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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.

Simon Schama

Historian, author and broadcaster

University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and a Contributing Editor of the Financial Times. He is the author of nineteen multi-awarded books, and the writer-presenter of fifty documentaries on art, history and literature for BBC2. His most recent series was Civilizations, a BBC series on world art, which was aired in 2018. His latest book, Wordy. Sounding Off on High Art, Low Appetite and the Power of Memory, was published in May 2019.

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.