Subject vs citizen (UK)

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Gwan, Aug 31, 2009.

  1. Gwan Senior Member

    Indre et Loire, France
    New Zealand, English
    Hi all,

    Idle curiosity time again...
    Just reading The Year 1000, a book written in 1999 about England in 1000 AD, and came across this sentence:

    'The English described themselves as "subjects" in the year 1000, as they do today...'

    which I find highly dubious. I'm technically a Brit (although a Kiwi really...) and I would certainly never refer to myself as a 'subject', only as a British citizen, and Wikipedia informs me that legally, very few people fall into the category of 'British subjects' these days (and those with British citizenship are not [generally] subjects).

    So my question is: does anyone in the general population still refer to themselves as a British subject these days? Does it linger on amongst the elderly, perhaps?

  2. Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Hauts-de-Seine, France
    English (Ireland)
    Well technically I think you are all subjects of the Queen of England but as you said, the term isn't very popular these days so citizen is used instead. I suppose that committed monarchists would still use it and in fact, I'm sure I have heard people using it in such a way before, especially certain questionable characters in Northern Ireland - but that's a whole other days work.

    Get a republic like us and you'll no longer have the problem :D
  3. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2010
  4. We were described as British subjects in our passports until we adopted the EU style of passport, which describes us as citizens, to fall in line with other EU states.

    Likes so many elements of the British constitution, it was more a matter of custom than law.
  5. Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Hauts-de-Seine, France
    English (Ireland)
    By virtue of the monarch being the embodiment of the state, would not all UK "citizens" still technically be "subjects" too?
  6. That presupposes that all citizens of every other country whose head of state is a constitutional monarch (Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg) is also a subject of the respective monarch. I think our continental brethren would baulk at that.

    But I would challenge the idea that the monarch is the embodiment of the state anyway. The monarch is the head, but not the whole. In the UK there is a firm distinction between the person of the monarch and the "Crown". The Queen herself is the head of state. The crown is the term given to the notion of the perennial state that continues to exist above and away from any particular government. But I think we are on the point of taking this thread way beyond a discussion of words and language and into the realm of constitutional philosophy. I'd love to do it, but the mods would delete it!
  7. Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Hauts-de-Seine, France
    English (Ireland)
    I'm no expert on it but this book seems to be claiming otherwise. It seems logical to me that if one has a monarch, then one is a subject of that monarch. In any case, the term seems to have fallen out of use since, as you mentioned, the U.K. brought itself into line with standard EU procedure.
  8. Hmmmm ... not a publication to draw definitions from, methinks, particularly as it's written from a historical perspective.

    You see, in the UK it's a matter of what is done, not what the technicalities are.

    Arguably, the British stopped being "subjects" of the monarch in 1689*, when Parliament's supremacy was established and the monarch became little more than a figurehead. Since then, we have been living in and working with the mists and mysteries of an uncodified constitution that relies more on conventions and everybody's acquiescence than on the law. It suited the British people (it would still suit many, I suspect) to be called "subjects of Her Britannic Majesty", but ideas change and, with them, conventions.

    *Or maybe it was in 1928, when at last all adults, male and female, got the vote, so that we became governed by those whom we all had the chance to elect. This is why I said earlier that we are straying into the realm of constitutional philosophy.
  9. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    Technically, there is no such person as the Queen of England.

    The last Queen of England was Queen Anne, who died in 1714. She ceased to be Queen of England and Queen of Scotland in 1707 with the Act of Union.

    Elizabeth II is the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

    Under current UK legislation, British Citizens are not British Subjects. They are two different categories. But plenty of people are not up-to-date with the current legal terminology.
  10. pickarooney

    pickarooney Senior Member

    Provence, France
    English (Ireland)
    So, what exactly is a subject as distinct from a citizen? How can a person be one and noth the other?
  11. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    You are welcome to wade through the British Nationality Act [1981]!

    The short answer is that the UK government decided to change the rules and definitions.

