Thursday, 6 October 2016

Citoyens du Monde

In her speech to Conservative Party conference, Theresa May said that if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.

Insodoing she surrendered any moral right to criticise literally anyone for being a "divisive nationalist".

I have never been comfortable with the concept of citizenship. The idea that as individual human beings we owe some sense of inherent loyalty to a set of political institutions, or to a flag, or to a nation is one that makes no sense at all. As the infamous political compass put it, you don't choose your country of origin so it is foolish to be proud of it.

But citizenship is important in our world. This idea of commonality, that because you exist and you are a part of our society, that you have a basic expectation of dignity, respect, protection, is vital if progress is to be achieved.

The problem with citizenship is that it is exclusive. Arbitrarily so. It excludes people, who would be far better advocates of the goals of citizenship than most people who are actually citizens. It says that they don't belong. Not really. Because they happened not to be born here, or not born to the right parents. We deny people citizenship because they don't speak our language quite well enough to tick a box, or because they haven't lived here long enough, or because a relative with a funny sounding name did something that was cruel or inhumane.

Citizenship was not invented to exclude; it was invented to empower. One of the best things about EU citizenship was that it sought to say something about who we are as a political community. It said that, when we work together, the plumber from Warsaw is just as important to Britain whether he comes here for a year or a lifetime. That the student from the Czech Republic can be as involved in our public life and our politics as the family that has lived here for countless generations. That, when you strip back the barriers, we are all essentially just people. People with dreams, aspirations, a desire to make the lives of ourselves and those around us better. The respects in which EU citizenship fell short wasn't that it gave our neighbours too many rights; it's that it didn't give enough of our neighbours the dignity and opportunity of a life in our country.

To say that we cannot be citizens of the world is insulting. The fact that we have states and nations does not alter the fact that the plight of the child in Aleppo is just as important, as morally significant, as that of the child in Ardrossan or Aldershot. Our capacities to assist may differ, but that is not something they control and therefore not something by which we should judge them.

It is Theresa May that does not understand the true meaning of citizenship. When people say they are citizens of the world they do not say that their loyalty is to nothing; they say it is to humanity and the pursuit of the truly common good. It is just a fact that I have more in common with many people in other countries than I do with some people who live a five minute walk away. To try to impose special duties on my belonging to Britain as a community is just as offensive as the idea you should impose them on someone who comes here to make a better life. Citizens of the world say that what unites us is our capacity to empathise, and our need to be accepted, protected, and welcomed into the communities in which we live.

The tax avoiders and croney businesses Theresa May criticises don't claim to be "global citizens". Corporations can scarcely be said to be citizens at all, least of all to any nation or state. Where their actions are morally offensive they are so not because it is "disloyal" to Britain but because they disown empathy to the whole of humanity. They reject the spirit of what it means to participate in any society; not just the ones in Britain. It is the individual human beings they affect who are offended against, not the state. Not the nation. It's the people who can't get treatment because there is no money for the cancer ward. It's the people who lose their jobs because a businessman exploits bankruptcy laws to avoid paying his suppliers. It's the family that chooses whether to heat or eat.

None of this requires us to care where they were born, what the colour of their skin is, what language they speak, what is their religion. If citizenship really requires these arbitrary questions of moral concern to divide or communities into the deserving and the undeserving then truly it is preferable to be stateless.

But we're not going to let you win Theresa May. You aren't even turning the clock back to 1950. Because at least then the trajectory of human progress was towards inclusion, openness, and the setting aside of the sheer pettiness of nationalism. An ideology that legitimised the wasting of tens of millions of human lives, held back humanity's potential and made us an altogether inferior civilisation.

Citizenship means global citizenship. And whether you like it or not, we are going to make a success of it.