Theresa May, populism and citizenship

We shouldn't dismiss moves towards a populist notion of national citizenship.

Amanda Machin
6 December 2016
 Conservatives, Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Photo: Conservatives, Flickr. Some rights reserved.I’m in the extremely uncomfortable and completely unprecedented situation of agreeing with Theresa May. In her much berated Tory Party Conference speech, she said this: “if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff… An international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra…  I’m putting you on warning… I want to set out my plan for a Britain where everyone plays by the same rules and every person has the opportunity to be all they want to be… ” She continued: “Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you.” This could be the leader of a party of the far left speaking, not the women who as Home Secretary oversaw increased tuition fees, the sharp rise in the use of food-banks, radical cuts to funding of domestic abuse services and curtailment of the right to protest.

May spoke not only of fairness and equality, but of the frustrations and pain of working people: “People with assets have got richer. People without them have suffered.” She even acknowledged that: “it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families.” Strikingly, she seems to be referring to and speaking not to the ‘squeezed middle’ but to the ordinary workers.

Her rhetoric has been described (by herself and others) as a move to the centre. Is it? Isn’t it is a move to populism? She called to the ‘ordinary working class’ whom Labour traditionally represented and whom conservative government has repeatedly ignored, disempowered and forgotten about. She distinguished between ‘them’ and ‘you’: in her speech ‘they’ are the elites, the bosses, the big businesses. ‘They’ are those who “find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.” In making this distinction, she constructs and purportedly represents ‘the people’.

Her most revealingly populist statement is perhaps her dismissal of the notion of ‘world citizenship’: “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.” Actually, the meaning of citizenship is much debated: much ink has been spilt over trying to define its shifting combination of rights, responsibilities, status and identification. Citizenship can be understood as the relationship between an individual and a polity that can grant (and restrict) rights such as freedom of speech and faith; the right to vote and protest, the right to free education and healthcare. Citizenship underpins the functioning of democracy: it is as primarily as citizens that we participate in politics, to discuss, formulate and voice our preferences. 

This does not mean that citizenship cannot, and does not, continually morph and adjust. But it does make the notion of ‘world citizenship’ rather spurious. What precisely is ‘world citizenship’? If it is instituted through the existence equal human rights, allegedly protected by various international bodies, then this connotes, by definition, a very thin sense of citizenship. If it is supposed to involve participation in a global community and in global governance then where are the mechanisms that ensure that this is democratic and equal participation? Those who promote the concept of ‘world citizenship’ seem to be those who need it least. Identification with ‘world citizenship’ is hardly evenly spread. As Theresa May realizes, in any case, certainly those British people who did not identify with Europe do not imagine themselves as ‘world citizens’. And those who do claim to be ‘world citizens’ dis-attach themselves from the national population that very possibly contains more diversity than the cosmopolitan community they imagine themselves a part of. 

Rather than imagining ourselves as ‘world citizens’ I wonder if we shouldn’t (re)imagine ourselves as ‘state citizens’ and focus upon the status for which many fought for decades and upon which our democracy hinges. In the context of globalization I wonder if it is not the nation-state we should be wary of, but rather its disempowerment by international markets. The problem is not the limited territorial scope of our rights that we should be alarmed by, but the extension of rights to big corporations and economic actors.

The best way to strengthen democracy, to tackle global problems and to protect others, is not to invoke the empty concept of world citizenship but to utilize and reclaim state citizenship. As Home Secretary, May pursued policies limiting family immigration to only those who earn enough money; it is this sort of decision that should be contested not her dismissal of ‘world citizenship’. It is true that by triggering Article 50, May will be revoking the European citizenship of British people. But if and when we lose this citizenship, the government also loses the ability to hide behind the European Union as a convenient whipping boy for its own dubious decisions. We may be able to hold our representatives better to account.

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