    British citizens are not British subjects under the 1981 Act. The only circumstance where a person may be both a British subject and British citizen simultaneously is a case where a British subject connected with Ireland (s. 31 of the 1981 Act) acquires British citizenship by naturalisation or registration. In this case only, British subject status is not lost upon acquiring British citizenship.
  12. pickarooney

    pickarooney Senior Member

    Provence, France
    English (Ireland)
    So citizenship was kind of an upgrade? :)
  13. Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Hauts-de-Seine, France
    English (Ireland)
    I'm lost here. So if one is connected with Ireland, one can be both but everyone else cannot? Why only Ireland? :confused:

    If the British Queen has no subjects, what then does she rule over?
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2009
  14. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    In an attempt to insert a bit of tongue-in-cheek logic, I note that if I visit the U.K., I am subject to the same laws as the citizens thereof. So, if we're going to go with the "subjective" version, shouldn't all people in the realm be a British subject, regardless of citizenship?
  15. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    The Queen does not rule, she reigns.

    The Irish are a special case. All of Ireland was once part of the United Kingdom, so all Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh people had a common nationality.

    When Ireland became a republic in 1948, the British Parliament passed the Ireland Act 1949, which stated that although the 26 counties had ceased to be part of His Majesty's dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law.

    So, Irish people living in Britain continue to be treated exactly the same as before. They have the right to vote in all elections, and to stand as candidates, and hold public office, including the judiciary and the police, even though they are not British Citizens.
  16. pickarooney

    pickarooney Senior Member

    Provence, France
    English (Ireland)
    And vice versa, presidential elections and referendums aside.

    I'm just wondering now what the essential difference between reigning and ruling is, but that's another thread...
  17. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    British citizens resident in Ireland got the right the vote in Irish elections for the Dáil in 1984, after the Constitution was amended.
  18. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    On the original question, it does seem a common moan among newspaper letter writers that we're subjects, not citizens; they don't seem to have noticed their passports. I would imagine therefore it must be a common enough popular misconception, not quite on a par with the idea that the Queen can have you beheaded or that it's compulsory to practise archery, but perhaps just as ineradicable.
  19. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    For those of us who are less steeped in the convoluted ways of a constitutional monarchy,
    is this definition from the Compact OED valid?

    "4 a member of a state owing allegiance to its monarch or supreme ruler."

    If it is, then the distinction between subject and citizen seems clear. One may be a citizen of such a monarchy, with neither loyalty nor allegiance to its monarch.
  20. Wilma_Sweden

    Wilma_Sweden Senior Member

    Lund, Sweden
    Swedish (Scania)
    Nor have they read the British Nationality Act 1981. As I understand it, according to the old 1949 Nationality Act, the status of 'British subject' included anyone who was a citizen of the UK and Colonies or a citizen of any other Commonwealth country, and if I've understood the 1981 Act correctly, definitions changed in order to restrict immigration from former Colonies and other Commonwealth countries.
  21. A supreme ruler isn't a constitutional monarch, so that definition doesn't really apply to the UK.

    I think it's time to point out that no word has an absolute meaning, even if it has been given a statutory definition. One country's subject may be another country's citizen but a third country's slave.

    In the UK, we have the concept of "the Crown", which is a non-personal entity linked to the monarch for the time being. The monarch is regarded as having two personae; that of the individual and that of the Crown. The Crown represents the State. Service personnel and others who take an oath to serve “the Queen” are in effect giving their loyalty to the State through the Crown.

    While we were “subjects of the Queen”, we were subjects of the State, through the Crown. Now that we are citizens, we are still as much “subject” to the laws and government of the country as we were before.

    The purpose of making a distinction between citizens and subjects in our nationality legislation has got nothing to do with our relationship to the state or to the Monarch. It is all to do with controlling immigration. People who live in the residual British colonies, protectorates and territories (such as the Falkland Islands, St Helena, Gibraltar etc) are “subjects” of the Crown, but they are not citizens of the UK. Citizens have the right of entry into the UK; subjects don’t.

    To put it another way, British citizens must obey British laws and they automatically have the right to live in the UK. British subjects must obey the laws but they have no automatic right of residence. It has become very similar to the Roman Empire, really. Residents of the provinces did not have the right of Roman citizens but were still subject to its powers.

