Theresa May has sparked a powerful debate about national and personal identity by criticising the term "citizen of the world." 

Closing this week’s Conservative Party Conference, the UK Prime Minister promised to build a “country that works for everyone.” Spelling out the United Kingdom’s future under her leadership, she shared her vision of a country held together by a sense of collective responsibility – a fair society where power and opportunity do not just rest “in the hands of a privileged few” but where every citizen has the chance to live a fulfilling life. 

Challenging the vast inequality between rich and poor, between the powerful “elite” and ordinary people who feel they have no say in the system, May reminded her audience of the importance of one key word: “citizenship.” 

“But we also value something else: the spirit of citizenship.”

"That spirit that means you respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work. That means a commitment to the men and women who live around you, who work for you, who buy the goods and services you sell.” 

“But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.”

“But 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.” 

The idea that that the freedom to live as a “Global Citizen” is a privilege, exclusive to an international wealthy elite, is a common critique.

But we question the assumption that only the rich and powerful can embrace a global identity.

A 2016 poll conducted by the BBC revealed that more and more people identify first and foremost as Global Citizens — and this was most pronounced in emerging economies, rather than the world's wealthiest nations. 

May is right to challenge those who pursue personal profit with no sense of social responsibility. It’s become a cliché to condemn the “metropolitan elite,” but scandals like the Panama Papers reveal the extent of tax avoidance amongst some of the world’s wealthiest individuals and corporations. It is vital that we challenge those who use their privilege to hide money across borders, exploiting the mobility of globalisation for personal gain. The gross injustice of tax avoidance hits the poorest the hardest – tax havens cost poor countries at least $170 billion in lost tax revenues each year.

But a person who identifies as a citizen of the world does not deny their responsibility for society – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

In an increasingly connected world, local needs are intertwined with global needs. We are in the midst of serious challenges that threaten the whole world, and which require collective responsibility: climate change, extreme poverty, and the refugee crisis. Being a citizen of the world means acknowledging that we each have a part to play in solving these urgent global problems. 

And in a world where 24 people are forced to flee their home each minute, the idea of a fixed national identity is sadly a privilege not all humans can claim. Where do you belong when your country is no longer your own? The tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is a moving reminder of the need to look beyond borders. We need an inclusive identity for all the world’s displaced people – one that encompasses our responsibility for each other, wherever we call home. Whether you’re a founder of a multimillion-dollar business, a Prime Minister, or a refugee with nothing but a mobile phone and the clothes on your back, you can be a Global Citizen. 

May’s government has insisted that a post-Brexit Britain will be a Global Britain, promising to continue its commitment to the world’s poorest, uphold its responsibility for the planet, and provide humanitarian assistance for refugees in need. 

These are noble aims that we fully support. As the country begins to reshape its place in the world, we will continue to work to make sure the UK government fulfils its promises to the most vulnerable. The very notion of a global Britain implies you can be passionate about your country and passionate about your role in the rest of the world too; that you can be both a British citizen, and a citizen of the world. 

That’s what it means to be a Global Citizen – to look beyond borders and not only imagine a country that works for everyone, but a whole world. 

In the words of Global Citizen's founder and CEO Hugh Evans:

"For young people everywhere, as well as for billions across the developing world, there is no yearning for a more insular past. Instead, we face an ever more interconnected future determined to make it work for more than the elite few who have so far been globalization’s champions and primary beneficiaries."


Demand Equity

In Defence of Global Citizenship: A Response to Theresa May

By Yosola Olorunshola