“Citizens of Nowhere” – it still hurts

A good friend of mine admitted recently that she could not recall Theresa May’s Citizens of Nowhere speech. That speech where she proclaimed that those who considered themselves Citizens of the World could never really belong. The one in October 2016, just a few weeks into her Brexit-enabled premiership, delivered at the Conservative Party conference, while in full Brexit means Brexit mode.

These are her exact words: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

That was the day I realized that Britain really wasn’t wholly how I had naively imagined it to be – a tolerant, laissez-faire, pragmatic country where ideology was shunned as a “bit much”. It was almost worse than the Brexit vote itself, which allows for some ambiguity of motive. Part of a shockingly simplistic assessment, that comment felt like a dagger in the back – and two years later I’m still haunted by it. It was, and still is, a complete assault on my entire identity.

I have a British-Turkish background, and have studied and worked in London and Istanbul, as well as Milan. I learned French, German and Italian, and have taught, travelled or worked using all three languages. I love to learn about other cultures, I am a keen reader of foreign and translated literature as well as English classics. As a journalist some of my most enjoyable work involved highlighting and comparing cultural or personality quirks – why Turks and the French discuss politics at dinner whereas Brits rarely do, why Germans like no-frills shopping, why British kids like to leave home after education while Italians prefer staying on with their parents, even when they have children, how the spread of Western-style celebrity television in Turkey changed the way farmers named their cows (Daisy and Buttercup out, Beyonce in). For me, all this builds up a fascinating picture of humanity in its glorious variety.

If you read books from the past or other countries, it’s easy to see that among the differences, characters living thousands of miles or hundreds of years apart can resonate with each other – a 19th-century Irishman down on his luck, a Russian farmer, a middle class Arab woman, a working class English woman, all these people can have traits in common, just as neighbours from the same background living on the same street can be worlds apart. People might feel like they are separated into the Anywheres and Nowheres in David Goodhart’s post-Breixt book, The Road to Somewhere, but in reality they are not, if only they would look.

I have always believed that to be a Citizen of the World was a good thing. Being interested in different cultures and languages, trying to be at ease in other countries, tolerating differences as well as celebrating the best that various national identities had to offer, trying to communicate across borders, living within other cultures and creating greater understanding…What could possibly be wrong with that?

None of this need be in conflict with personal background. I love the chaos and colour of Turkey, and I feel incredibly sad at the way it has become divided and belligerent recently, but I have always felt more British, partly because I identified most with what I see as British values. I felt Britishness best enabled the embrace of a many-faceted identity. I loved the Britain of costume dramas and cheesy sitcoms as much as I enjoyed the thrill of cool Britannia and gritty films. I loved the green countryside, the pragmatism, regional quirks, London, the literature, the good telly (believe me, relatively, it’s true.)

Brexit isn’t simply and untangling of annoying regulation with a bunch of squabbling countries. In the current political climate, it’s a two fingers to the entire idea of cooperation, interconnection and aspiration for collaborative and tolerant liberal societies. It’s a two fingers at who I am.

We are not ashamed of being Citizens of Nowhere if it defines the outlook I outlined above. We are happy to own the term. If we are called saboteurs, we are fine with that, too. Brexiteers might say that “getting over it” and “respecting the (so-called) will of (25 percent of) the people” is the proper British thing to do, but we beg to disagree, particularly when the result was clearly secured with lies and distortion.

Given that this is a country that had a revolution, cut the head off its king and became a republic, didn’t like it and was big enough to change its mind, we would counter that Britishness is much less about “getting over it” and fatalism than the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg and Tim Martin would have us believe.

Suna Erdem