A citizen of… somewhere? (part 1)

I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
Socrates (from Plutarch, Of Banishment)

It’s a bad idea to commit words to social media when one is angry. True, it will come off as more genuine, but the chances are that for most of us, it’ll make up with passion what it lacks in coherence. That’s why UK politics in 2016 has been one of those topics I’ve not been talking about on the blog, because it’s been driving me nuts – yet there’s so much to say.


The world is too interconnected now, and the problems too complex to be dealt with by a series of individual national responses. Collective responses are needed for environmental problems, pollution, epidemics, scientific research, or warfare (how many countries have been affected by the ongoing crisis in Syria, either through direct involvement, or by accepting refugees?). Global problems do not stop at national borders.

So I think it is interesting – and not in the least bit surprising – that Prime Minister Theresa May announced:

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere; you don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”

She has never lived and worked in another country in her life. For that matter, neither have Brexit campaigners Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith (who spent time in Perugia doing… not very much), or Nigel Farage (until he became a UKIP MEP in order to disparage and harangue the EU – but not to vote – and take its money).*

I believe May’s statement shows ignorance of the modern world. It’s not just workers in professional occupations who can be expected to spend years of their lives working and paying taxes outside of the country of their birth. As travel costs decrease and house prices become ever more unaffordable, people frequently choose to work abroad and identify as ‘Global Citizens.

As I’ve written previously, not everyone has the opportunity to do this; one perceptible divide in the modern world is between those who have the opportunity to move around (and take it), and those who do not. My sweeping generalisation is that those who favour the globalist outlook tend to be found in cities (where they have more opportunity to earn money, attain higher levels of education, and meet foreigners); those who are more nationalist tend to be found where population density is lower. Cities – particularly university towns – tended to vote against Brexit; they are islands surrounded by hinterlands of predominantly pro-Brexit voters.

Voting areas in favour of Brexit appear to correlate well with areas which suffered under ‘austerity’ measures courtesy of former Chancellor George Osborne, particularly with cuts to the NHS. Income and education correlate well with how people voted, but they don’t tell the whole story. Seeking single, simple explanations is a bad idea.

May’s other simplistic statement, “Brexit means Brexit” hides the fact that the vote to leave the EU means different things to different people and involves a host of far more complex factors:

  • For some, it was about democratic failings in the EU (one has to wonder if they were among the few to vote in the EU elections).
  • In a similar vein, some bemoaned the UK’s ‘lack of sovereignty’ – ignoring the benefits of pooling resources with other nations.
  • Others apparently thought the UK would be financially better off (it turns out that things may be rosy for UK exporters, but not for the rest of us).
  • And there were others still who didn’t like the idea of foreigners coming to the UK, simultaneously taking jobs and unemployment benefits at the same time (debunked here).
  • And sure, some voters were ignorant or misled, but this cannot disqualify them from voting – and it’s dangerous to assume that anyone who disagrees with one’s views must automatically be evil or stupid; that way debate is shut down and compromises become impossible.
  • It’s also worth noting that the number of pro-Brexit voters who have come to regret their choice now exceeds the margin of victory for Brexit; now that they know what they were voting for, they don’t like it.

All told, these voters amounted to 37% of the electorate, enough to strip everyone of their rights and citizenship of the EU.

If one looks at a UK map colour-coded to show where ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters comprised a majority of the electorate, it shows that the biggest group throughout almost the whole country is neither. (From an excellent analysis available here.)

brexit-map-colourcodedNow, a number of pro-Brexit voices have started denouncing those in favour of staying in the EU as ‘traitors’. The Prime Minister hasn’t disagreed. I find this ever so slightly troubling.

I rather like the idea of being an EU citizen. I am happy to identify as Scottish, British, and European. These are not ‘either/or’ conditions and I see no reason why one should be forced to choose. (And, yes, I would also identify as a ‘citizen of the world’, having lived and worked abroad for a couple of years in my twenties.) I dislike the thought of having to give up any of these things against my will.

