Citizens of Nowhere: A revisionist history

Yesterday, while blogging about the resignation of Theresa May, I mentioned her infamous ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2016.

At the time, those words were seen as a clear attack on the pro-European, pro-EU, ‘Remain’ cosmopolitanism that many people were expressing after the referendum shock. Mrs May, it was judged, had taken a side in the culture war, and allying herself with a narrow nationalism.

Three years later, that phrase has become a damning shorthand for Theresa May’s hostility to migrants.

While writing my earlier blog post, I read the speech. And actually, the context of her ‘citizens of nowhere’ line is the culmination of an attack on… millionaire tax dodgers.

Remember, the Panama Papers had been reported in April 2016. Here is Theresa May, speaking just five months later (emphasis added):

Yet within our society today, we see division and unfairness all around. Between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation. Between the wealth of London and the rest of the country.

But perhaps most of all, between the rich, the successful and the powerful – and their fellow citizens.

Now don’t get me wrong. We applaud success. We want people to get on.

But we also value something else: the spirit of citizenship.

That spirit that means you respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work. That means a commitment to the men and women who live around you, who work for you, who buy the goods and services you sell.

That spirit that means recognising the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.

That spirit that means you do as others do, and pay your fair share of tax.

But today, too many people in positions of power 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.

But 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.

So 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…

A household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism…

A director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust…

I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on anymore.

In black-and-white, that is simply not the attack on the progressive, multicultural immigrant experience that everyone says it is.

Some might say that the ‘citizens of nowhere’ line is a dog-whistle. That Mrs May was mounting an attack on cosmopolitanism and signalling her credentials to the Little Englanders. After all, elsewhere in the same speech, she made it clear that her version of Brexit meant the ending of free movement for EU citizens.

But I don’t buy that argument. Mrs May’s attack on global companies failing to pay their taxes, and on corporations failing to look after their employees, is too thick.

I think, instead, that we have been misled by the collective action of the press and propagandists, who clipped that line from the speech and quoted it at people like me, in the expectation that we would be outraged.

Theresa May did many things wrong and abominable during her time as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister. I loathed her distain for our human rights framework, and her handling of Brexit was awful. But I reckon we should think again about the meaning of the ‘citizen of nowhere’ comment in her 2016 conference speech.

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