According to Theresa May, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, then you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” This controversial statement came during her Conservative Party Conference speech in which she advocated for unity in post-Brexit Britain by placing emphasis on localism.
Of course, there is an appeal to this thinking. The modern world has become increasingly complex through globalisation, and if nationalism appears to be on the rise in the West, it is in part due to fears surrounding the impact of its various challenges and a desire to reaffirm national interests as a priority.
But the answer to whom we pledge political allegiance to is not as obvious as the Prime Minister seems to think. From a personal standpoint, I can vouch for citizenship transcending borders; I’ve spent most of my life as an immigrant and third culture kid since the day I left Essex at a young age to attend international schools in Germany and France. I can therefore say the implication that one cannot feel loyalty towards more than one nation is blatantly false.
Contrary to popular belief, many individuals settling into foreign countries are indeed willing to integrate into their new communities and over time come to identify with their values and form emotional attachments to them in the same way that national citizens do. Nothing illustrates this better than a group Skype call I recently engaged in with three close friends of mine – a South Korean, a Nigerian living in the US, and a Yemeni living in France. We all met in a bilingual school in Paris in 2006 and, despite none of us having a drop of French blood in us, were deeply affected by the Paris Attacks that took place in November last year. Why? Because France was not simply an alien land where we had once received an education, it was and still is a home to us.
On the other hand, the vast majority of those living abroad still care deeply about what happens in their home countries. In the case of British immigrants, this became evident during Brexit when many in my local French community proved to be genuinely devastated over the result.
The problem with the rising popularity of insular nationalism as a response to global crises is that it is, ironically, a far greater threat. While the idea that you should ‘put your country first’ may seem noble in theory, the isolationism this promotes is dangerous in practice. Moreover, the principle of prioritizing your own nation worryingly sets the tone all too well for xenophobia and racism. Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for instance – what ought to be a matter of compassion suddenly became another target for anti-immigration sentiment whereby suffering is apparently ignored in the name of national interest.
The fact is that immigration and multiculturalism have been a part of the UK for decades. Universities are a prime example of this, and the learning experience they offer is made all the more rich for their international students. After all, the exchange of ideas that comes with internationalism may well be one of the most powerful tools in overcoming problems that are universal in nature. Equally significant are the benefits that arise from having relationships with people from different backgrounds. The concept of internationalism may not be without its detractors, but I can wholeheartedly say that those who have had a taste of diversity are some of the most interesting, considerate and passionate people you can meet.
My response to Theresa May would therefore be this: being a patriotic member of your local community is all well and good, so long as it does not come at the expense of practicality and inclusiveness towards the wider international community. Because whether you like it or not, we are all citizens of the world, and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.