Citizen of Nowhere

Theresa May caused something of a storm of controversy when she announced to the annual Tory Party Conference in October last year that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” I’m happy to wear that as a badge of honour, for I do believe that I am a citizen of the world, and I am saddened by the surge of populism and narrow isolationism that has swept across the USA and the UK in recent years. As an inhabitant of this planet, I believe that we all have a responsibility to do our part to tackle climate change, social inequality, and generally care for our fellow human being. I too am going to go out on a limb and say something equally controversial, and that is that nationalism is a form of discrimination, and while may be followed with honest intentions, by its very definition it means the prioritisation of a group of people based solely on a label of nationhood.

Society broadly accepts that to discriminate between people based on gender, orientation, race, political or religious beliefs is regressive and inappropriate. The truth is that it is natural and instinctive – our evolution has programmed us to discriminate. Businesses invest in training programmes to ensure that their employees are consciously aware of their implicit, or unconscious bias. I am sure that there are many experts who are better qualified to explain why this is than I am, but my theory is that it is a remnant of our tribal heritage. In more primitive times, we needed to be able to discern the friend from the foe – the familiar from the unknown and, potential, danger. Before civilisation, people banded together in tribes so that they had the strength to compete over, and secure, valuable resources. So ingrained in the majority of the human population is this phenomenon, that the only way you can actually transcend your racism (or other discrimination) is to accept that you are racist implicitly, and to consciously step back and objectively analyse your choices and decisions.

This is where I come to nationhood. Don’t get me wrong – I think patriotism can be a strength in a society, but only up to a point. When the USA elected Donald Trump as their president, and representative on the world stage, they were electing him on his “America First” mantra. I can understand why a nation of people would want to make sure that they get their fair share from the world, but when that comes at a cost of the other nations of people, then what Americans are saying is that their needs are more important than the needs of non Americans. Somehow, they justify to themselves that they are more important – a superior group of people. By denigrating Mexicans as social leeches, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and decrying the Muslim faith, Americans are announcing their right to consume world resources over others, that Americans are more deserving of a chance to succeed than Mexicans, and that their religion is better than someone else’s.

Similarly, in the EU referendum here in the UK, what ultimately drove the decision to leave, was a question of personal identity. Are you English, British, European? Interestingly, in the Lord Ashcroft poll, this question was asked and superimposed on the way people voted. The results were clear – 79% of those who identified themselves as English, not British, voted to leave the EU. Contrast with those who identified themselves as more British than English, where 63% voted to remain in the EU. For me, this highlights the implicit discrimination. Interestingly, I imagine in Scotland there would be a different trend to emerge, which I will come on to later. However, there is a resentment within this group of people who object to receiving directives from Europe, or the perception of having to share our wealth or country with people who don’t share the same “English” identity. The only interpretation I can take from this is that Englishness is elevated above non Englishness – why do we not see the human lives behind it, but only the label of the nationality?

There is a view, held by some in Europe, that the European project should be a vehicle to establish equality, and a level playing field throughout the block, that ensures workers have guaranteed rights, and consumers are getting the best deal possible. By opening borders in this way, a British company has to compete with the entire industry across the block, making it harder to create oligopolies where either prices are artificially high, or workers’ treatment unfairly poor. By voting to take the UK out of Europe, there is an aspiration among Leave voters that the UK should care only for itself, and thereby somehow be stronger for it.

The Scottish nationalism question is more nuanced – yes it is still isolationist, and the resentment of Westminster rule is bred from the perception that Scottish people are ignored by the establishment. However, the same could be said of highlanders, resentful of the extreme centralisation of Scottish government into Edinburgh. Crucially, the nationalist movement is still born from the difference of identity – the perception that Scottish people are treated differently for their being Scottish. Yet, while this is regressive in terms of membership of the UK, it is fair to say that the vast majority of Scots still want to participate in global society – 62% of people north of the border voted to remain in the EU. This, to me, seems to be symptomatic of a frustration with central government in the UK, and a sense of giving up and walking away rather than staying in and trying to fix the perceived failings of the union.

So, while Leave voters are at pains to claim that they are not racist, they perhaps need to take a long hard look at themselves to understand why it is that they feel the people of the UK should not share with our neighbours on the continent (irrespective of the major benefits that we gain from the arrangement), and why it is that somehow people who come to participate in our society from other countries, are somehow less desirable based solely on the national label we give them.

I truly believe that we should be an outward looking, progressive society that leads by example. We should be fully shouldering our responsibilities in this world to make it a better place for everyone. We are truly fortunate to have been born into such a wealthy, developed country – we should strive to make sure that every other human on this planet can eventually have the opportunity to enjoy life as much as we can. We should all be global citizens, or citizens of nowhere – for then we should rise above petty rivalries and truly shape global society for the better.

 


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