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.