How May updated Thatcher’s No Society for a globalized era

Citizens of the world, time to look down

One of the most memorable — and misunderstood — statements in UK political history came from its first female prime minster.

As often recalled, Margaret Thatcher said, ‘there is no such thing as society’.

Actually, the full quote:

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

Still plenty for people to disagree with in the argument, but the point isn’t there’s no such thing as society, rather what (or who?) are the prime movers of change in any society, grouping, country etc, and what’s the best process to instigate change.

Fastforward almost 30 years, and the UK’s second female prime minster Theresa May is stirring up similar sentiments and misunderstanding in a speech talking about the wider-ranging differences in our‘society’, notably citizenship.

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,”

she told the Conservative Party Conference, adding

“You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

And in a one real sense, this is surely true. While people can be citizens of multiple countries, most of us are citizens of just one.

Either way, whether we love or hate the country of our birth or passport, we all belong somewhere.

For, the deeper point of May’s speech seems to be citizenship is a two-way relationship on a local and personal level. Just as we have ties to a place that grants us certain rights, so we have responsibilities to it.

Even those wandering global professors, hedge-fund traders, and international artists and thinkers who have complained about the sentiment, citing their abstract and purer view of their global existence, have a singular point to hang their metaphorical hat (or offshore account).

The issue isn’t really even about where you are a citizen. The issue is so few people — other than the openly nationalistic — seem to take any responsibility for the people who live around them, whether classed as a society or not.

So, coming back to the original quote, the reason you can’t be a global citizen in any real sense of the word is that you can’t effect change on the global level.

To be a citizen is to be part — to be embedded —into everyday life and the everyday lives of those around you; originally of the Greek cities, then the Roman empire, through medieval city states through to the era of countries.

It’s not an attribute you invoke at 30,000 feet.

What Theresa May is saying is that if you care about inequality, you have to get involved with the bottom, or as Mrs Thatcher pointed out the duty — another word that’s fallen out of favour — to look after our neighbours.

Ant those aren’t the people sitting next to you in business class.