doubts at rest. Perhaps they even believe that Begum’s family will lose their appeal based on the ground of unequal treatment between their daughter, the girl from Bethnal Green, and the boy from Oxford.

But sooner or later, they will have to face the fact that the very nature of a law such as the law allowing for citizenship revocation is profoundly disturbing for our democratic lives.

When the state reserve themselves the right to deprive a citizen of their citizenship based on claims of security and enmity, we should not only be concerned about questions of statelessness. Statelessness is a symptom of something way deeper. Something that I call, using Hannah Arendt’s term, the totalitarian infection of our democracies.

Begum’s deprivation of citizenship is certainly doubly disturbing because she has become de facto stateless. But Letts’ deprivation of citizenship is disturbing too. Certainly, terrorism is a grave matter that needs to be dealt with the greatest care. But everyone knows that depriving citizens of their citizenship is not making the state safer, nor is it making the social body friendlier.

To the contrary. Depriving citizens of their citizenships makes it harder for the state to know where those potentially dangerous citizens are, and to proceed against them. By revoking their citizenship, the state also revokes itself the tools to bring those citizens in front of a criminal justice court. In other words, the state dumps those citizens they say are the most dangerous to the rest of the world. Since borders are not hermetic, it could well be that those citizens will still reach home. It may—or may not—have the gravest consequences for society.

That is one: the deprivation of citizenship makes society, whether national or international, rather less safe than more safe.

And then there is the co-lateral damage. It is unquestionable that those institutional norms legitimizing acts of citizenship revocation by state send a repressive message to social groups with dual citizenship, and even more so to those with a non-white and non-Christian background. For how can a teenager understand the state’s persistence to revoke Begum’s citizenship, if not by concluding that the country they live in make some citizens more vulnerable to the loss of citizenship than others? For everyone with dual nationality or a non-white and non-Christian background, the deprivation of citizenship becomes the token of a potential threat to their own safety. Indeed, the deprivation of citizenship reveals that citizenship might be a privilege more than it is a right. And that the contingency of the privileged ones follows a spectrum of norms of oppression that we know all too well.

I do understand that it requires tremendous stamina for a state to reverse denaturalization laws so that it is no longer possible for a state to deprive a citizen of their nationality once they have acquired it. It requires admitting a certain number of faults: first of all, the fact that the government made believe that the deprivation of citizenship would be an effective security tool; second, the fact that the deprivation of citizenship threatens fundamental human rights, such as the right to have a nationality; third, the fact that the deprivation of citizenship also erodes fundamental principles of the rule of law, starting with the principle of equality before the law; and fourth, the fact that the deprivation of citizenship is a symptom of the racist stain on our politics of citizenship. Now, everyone knows that admitting one’s faults requires tremendous courage and strength.

So, in a moment of pressure, where fatigue is lurking, I can understand the choice for the government to cosmetically masking inequality rather than to fundamentally question their doings. Many of us might do the same in our daily lives. Who doesn’t take the painkiller if that may delay the annoyingly difficult and fundamental examination of our body? The decision to make oneself vulnerable, perfectly knowing the pain that one will go through, and perhaps even knowing that the pain might become even greater than one can imagine, is a difficult decision.

But if that pain could provide some relief for ages-old pains of oppression, then it must be worth it. In the long run, fostering belonging will always benefit the public good.

Surely, abolishing citizenship revocation laws would be just the beginning. But at least it would be a beginning. And it can be done. Others have done it. Canada is the most recent example that comes to mind.

So, let us imagine. Instead of depriving Jack Letts of his citizenship, the UK government would have redressed Begum’s citizenship, and with hers, the citizenship of the more than 150 citizens who have been deprived of their citizenship in the past decade. And the government would have apologized to the communities who felt increasingly threatened of un-belonging. How much time would that take? Pragmatically, a couple of minutes, some hours at best.

This blog-post was first published at