Citizens of the world, beware: The British government doesn’t think you should exist

Those open arms are deceptive.
Those open arms are deceptive.
Image: Reuters/Darren Staples
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In a speech that talked a lot about unity and bonding, Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, this week set out exactly how she thinks the country should be divided. On one side: “citizens” who pull together, work hard, and, by implication, look inward. On the other: a hefty list of undesirables.

These are the people who should take the blame for the country’s problems, May suggested. They’re a disparate bunch. But if you weren’t born on British soil; or if you identify with “international elites”; or if your main identity isn’t based on the country for which you hold a passport—they include you.

“[I]f you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” May said in the hour-long speech on Oct. 5 to her Conservative party’s conference, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

By denouncing the idea of global citizenship, May placed everything by which “Leave” voters might feel threatened on the far side of a conceptual divide.

First, foreigners. A strong undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment ran through the speech: “I know a lot of people don’t like to admit this [but to] someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair.”

The stance isn’t new for May. In her previous job as minister in charge of domestic affairs, she called for curbs on immigration, and went as far as to commission billboards telling immigrants to go home, mounted on trucks which drove through their neighborhoods.

At the time, three years ago, the billboards provoked a backlash. But last June’s Brexit vote, in which just over half of voters opted to leave the European Union, has provided her with both the power of the top job, and the argument that she’s enacting the will of the people, to translate blame into action.

Next, May targeted the relationship between big business and politicians. That’s been a source of anger in a country where house prices have soared in part because of overseas investment in high-value property (but also because of a shortage of housing stock). “Too many people in positions of power,” May said, “behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.” There is a divide, the speech insisted, and business fat-cats are on the wrong side of it.

Though it wasn’t explicit, May’s attack on global citizenship also took in another swathe of the electorate: the younger generations that have grown up with the internet and the freedom of travel associated with EU membership. They voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU; May’s speech was firmly targeted towards people who voted to leave. The cosmopolitan, outward-looking young might feel more connection to peers elsewhere that to some of their own compatriots but, May’s rhetoric implied, they’re wrong.

In sum, the message was clear: Unity is the best policy, especially when there are lots of people you want to exclude.