“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” — Leddy-Owen on #GE2017

This quote, delivered by current Prime Minister Theresa May nearly exactly one year ago during her first Conservative Party speech, depicts a confident politician at the height of her political powers.

Then how come her party lost the parliamentary majority during the General Elections 2017?

Reflections on #GE2017 — Thursday 5 October, 2017

Charlie Leddy-Owen, Sociology Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, has given an interesting insight into this topic and its implications for British society as part of a recent event held at the university called “Reflections on #GE2017”.

According to Leddy-Owen, “the idea was that Leave voters who hadn’t voted Tory in 2015 some of who might previously have voted UKIP, some of who might previously have voted Labour, would switch en masse to the Conservative Party along with some hitherto Remainers who accepted the result of the referendum.” Along observers, there were even claims of May remaining PM “for as long or longer than Thatcher or Blair”. However, that is not quite how things unfolded, as the election resulted in the Tories losing their small parliamentary majority, leaving them to partner up with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party (DUP).

The reasons for this massive miscalculation, as Leddy-Owen suggests, was “to believe that the people anxious about this nationalist shift [in the Tory government] […] are what the commentator David Goodhart has termed ‘anywheres’ rather than ‘somewheres’”. This attitude might, in fact, have helped the backlash against this kind of attitude from politicians, as people’s everyday life experiences beg to differ greatly from being thought of as a nationalist Britain. Rather, Leddy-Owen claims that “studies suggest that there are increasingly large numbers of people in Britain who do not consider their supposed national identity to be very important to them, and who are especially critical of the kind of parochial, nasty English nationalism […] paraded around […] by politicians like Theresa May since Brexit”.

Leddy-Owen believes that those who are anxious about recent nationalist movements are perceived to be “weak, rootless cosmopolitans… [and] self-hating nationals denying their birth-right.” However, those hesitant to succumb to nationalist extremes draw their ideologies from equally reputable philosophies, and ideologies like “universalism, liberalism or socialism” that back-date nationalism significantly. We are not the young undermining the old, we are the educated, “work[ing] out the best ways to build bridges.”

“Britain, and England especially, is and always has been an immigrant, mongrel society.” Leddy-Owen levels the playing field, challenging what current citizens may believe about Britain’s history. Yes, there were the triumphs of “abolishing slavery and winning World War II,” but “Britain’s history isn’t a march of progress to be celebrated… it was far more ambivalent, violent and dark.”

Brexit led to a“spike in hate crimes and the general, renewed confidence of the nationalist right,” said Leddy-Owen. However, “the real irony here is that, in contrast, millions of Leave voters (4 million Leave voters YouGov have estimated) didn’t vote for anyone in General Election 2017; they didn’t come out to vote at all. When their great leader needed them the most, these ‘patriotic citizens’ of Britain, these supposed citizens of somewhere, failed to fulfil one of the core, most basic duties of citizenship by voting in their nation’s General Election.

I’m tempted to rewrite May’s phrase and suggest that these English nationalists are the real citizens of nowhere.”

How should we respond to the negative effects of historical and current nationalism? We must carry the hope of a brighter future, by educating ourselves “in terms of understanding all of these issues. Through understanding we can work out the best ways to build bridges across these political divides, though also of course, if necessary, the times when it might be most appropriate to build barricades.”

By Pia Ewers and Abi Thompson (Level 5 students @ University of Portsmouth)

Abi Thompson
Pia Ewers

This post follows a recent event held at the University of Portsmouth, Reflections on #GE2017. In this roundtable members from the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies reflected on the historic results from the 2017 general election and what this means for British democracy.