Friday, 18 November 2016

Theresa May is Stuck in the Past

by Georgia McKirgan

In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October, Theresa May said:

"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.”

There are many things said by politicians that I disagree with but Theresa May's comment really annoyed me. Her comment looked like an attempt to tap into the prevailing anti-elite atmosphere and appeal to Brexit voters by disparaging people that don't fit into a neat ethno-nationalist box. To complete the picture, I was born in Hong Kong, have New Zealand and Scottish parents, have been educated in England and spend about a third of each year in North America. My objection is less about her disparagement of people with mixed backgrounds than her assertion that such people lack an understanding of the concept of citizenship. I would describe myself as a "citizen of the world" and I challenge the assumption that this means I have no cultural identity. As the world has become more internationalised with more and more people living in countries other than where they were born or having parents with mixed ethnic backgrounds, this is going to become a bigger issue.

Even if her answer is wrong, the question Theresa May raises is an interesting one. Can societies adapt to, and embrace a significant number of people that come from a different ethnic/cultural background and retain a sense of national identity? For a long time the USA was the best example of how this can be done. Wave after wave of immigrants came in to the country and they were eventually able to create an identity that was a fusion between America and where they came from...Irish-American, Polish-American, Asian-American, African-American, Scottish-American, Italian-American etc. Despite this plethora of cultural identities, they would fervently embrace this patchwork quilt-identity called America. Sadly, it looks like the victory of Trump is a violent 'white-lash" against this phenomenally successful multi-racial experiment.

If America is struggling to come to terms with the consequences of being a multi-ethnic, multi-racial country, where else can we look for examples?


New Zealand.

Like many Commonwealth countries, New Zealand is made up of a native (Maori) community and a larger settler community that is predominantly white and European. New Zealand has managed to create a national identity that is a blend of all of these backgrounds. If you ask any New Zealander what it is to be a Kiwi, the answers display a sense of identity that is truly inclusive of all the different groups in the country. In no way is it an ethnic or racial idea. This inclusive concept of national identity has now been expanded to include a growing number of Pacific Islanders and Asian-New Zealanders.

An example of this is even white New Zealanders like my Mum and her family view the Haka and other Maori rituals as a central part of what they see as their New Zealand identity. When New Zealanders learn the New Zealand National Anthem, they learn the Maori version as well as the English one. I'm not saying it is perfect (there are still legal battles about land rights dating back to the Treaty of Waitangi) but New Zealand is the best example I have found of a country building an inclusive national identity based on the culture and histories of all of their people and it proves that it can be done.

 Without realising it, Theresa May has opened a Pandora's box. By suggesting that people who view themselves as 'citizens of the world' are not truly British, it begs the question of what 'being British' actually means. This is a question Britain has been struggling with since the decline of the British Empire and the fact that flying the Union Flag still has UKIP-ey, far-right connotations shows that we are not there yet. In large parts of the UK, like Scotland,  the sense of Britishness is disappearing fast but to me, Britishness is more about values than race or ethnicity. Earlier I talked about my own background. Theresa May would say that my background means I don't understand the concept of 'citizenship'. I feel I have a very strong sense of identity, it's just that that identity has a number of different cultural roots. What is it about citizenship that I don't understand? British values? British history? British culture? My suspicion is that whether she realises it or not, her comments legitimise some of the unsavoury racist feelings that were displayed during and after the EU Referendum. The fear of 'the other' and the suspicion of 'outsiders'.


As Prime Minister, Theresa May should be leading the discussion about what it means to be 'British' or 'English'. At the moment, the type of rhetoric displayed at the Conservative Party Conference fills me with dread. Despite Brexit and Trump I don't believe we can (nor should) turn back the clock to a world where all countries were culturally and ethnically homogenous. Apart from being impossible, I think we all benefit from being exposed to different ideas and cultures. The challenge is to be able to embrace these differences within a cohesive national identity. 


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