Migration, Marriage and Muscular Liberalism: Competing Claims But a Common Goal

This post was originally featured on Migration Pulse, the blog of the Migrants’ Rights Network.

Two policies announced this week – the introduction of restrictions on family migration, and the criminalisation of forced marriage – highlight an instrumental use of human rights discourse by the Government to reinforce British sovereignty and citizenship, based on the idea of ‘muscular liberalism’, writes Katherine E. Tonkiss.

On 11th June, the Government announced changes to the rules for family migration.  These rules involve the introduction of a minimum income threshold and strict new English language requirements for a migrating spouse.  Immigration campaigners have argued that the move would exclude the vast majority of the population who earn under the income threshold if they were to marry a non-EEA national, and also that it contravenes Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a family life.

This announcement came just days following a statement on the criminalisation of forced marriage, again from the Home Secretary together with the Prime Minister.  This legislation will be accompanied by a range of measures designed to support victims, on the grounds that, in the words of the Prime Minister, ‘forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery’.  Campaigners welcomed the move, because ‘forced marriage is a violation of human rights itself’.

Competing Claims

Both of these developments are bound up in the rhetoric of human rights.  The former involves a clash between the Government and the ECHR, in which the Home Secretary has argued that it was up to the Government to qualify the right to a family life (something that, as Colin Yeo has demonstrated, is incoherent).  The latter saw the Government and supportive campaigners justifying criminalisation on the grounds that the abuse of human rights as bound up in this practice is ‘simply wrong’.

So, how can the Government base one policy development on a commitment to basic human rights, and then formulate another on the basis that it has the power to interpret and qualify those same rights?  The answer lies in the way that both of these policies serve the Government’s own interests in reinforcing British sovereignty and citizenship.

A Common Goal

Article 8 is seen as a key obstacle to full British sovereignty, and the proposed family migration changes rest on an assumption that it is up to the British Government to qualify the provisions of that article in line with what they judge to be in the best interest of citizens.  The criminalisation of forced marriage reflects the Government’s commitment to ‘muscular liberalism’; in other words, the active promotion and defence of core liberal values as a key component of British citizenship and identity.

It seems that discourses surrounding human rights in the UK are serving an instrumental function in supporting the motives of the government in reinforcing British sovereignty, citizenship and identity.  Government is selective in its use of arguments informed by human rights in order to promote that agenda.  This practice will continue to have far-reaching implications for the rights of migrants and of minorities – some positive, many not.

Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham.  Her research interests concern empirical and normative questions surrounding multi-level democratic governance and citizenship.  She has written a number of articles on migration and national citizenship, which are forthcoming in scholarly journals.  Her full biography can be viewed here.

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