National identity and belonging: what does it mean to be a citizen?

Battle of Ideas festival 2018, Saturday 13 October, Barbican, London.


Recently, Britain stripped Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elshiekh, the two remaining members of a notorious ISIS cell nicknamed ‘The Beatles’, of their British citizenship and the authorities are not expected to try to bring them to the UK to stand trial. The alleged hostage-killers from London, who were captured in Syria this summer, were aggrieved that they had lost their right to a UK passport, denouncing the government’s decision as ‘illegal’ and exposing the pair to ‘rendition and torture’.

This is just one of several recent issues that have highlighted questions of citizenship, from the ‘Windrush scandal’ – in which people who had arrived in Britain from the Caribbean 50 years ago were suddenly told they did not have rights as British citizens – to the ongoing negotiations over free movement and the future rights of people who came to the UK as EU citizens. Some opponents of Brexit have expressed a hope that individual UK citizens might choose to retain ‘EU citizenship’, but it is not clear what this would mean in practice. Would it effectively be a glorified work permit – bought for a fee – or something more symbolic, the Remainer’s version of the much-mocked blue British passport that was said to motivate Leavers?

In some respects, we are seeing a clash between a cosmopolitan view of citizenship and a national one. For example, critics of populism – often supporters of the EU and free movement – frequently assert that citizens and ‘foreigners’ should enjoy the same privileges. This seems to be based on the belief that the exclusion of non-citizens from welfare rights or electoral franchise, for instance, is similar to discriminating against someone on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. When Theresa May declared that people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ don’t know the meaning of citizenship and are in fact ‘citizens of nowhere’, she caused outcry. Many interpreted this as a post-Brexit return to patriotic xenophobia, and responded by reasserting their desire to be world citizens or, indeed, ‘citizens of nowhere’.

But what can citizenship mean if it is divorced from place and detached from any special rights and duties? How can democratic decision-making work unless citizens interact with one another within a geographically bounded entity? As political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued: ‘Nobody can be a citizen of the world as he is the citizen of his country… A citizen is by definition a citizen among citizens in a country among countries. His rights and duties must be defined and limited, not only by those of his fellow citizens, but also by the boundaries of a territory… laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality.’

Some argue that national citizenship is the mechanism that allows citizens to forge bonds and allows a sense of solidarity to develop, essential for taking responsibility for the future of their society. But if one side argues that, despite differences, citizens are bound by a deep sense of commonality, others worry that this privileges those who share a culture and history at the expense of new cultural identities.

So, does citizenship by definition demarcate as well as unify? Is citizenship ultimately necessary, or is it a relic of a less-connected world? Is citizenship more robust when based on an American-style civic ideal to which anyone can subscribe to? Should we understand citizenship primarily as a practical matter of rights and responsibilities, or as a more elevated matter of identity and allegiance?

Kate Andrews
associate director, Institute of Economic Affairs; columnist, City A.M.

Mihir Bose
award-winning journalist; author, Lion and Lamb: a portrait of British moral duality

Jacob Mchangama
executive director, Justitia, a Copenhagen based human-rights think tank; host and narrator, Clear and Present Danger: a history of free speech podcast

Dr James Panton
head of upper sixth and head of politics, Magdalen College School; associate professor of philosophy, Open University; co-editor, From Self to Selfie: a critique of contemporary forms of alienation

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination