Are you local?
Theresa May invoked the ‘spirit of citizenship’ as the thing that holds Britain together today. The term has an ingrained tension: ‘spirit’ invokes a mystic national soul; ‘citizen’ something rational and rules-based. On the one hand, May seemed to suggest the concept was more about rules and moral norms than anything metaphysical, equating the ‘spirit of citizenship’ with paying tax and not being an absolute bastard to your employees:
So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra, a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism, a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust, I’m putting you on a warning. This can’t go on anymore.
People have been calling for curbs on the UK’s tax avoidance archipelagos for years, or at least asking that the UK enforce its own own corruption laws. But May’s speech wasn’t just about tax and employees’ rights; she also seemed to equate the spirit of citizenship with kowtowing to government surveillance, demanding that those ‘household names’ (you know who you are) ‘work with the authorities’.
She complained that:
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.
Evil emanates from ‘out there’, radiating from the ‘international elites’. When Brits behave badly they stop being Brits and become ‘citizens of nowhere’.
But you can criticise, legislate against and arrest money launderers and those who abuse their power without getting into all this national identity stuff. You can use the language of law and justice for that. May’s goal must have been different, to invoke some sort of national spirit exclusive to Britain (or England). The key line might be this: ‘That spirit that means recognising the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ Locals are ‘people’ but foreigners are ‘labour’. Are you local?