It’s the first week of March, and over 400 people around London crowded into the Emmanuel Centre, in the heart of Westminster, to listen to a panel discussion on a subject close to my heart: global citizenship.
When Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced about a year ago that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, she sent shockwaves around the world. A panel of distinguished speakers debated this issue, including historian and TV personality Simon Schama, the Turkish born award-winning novelist and political commentator Elif Shafak, David Landsman, a former ambassador and now European Head of the Tata Group and David Goodhart, author and founding editor of Prospect magazine. Chairing the debate was the BBC’s Economics Editor, Kamal Ahmed.
The evening started with Kamal asking everybody who felt they were citizens of the world to raise their hands. Nearly everyone did.
David Goodhart was an exception, making the argument that he isn’t because “to be a citizen, you have to be a citizen of a state”. Simon Schama argued that we should be citizens in the Plutarchian sense – Plutarch was a Greek who became a Roman citizen – by belonging to a country based on the use you make of it, and the use it makes of you.
The panel agreed that there is a worrying trend towards nationalism and polarization sweeping the world. Elif Shafak argued eloquently that as a citizen of the world one can be many things at the same time. She for example lives and loves both Istanbul and London. She urged us all to reject identity politics and the categories they try to push us into. At the same time, she feels it is essential to open up discussions about, for example, immigration because if we don’t, the only outlet for people worried about these issues will be on the far right.
Simon Schama made one of the most interesting arguments of the talk when he propounded the urgent need to defend democracy. He said that what we are seeing all over the world is the rise of the “illiberal democracy”, that has sprung up in reaction to the overly liberal democracies of the past few decades. The pendulum has swung so violently that we risk “neutering our freedom” he said.
Dr Irene Skovgaard-Smith, an anthropologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge who studies cosmopolitanism and identity, was also at the debate. Her view?
“There is now this common assumption that society is divided along the lines of two distinct groups of people – those who identify with being ‘citizens of the world’ versus those who are strongly attached to their national origin,” she said. “The reality is far more nuanced. The debate illustrates the need for an evidence-based challenge to these stereotypes. All human beings embrace multiple group identities in some way or another and we are all locals somewhere. You don’t have to be part of ‘the liberal elite’ to identify with the cosmopolitan idea of being a ‘citizen of the world’ and you can also at the same time embrace your national or ethnic identity.”
At the end of the discussion there were some very interesting questions from the floor, not least from a very young man, probably no older than 14, who asked:
“What do you do with the people who feel they don’t have a country to be a citizen of?”
It was a poignant reminder of how lucky most of us are, as well as reinforcing the benefits of what we do every day to empower individuals around the world to become global citizens.
Photo by Intelligence Squared / Tim Bowditch