Abraham Lincoln famously referred to democracy as the government of the people, for the people and by the people. The assumption being that everyone governed by the law should have a say in making it. When states have fallen short of this in the past, by restricting the suffrage to the male, the white or the propertied, powerful social movements such as the suffragettes or the US civil rights movement have sought change, arguing that it is unjust to deny some people political rights and to have them subjected to others who get to vote.
Today, when democracy is something everyone claims to approve of – it is a “British value” in the UK government’s Prevent strategy – we often assume this standard of legitimacy is broadly met in societies like ours. Yet a closer look reveals that not only is this not so, but that a combination of demographic changes and political interests are coming together to keep great numbers of the people who live, work and pay taxes in our societies excluded from representation.
The unrepresented are usually immigrants and their descendants. As western societies age, they still need workers to pick the crops, care for the sick and old, construct housing and build infrastructure. Unfortunately, politicians have everything to gain by a performance of “getting tough on immigration” and little from working to reform and liberalise our citizenship laws. Instead, nationalist politicians repeat a mantra that citizenship is a privilege not a right.
Though nationality laws vary from country to country, they nearly all end up denying political rights to many people who are, in practice, regular everyday members of western societies. In the US, although anyone born on the national territory is a citizen, there are many who came as small children, who have grown up as Americans, and have no path to citizenship. Without it, they face the threat of deportation as “illegal immigrants”, sometimes to countries where they know no one and don’t even speak the language. Republicans have consistently blocked paths for such people to regularise their status, opposing measures such as the Dream Act, that would help them acquire citizenship. Indeed some Republicans have even made noises about reinterpreting the constitution to deny citizenship to children born to immigrants on the territory, an exclusion that would further swell the numbers of those without rights.
The UK has gradually changed its nationality laws in the postwar period, with parliament legislating in 1981 to end automatic rights of citizenship to those born in the country without a British parent. In the past decade access to citizenship for such children has been progressively restricted by increasing the fees payable for them to register as British. As a consequence, poorer families often cannot afford to regularise their children. The government has also applied tests of “good character” to deny citizenship to children as young as 10.
The introduction of the “hostile environment” by Theresa May means that those who are not British, or cannot prove they have rights of residence, have lost employment, homes and healthcare rights, and face the risk of deportation, often, again, to countries that are foreign to them. Although the UK gives some voting rights to some foreigners, such as Commonwealth and Irish citizens, Brexit has meant that roughly 3 million EU citizens who live and work in the UK have had their political rights reduced, and they, too, are at risk of removal to countries they may have left decades ago if they acquire a criminal record. Taking these groups together, the UK has a large and growing population that is functionally a part of society but that lacks adequate political rights.
There is now a growing literature that worries about the impending death of democracy, under threat from rightwing nationalists and populists. Electoral manipulation, gerrymandering of boundaries, corruption of the space of public discourse, and voter suppression are all well known parts of this story. In both the US and the UK, conservatives have tried to impose more stringent voter ID requirements to keep minorities away from the polls. Donald Trump has openly admitted that making it easier for people to vote in the US would hurt the Republican party. Yet making it harder for those who have political rights to exercise them and preventing those who ought to have such rights from acquiring them are not so different: both are methods of maintaining the form of democratic government while undermining the principle that those subject to the law should have a part in making it.
In the absence of changes to the laws governing citizenship and political rights, societies that represent themselves as being associations of equals before the law will increasingly cease to reflect that ideal in practice. Instead, we will have two populations. One group – whiter, older, richer but often economically inactive – will wield political power as the democratic majority. Another group – younger, less likely to be white, doing the jobs that keep our societies going – will be our helots: devoid of political rights, facing a permanent hostile environment, and disciplined by the threat of deportation. In other words, we face a sort of creeping apartheid that will betray our democratic ideals. Conservative and nationalist parties have little incentive to change this course, but liberals and the left need to endorse political rights for all as a vital aim.
• Christopher Bertram is emeritus professor of social and political philosophy at Bristol University, and the author of Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?