At the Conservative Party Conference this year, Theresa May declared "if you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what the very word 'citizenship' means." This rhetoric was used to justify her Government's efforts to reduce the number of people coming to live, work and study here from abroad.
This kind of rhetoric is a lie, wrapped in a half-truth. Citizenship is important. Most of us, most of the time, want to belong, to be part of a community where we are valued and treated with respect. Moreover, the world, with its many and varied communities, can only thrive when the members of particular communities act to improve those communities. Citizenship is the bricks and the mortar of community life.
May is exploiting the concept of citizenship for two reasons. First to draw attention away from the enormous and increasing inequalities that exist between UK citizens. Second to scapegoat minority groups, like immigrants, who can be blamed for problems actually created by the powerful.
But it is May who does not understand what citizenship means; this is underlined by her declared intention "to transform Britain into a Great Meritocracy." For the term "meritocracy" actually means 'rule by the best', which is also what the Greek term "aristocracy" means. In other words, meritocracy is opposed to democracy, rule by the people. Citizens, as Aristotle said, take turns in ruling each other, whereas meritocrats are an elite group who rule over the rest of us.
May is not alone in beginning her leadership with a lie. Cameron used his first party conference speech to tell us that "fairness includes asking those on higher incomes to shoulder more of the burden than those on lower incomes." He then went onto unleash an austerity programme that directly benefited the rich, the middle-classes and home owners, while slashing incomes and services for the poorest and for disabled people. So we can now expect policies, like the reintroduction of grammar schools, that will further entrench the interests of the elites.
How stark the contrast between the message of Theresa May and the words of Nelson Mandela:
"The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans, and that we are citizens of the world."
Citizenship is an important concept which deserves better than to be misused by politicians seeking to pit us against each other and to narrow our sense of who we are. In truth I can be a citizen of the world, a citizen of England and a citizen of Sheffield. Politicians can't dictate to us which communities matter and which do not.
Nor should we be too concerned when some of us move from one community to another. In fact a community that is not open to new people, and who cannot cope when some leave, is not a community, it is a clique. The real risk is not that people move from one place to another, the real risk is that they will not be welcomed when they do. For, to have no community is the most fundamental form or injustice, even more extreme than any particular injustice, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted:
"The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion - formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities - but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them."
It was to avoid this fundamental injustice that the UN Declaration of Human Rights places great emphasis on the responsibility of all countries to welcome the refugee and the immigrant. Yet in modern Britain the Government's explicit policy is to develop a 'hostile environment' to ensure that people are not only rightless, but also feel unwelcome.
Government policy now seems to be developed in a fact-free world. The fact that immigrants work, pay taxes and contribute to British society has been forgotten. The fact that Britain is a society of immigrants has been forgotten. The fact that some people (including many Britons) have moved around the world seeking a different life for centuries has been forgotten. The only relevant fact is that many people are fearful for their futures and that pandering to prejudice is a useful tool for unscrupulous politicians. Thank heavens that Jeremy Corbyn has at last stopped Labour from adding its voice to this vicious chorus.
In the end the irony is that this appeal to a narrow sense of citizenship is not even matched by a real sense of citizenship amongst the people of the UK. We have scarcely any control over our politicians or over our local communities. Increasing inequality divides us from each other. The real conditions of citizenship are undermined by policies that instead encourage passive obedience and consumerism.
To the ancient citizens of Athens modern Britons would not look like citizens, instead they would appear to be slaves, both flattered and cajoled by their masters.Suggest a correction