Until recently it would never have occurred to me that I was a ‘citizen of nowhere’. ‘Citizenship’ is a legal status conferring rights, as well as a civic status implying a ‘social contract’ between the individual citizen, citizens in social groups, and the authorities that govern them. Which is a dull way of saying that citizenship makes it possible for us all to live together, because we broadly agree on the rules.
So what is a ‘citizen of nowhere’, and how did I become one?
Theresa May, the unelected Prime Minister, famously said of her (once fellow) citizens who had the audacity to proclaim their internationalist sympathies, that “…if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” She concludes the passage in her first conference speech as Prime Minister with the ominous words, “I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on anymore.”
It was a clever passage in a well-crafted speech, in which May laid out an agenda of things she thought Leave voters wanted to hear. It was also cynical and duplicitous. How does she intend to make bosses treat their workers decently, and not stash all their money off-shore, when she also says she will turn the UK into an unregulated low corporate tax haven in which there has been a bonfire of workers’ rights? As for the promises on better schools and hospitals? The direction of policy since last October has seen school budgets raided, and the NHS abandon waiting list targets, de-list drugs and ration access to treatments. But all that is the normal business of modern politics – telling a good story, whilst doing the opposite in practice.
The comments on ‘citizens of nowhere’ goes much further than normal politics. It gives overt expression to the authoritarian impulse motivating the May regime. It is the very essence of Brexitism/Trumpery. “If you don’t think, speak, vote as I say you should, I’ll symbolically strip you of citizenship.” Very democratic.
The European Union has taken the idea of citizenship, which had largely been confined to national boundaries, and it has stretched it ever wider, ultimately encompassing 28 countries. It was in the process, however hesitantly, imperfectly, of realising a dream of a new social contract which was expansive, international, and optimistic. One which retains national identities, but adds to them.
Free movement of people is absolutely central to this dream. Many of us were born into a world in which travel across boundaries, even in Europe, was hedged with impediments, legal, bureaucratic, practical. Popping across to Paris, stag weekends in Talinn, research collaboration in Madrid, sourcing industrial components in Gdansk – these things became routine, transforming lives with both the pleasantly trivial, and the seriously important. That is how people become ‘citizens of the world’. You just do it.
Brexitism hates this. Free trade? That’s fine. Move all the cars, prosecco, and sheep, you like. That’s all about the moolah. But letting people move freely? No way, José.
Not that that applies to the leaders of Brexitism/Trumpery. They must remain free to wash up wherever an oligarch’s super-yacht, or a private jet, is to be found. But we plebs, with our Ryanairs and Megabuses, must be kept from the possible contagion involved in cross-cultural engagement.
Citizens of Brexitland, should they travel too widely, might start wondering why their homes were smaller, nastier, and more expensive than those of their neighbours. They might notice that there are places where schools are better staffed, university education more affordable, hospitals under less strain, elderly people cared for with love and dignity. They might wonder why a seat on a nice clean train in some countries costs so much less than standing in a smelly, overcrowded commuter train in the UK? They might start to laugh at the blinkered nastiness of the xenophobe press, sapping its power. They might appraise our own political system, rigged and manipulable by its privileged beneficiaries, and reckon that we deserve a higher calibre of polity and politician.
So I am proud to be a ‘citizen of nowhere’. ‘Nowhere’ is just a Brexit-word for all the other places where people like us live. We know that ‘nowhere’ is full of excitement and possibility. It’s about being open to ideas and experiences, willing to learn, willing to teach, willing to engage, and, yes, willing to argue, but with mutual respect and good humour.
Be a Citizen of Know-Where. If nothing else, it will irritate the hell out of Theresa May!