As of October 2016, the Conservative Party, in adopting ever more ‘right-wing’ policies, has gained the support of former UKIP voters (whose own party support has crashed). There is apparently no effective opposition. A second Scottish Independence referendum has been proposed (in case of some outcomes, but not others).

Where might things go from here? The question of whether or not the referendum was supposed to be ‘merely advisory’ is moot; people and events have moved swiftly. Can the Westminster Parliament stop Brexit? Is Scotland really so distinct from the rest of the UK? And what the hell am I to make of all this?

(to be continued)

*For fairness and completeness, Boris Johnson spent two years of school in Brussels from the ages of 9 to 11. Justice Secretary Liz Truss spent a year of school in Canada. Home Secretary Amber Rudd worked for a bank in New York. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis once studied at Harvard. Chancellor Phillip Hammond worked as a consultant around the world. And Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was a failed marmalade salesman in Japan, making him supremely qualified to negotiate decisions about the NHS.

4 responses to “A citizen of… somewhere? (part 1)

  1. “Global problems do not stop at national borders.

    Agreed. And the EU has gathered to itself all of the trappings of nationhood: a foreign office, an army, an anthem, a head of state, etc.

    And yet it seeks to cut itself off from the rest of the world—through a nominally “exclusive” Single Market (and currency) and, more egregiously, through the Customs Union tariff barriers.

    Moreover, EU policies make its citizens poorer—how else would you term, for instance, the banning of incandescent lightbulbs whilst applying 66% import tariffs on Chinese halogens?

    And this example illustrates another issue—the bureaucracy’s capture by vested (corporate and lobbying) interests.

    None of this is to say that the EU does not have good intentions or decent measures. But it does irk, somewhat, that people describe Brexiteers as “ignorant” or “bigots” when, in truth, many Remainers are just as ignorant of the full spectrum of the EU’s activities.

    This has led to a somewhat romantic and rose-tinted view of the EU and its effects. But don’t take my word for it—go and speak to the Greeks. Or the Portuguese, or Spanish.


    • Yep; I think any political entity (national or supra-national) will make well-intentioned decisions that backfire for its citizens.
      And I think it’s difficult for anyone -no matter their views- not to react with incredulity that others will rank problems and political issues differently. I just hope I can keep hold of my friends whose views differ from mine so I don’t get stuck in a social media bubble!

      I have a funny feeling that, to awkwardly paraphrase Tolstoy, “All Remainers are alike; each Brexiter is a Brexiter in their own way.”

  2. ” Is Scotland really so distinct from the rest of the UK?

    My hunch is that the generalised distrust of a certain section of the population towards the political class is expressed by some in Scotland towards London in the same way that it is by some in England/Wales towards the EU. I was struck that the areas which were most pro-independence – Dundee, Inverclyde, even to some extent Glasgow, look a lot like some of the places that were most pro-Brexit in England. Places left behind by post-industrialisation, with significant unemployment. What’s different is that in Scotland, the ‘left behind’ teamed up with a kind of young Scottish Corbynista left to make up a voting bloc, where in England/Wales, it appears that the dispossessed were united with the golf course, the farmers* and the retired colonels**.

    * the one group who appear to be distinctly anti-EU in Scotland. Looking at the highest leave votes in Scotland, they’re all in rural constituencies. The urban poor clearly blame Westminster rather than Brussels for their lot (I’m not entirely sure that the blame actually lies with either, but to be fair ‘sorry, but vast unstoppable global historical processes are screwing you over and there’s not much we or anyone else can do about it’ is, I suspect, not a message that goes down well on the doorstep.)
    **more a metaphorical archetype than a group of actual retired colonels these days.

    • Next blog post I’ll be revisiting that analysis of Brexit – (spoiler: yes; it would appear that as far as Brexit goes, Scotland’s regions really do cluster together, compared to the rest of the UK)…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s