    Edit: I may be slightly wrong about the status of the inhabitants of St Helena and the Falklands. They may have special immigration status but I haven't researched it.
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2009
  22. Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Hauts-de-Seine, France
    English (Ireland)
    Is it a misconception then to state that England, Scotland and Wales are separate countries?
  23. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Moderator note:

    The moderation team is trying to figure out what to do with this thread that is clearly fascinating to many of us.

    While we consider things, please remember what is written at the top of the page:
    and the thread topic, which is Subject vs citizen (UK).

    Please avoid commenting on non-linguistic issues.

    N.B. This note is not directed at any one thread participant. It is a general reminder.

    Thank you.

  24. In view of Nunty's recent admonishment, I'm not sure if I should answer this, but in case it's okay to do so, then be assured that England, Scotland and Wales are and always have been separate countries. Together, and with the inclusion of Northern Ireland, they form the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, which is the entity that is recognised for most dealings between the world's nations.
  25. Gwan Senior Member

    Indre et Loire, France
    New Zealand, English
    Obviously people are free to discuss what they please :) but if it helps the moderators, my original curiosity was about whether people still described themselves as subjects, whatever the legal status of the term may be. To me it has quite outmoded and negative connotations, but perhaps it is still au courant in some circles (?) If I read a sentence like "I am a British subject", I would probably imagine someone with a monocle and top hat quaffing brandy, but it seems that some of you would imagine an Irish loyalist or someone from St. Helena or....
  26. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    That is a very helpful reminder, and makes the technicalities of subject/citizen somewhat irrelevant.

    I would not ever refer to myself as a subject, and it seems to me to be just as archaic as Gwan suggests.
    Does that mean I refer to myself as a citizen?
    Well, no, it doesn't.
    The situation simply does not ever arise.
    The form says "Nationality," or the question, "What is your nationality?"
    The answer is simple: British, or if I feel like it, Irish.

    There is no part of my life in which I need to refer to myself as a subject or citizen, or to refer to people in general as subjects or citizens.
  27. Gwan Senior Member

    Indre et Loire, France
    New Zealand, English
    Ah, you see I refer to myself fairly frequently as a British citizen, because, as I'm moving to France shortly, the subject arises quite a bit at the moment, and it's not self-evident from how I speak or where I live or was born etc. etc. that I am one. I think of myself as a New Zealander who is also a British citizen (not subject).
  28. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    That's interesting. My first thought was to wonder why you didn't just "... think of myself as a New Zealander who is also British."

    But on second thoughts, I'm still thinking from the inside. I'm not sure if my alternative version works from the perspective of someone far outside the UK in a non-British context.
  29. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    British people, most of whom aren't interested in constitutional law, may not describe themselves very readily as citizens or subjects, but most would answer yes, albeit reluctantly, when asked if they were British subjects or citizens, I expect.

    I'm happy to call myself English but I'd be surprised if anyone was called an English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish citizen or subject; if we have to use the language, we are British citizens or subjects. In everyday use I can't see any real distinction between the two (citizen or subject), though there's no denying that the first sounds more republican in spirit.
  30. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    Since 1707 or 1801, there has been no political entity of England, Scotland, etc. that can confer citizenship. The nation-state is the UK, and however English or whatever we may be, we're British/UK citizens, not English or Scottish.

    'Subject' is a peculiar term to me. As an Englishman I'm well accustomed to amusingly archaic legal terms and whimsical constitutional foibles, so saying I'm a 'subject' of Her Majesty is one of those fictions we nod and wink at. In reality I'm a citizen of a democracy ruled by an elected prime minister and House of Commons . . . well, okay, I didn't actually elect Gordon, but in principle . . .
  31. whatev New Member

    American English
    So, a citizen of a territory ruled or administered by the United Kingdom is a British subject, while not a citizen of Britain, right? A person is a citizen of the country in which they were born, and can become a citizen of another country by going through the proper channels, etc. But you can only be a subject if someone subjects you to them; and you can only get out of that by winning independence. Citizens have rights, subjects have privileges (and/or burdens); citizens pay taxes, subjects pay tribute....??

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