According to Theresa May’s closing speech at this week’s Conservative Party Conference, “if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. She’s not beating around the bush, is she? This is apparently who we are now. After our summer identity crisis, we’ve finally decided what to be. And between the suggestion that firms should publicly declare the number of “foreigners” they employ, and the idea that “foreign” doctors are only safe for an interim period (until more UK-born doctors are trained – which is in itself laughable, as who in their right mind would want to be a doctor in a Tory-run NHS?!) – it’s all looking pretty bleak.
The language being employed by the media – and as someone who has studied language use in quite a lot of detail, I feel qualified to say this – is little short of terrifying. The constant repetition of “foreigners”, like they’re not “fellow human beings”. Refrains like “British jobs for British workers”. The “us vs. them” narrative we’re constantly bombarded with. It honestly doesn’t feel like a retreat to the days of “no Irish, no coloureds” signage is that far off.
And for May, as Prime Minister, to denounce having a global sort of mindset as a failing, a sign of weakness, is utterly bonkers. Sure, referring to oneself as “a citizen of the world” in an actual conversation is a bit ‘gap-yah’ – but today, now, in 2016, WE ARE ALL CITIZENS OF THE WORLD. Everything you can see around you, right now, probably comes from somewhere else. Check the labels, the packaging. Our phones are designed in California and assembled in China. Our clothes are made in Turkey, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. We go to Thai, Mexican, Italian and Ethiopian restaurants. We drink Kenyan tea, Chilean wine and Colombian coffee. We never question our own right to go on holiday, to enjoy the arts, cultures and foods of other nations – the world is ours for the taking, ours for the exploring. Our lives are lived internationally now; there is no getting away from that. Nor should there be.
The problem with May’s statement (well, the problems with it are myriad but this is an angry blog post, not a PhD thesis) is that it embodies the kind of thinking that leads us to do precisely nothing when another boat capsizes and another 300 refugees drown. The kind of thinking that makes us turn away when a toddler washes up on a beach. The kind of thinking that makes us shrug at the sight of a refugee camp where thousands of people – human people with family and careers and qualifications and hobbies and favourite foods – try to look only forward, not back towards home, because home is hostile, if it still stands at all. If you don’t see yourself as at least a little bit ‘world-citizeny’, then you lose the ability to empathise. If you don’t see yourself as part of something bigger than your tiny island, you’re not recognising that, in the words of Jo Cox, “we have far more in common than that which divides us”.
And how quickly we have forgotten those words.
And this rising tide of “patriotism” is chilling, yet bizarrely fascinating. In that same speech, May criticised the political class for the way they find “ordinary” people’s patriotism “distasteful”. The thing is… patriotism is distasteful. It is absolutely right to question it. This Twitter thread says it better than I ever could.
What does it mean when someone says they’re “proud to be British”? Seriously, what does that mean – how does it feel? It sounds like a hurried excuse, a product of bluster and buffoonery, a catchphrase with no genuine meaning. Because if you’re proud of something, it suggests you had a hand in it. Being proud to have been born in a particular place is like being proud of “having blonde hair” or “hating Brussels sprouts” – i.e. completely demented. You had nothing to do with where you were born.
You can like the fact you live here; you can – by all means – derive joy from it. You can feel a rush of wonder and exhilaration to know that Shakespeare, the Brontës, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, J.K. Rowling and Emmeline Pankhurst came from here, but you had nothing to do with them. You don’t have any claim to them just because they came from the same landmass you now live on. You can feel affection for our sense of humour, our somewhat odd social habits, our love of hot brown beverages, pubs, Sunday roasts, the BBC – and I have a tremendous amount of affection for tea, beer, roast beef and Radio 4, don’t get me wrong – but none of these things make us morally superior to anyone else, in any way.
Something that gets under my skin is our general inability to attribute things to luck. As a species, we’re really bad at this. When we achieve something, we congratulate ourselves and our own hard work long before we consider that the only way we were able to do that work was, well, down to luck. We were born in the right place, we had role models with fearsome work ethics, we were able to pursue the things we wanted. We might have gone to good schools, because we lived in an affluent area that had them, and it was expected that we would go to university, because that was a genuine possibility in our neck of the woods.
We got lucky, being born here. But for the grace of Fate, but for the roll of some celestial dice, it could have been us in Aleppo, in Libya, Somalia, Palestine.
It is dangerous to forget how lucky we are. Because this is where it leads – to a frightening lack of compassion, a chilling lack of understanding, a total lack of empathy. It makes us, as a nation, psychopathic.
And we’ve read history and we’ve read horror stories, and they are so often the very same thing.