Citizens of Nowhere

One variant of the internet rule Godwin’s Law states that the first person to invoke Hitler in any debate loses that debate. This rule is based, I suppose, on the premise that all comparisons with so unusual and evil a historical example are necessarily misguided and tenuous.

In which case, we should probably ignore this LBC video…

…yet I think it makes an interesting, if provocative, point. That point is not that the actions or attitudes of the present government are equivalent to the Nazi party; that would be an absurd and insulting claim. Rather, James O’Brien suggests that there are certain worrying correspondences, in their contrast of native citizens with foreign denizens, between the apparent direction of many new government policies and some phrases from Mein Kampf.

Three things occurred to me about this. First, as ‘post-truth politics’ encourages open dishonesty and indulges nationalist prejudices – characteristics of the EU referendum and US election campaigns, and of 1930s Europe – perhaps Godwin’s Law will no longer apply. Perhaps the idea that such a comparison is totally ludicrous will be disproved by events. This is a most worrying thought.

Second, even though we obviously do have to be careful about historical comparisons, and even if we follow Godwin’s Law and discount the Nazis, it’s not exactly hard to find other clear examples that unashamed and aggressive nationalism is a bad historical precedent to follow. Are the government unaware of, or deliberately ignoring, these examples? (I also wonder about their sincerity – do they really believe in these policies or simply want to capitalise on the outcome of the Brexit vote? – and it is frustrating that the slim majority of that vote now apparently dictates all political thought; but such unwieldiness has long been characteristic of British politics).

Third, nationality is a question of privilege, in its original meaning of ‘private law’. Certainly, it is also a question of culture, of language, of attitudes and many other things; but it is the legal dimension which currently exercises our government and their critics. National citizenship grants access to certain permissions and protections. In this sense it is similar to earlier ideas of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’, which – until quite recently – were not understood as universal concepts, but described exclusive privileges connected to a location, class, or profession. Hence you could, and still can, be ‘made free’ of a borough or other organisation.1

This is illustrated nicely by Magna Carta, about which I coincidentally taught a seminar yesterday. This document is much vaunted as a significant guarantor of legal freedom, and indeed it was originally known as the Charter of Liberties; but when it was written the ‘free men’ entitled to these liberties did not include women, peasants, or non-Christians (and in its original purpose as a peace treaty it was a spectacular failure, too).2 Though not along the same lines as the Magna Carta, it seems that a prohibitive and restrictive definition of citizenship is what our government now seeks to reinforce. Yet the dehumanising effects of such actions, and their often terrible consequences, are easily witnessed by the not-too-distant past.

These considerations do, however, offer up a rather ironically positive interpretation of the prime minister’s line that ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’.3 This – as far as I understand it – is precisely the point of the human rights from which the government now wishes to estrange us: a form of citizenship which depends not on your place of birth, or any other contingent factor, but merely on your existence as a human being. A citizenship-of-nowhere which recognises, celebrates, and enshrines our common nature rather than our perceived and peripheral differences. If the UK government is prepared to forget and forego such principles, then I can only hope the rest of us are not.

I will finish this post by quoting from two of my favourite authors, J. B. Priestley and Albert Camus. As well as being extraordinarily gifted writers, Priestley experienced two world wars (as a soldier and a broadcaster), while Camus lost his father to the first war and was a key member of the French resistance in the second. The following words were written during the 1940s; I can’t help but wonder how they would feel about recent events, and I can’t help but conclude that they would find it all depressingly familiar.

‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’4

‘All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.’5

[1] This has been the subject of much discussion, but a good introduction is S. R. Epstein, Freedom and growth: the rise of states and markets in Europe, 1300-1750 (London, 2000).
[2] A short and accessible summary of Magna Carta and its myths is Nicholas Vincent, ‘Introduction’, in Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, eds, Magna Carta: law, liberty, legacy (London, 2015), pp. 13–18.
[3] The full text of Theresa May’s speech is available here.
[4] J. B. Priestley, An inspector calls (London, 1948), p. 48.
[5] Albert Camus, The plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Harmondsworth, 1948), p. 207.


2 thoughts on “Citizens of Nowhere

  1. I think many of us around the world are noting some unsettling echoes from the 1930s. My thoughts on this are random, but I remember reading, in the 1980s, an essay by (I’m sure) A J P Taylor on the Four “Isms”. I haven’t been able to track it down since, but I couldn’t have dreamt it.

    One of those isms was fascism, and he wrote of the significance of blame: when times are tough, identify a group that’s “to blame for it” and turn public opinion against them.

    Another different-but-related factor is what happens in times of rapid economic change to those who are left behind. In the past – and I’m thinking post-Depression 1930s again – different governments/countries have had different approaches. As in, let’s give them a leg up (via the welfare state), or let’s consign them to the scrap heap as collateral damage.

    Sorry – this isn’t as tight (well-documented) as I’d like, but it’s something I haven’t thought about for a long time. However, the international climate at the moment has revived some dying brain cells.

  2. Pingback: Agreements of the People | historywomble

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