It was Thomas Paine who penned that great cosmopolitan motto; “my country is the world and my religion is to do good.” Three centuries later, Theresa May has chosen to rubbish the great philosopher’s ideals, telling us all that “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.” Since May appears to present herself as Britain’s semanticist in chief, one can only assume that citizenship must mean citizenship.
Sadly, May’s rhetoric surrounding the evils of cosmopolitanism, ideals which are deeply steeped into Britain’s political psyche, appears to have some substance. Our divorce from the market which we do half of our trade with is increasingly looking to be a ‘hard’ one. Whereas previously it was thought that May’s government would seek to preserve the trade of industry across Europe, unless your industry is building, fishing, or any other working-class occupation; it now appears that our divorce may threaten the trade of goods and services too. ‘British jobs for British workers’ is not to be pursued through investing in training and skills, increasing Britain’s competitive edge, but rather through patrolling the employment of individuals on the grounds of nationality.
In terms of trade, we know the immense damage which such trade barriers can do, and why so many governments have sought to break them down. But rather like that case put forward in the EU referendum, all we really been offered thus far are a collection of vague suggestions that we will trade globally, without any real substance beyond the reassurance Britain will likely reach agreement with those countries easiest to agree with; Australia and Canada.
Such a situation is frightening for a multiplicity of reasons. The first of these is historical. Contrary to May’s assertion, we are very much citizens of the world, with such citizenship being visible through our world-wide assurance of fundamental human rights. We must never forget that such global institutions were built both in a post-war era following the loss of millions of lives and that Britain played no small part in constructing them. Indeed, during this era it was Britain’s Prime Ministers who worked with other world leaders to build a world where together countries could cooperate as defenders of a global community while still protecting their national interests.
It is in this context that our present British government appears particularly out-of-step with its predecessors. Those lessons and institutions of the post-war world, which Britain helped construct, are those which our government appears to be content with undermining. Perhaps May’s anger is sincere. In such a situation, we are seeing the practical ideals behind multi-lateral organisations being dismissed as impractical and utopian, while Her Majesty’s government sails us to the idealistic destination of a free-trading ‘global Britain.’ Or perhaps these sentiments are merely to placate a general disenchantment felt by the British public, in which case our government is promoting the deconstruction of the post-war world without even believing in it.
Yet what should worry us more deeply is the likely reaction of those who identify with British liberalism, whether their inclination is towards the left or right. The easy reaction to May’s proposition is to mount a defence of an idealistic cosmopolitanism which has proved repeatedly impractical in the past. For successful global institutions have been built with a deep understanding of the importance of the national interest in global citizenship. It is simply suicidal for any political leader to promote themselves as one who opposes the national interest, particularly when they must appeal to those voters who have a stake in it.
Most of our international institutions have grown out of a coupling of national interests with those of the wider global community, for in co-operation can be found benefits for all. The European Union, despite being celebrated by federalists, was born and nurtured by practical parents who never lost sight of their respective national interests. As the historian Alan Milward wrote, the EU was there to benefit and promote the welfare of the state, not to end its existence. Integration was to be achieved gradually, where the EU’s beauty could be admired through the tangible benefits of its institutions, not the emotional impact of its anthems.
The knee-jerk liberal reaction would be to defend an impractical cosmopolitanism that never was in the face of an impractical nationalism which very much is. Such a response would be little more than self-defeating, as the idea of global citizenship is removed from any sense of national interest. Theresa May’s statement is a sad indictment on the state of British politics at present. Cosmopolitan liberals must remember that the primary goal of political action is not to make your situation worse.