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If You Believe You are a Citizen of the World, You are a Citizen of Nowhere

For some, being a citizen of the world is a badge of honour, not shame. But others feel the strongest sense of solidarity with those who share their history, language and common culture.

When Theresa May uttered these words at the Tory party conference in 2016, there was uproar. May was targeting the liberal establishment, who flit business class from Mayfair to Monaco, from Davos to Doha; those in positions of power, who, as May put it, ‘behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road’.

But many people who don’t fit in this frequent flyer category felt under attack too. For this group, believing you are a citizen of the world is a badge of honour, not shame. The cosmopolitan impulse, they believe, isn’t about loyalty to any single community. On the contrary, you can be a citizen of your street, your city, your country and the entire globe. And in our interconnected world, those with a burning concern for global justice, for the environment, for the strife and carnage happening beyond our borders, see themselves as part of humanity at large – as citizens of the world.

But for a different group of people, May’s words resonated deeply. These are the people who feel genuinely rooted in their communities, who feel the strongest sense of solidarity with those who share their history, language and other elements of a common culture. These people often feel sneered at as nationalists or worse, as bigots, by the elites who do not understand their profound intuition that the nation state is the natural expression of group identity.

We were joined by Simon Schama, one of Britain’s most celebrated historians, who embodies the cosmopolitan spirit; Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist and commentator, who calls herself a ‘world citizen and a global soul’; David Goodhart, author of the bestseller The Road To Somewhere; and David Landsman, a former diplomat now in the corporate world. The event was chaired by BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed.



Kamal Ahmed

Journalist, author and former BBC News Editorial Director

Journalist who has been Editorial Director of BBC News and BBC Economics Editor. He has also held senior roles at The Telegraph Group, The Observer and The Guardian. He recently co-founded The News Movement, a start-up dedicated to tackling misinformation. He is the author of The Life and Times of a Very British Man.

David Goodhart

Commentator and author

Founding editor of Prospect magazine who is currently head of the Demography, Immigration and Integration Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange. His recent book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics is one of the most influential post-Brexit analyses and was a Sunday Times top ten bestseller. His previous book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration was runner-up for the Orwell Prize in 2014 and was a finalist for ‘Political Book of the Year’ in the Paddy Power Political Book Awards.

David Landsman

Former diplomat and head of Europe at Tata

Former diplomat who started his FCO career in Greece and ended it there as Ambassador. He also worked in what was still called Yugoslavia, oversaw the end of Libya’s WMD programmes and was Ambassador to Albania. He is currently Europe head of the Indian-headquartered Tata group.

Sir Simon Schama

Award-winning historian and broadcaster, whose latest book is Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations

University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and Contributing Editor of the Financial Times. He previously taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard Universities. He is the author of 19 books, including The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age; Rembrandt's Eyes; A History of Britain trilogy; The American Future: A History, and two volumes of The Story of the Jews. He is the writer-presenter of 60 documentaries on art, history and literature for BBC television including films on Tolstoy, John Donne and Rembrandt as well as multi-part award-winning series including A History of Britain and The Power of Art which won an International Emmy for the film on Bernini.  Most recently his History of Now series aired on BBC2 in November-December 2022.  His art criticism for The New Yorker won the National Magazine Award for criticism in 1996 and he won the NCR prize for non-fiction for Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, the W.H. Smith Literary Award for Landscape and Memory, and the National Book Critics Circle prize for non-fiction for Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. He has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for Literature; the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement; and the Premio Antonio Feltrinelli Prize in historical sciences from the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome.  He has curated exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, collaborated with and contributed to catalogues for shows by Cy Twombly, Alex Katz, Christo and Sally Mann and most recently worked with Cai Guo-Qiang on his Odyssey and Homecoming Retrospective at the Palace Museum, Beijing. His work has been translated into twenty three languages. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations, his twentieth book, is published in May 2023.  

Elif Shafak

Award-winning novelist

Award-winning novelist and the most widely read female writer in Turkey. Shafak is a TED Global speaker, a political scientist, and was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. She campaigns for freedom of speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights and literacy. Her work has been translated into 50 languages and she contributes to the Financial Times, the Guardian, the New York Times and other publications across the world. Shafak taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK.