Whose citizenship is it anyway?

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It fills me with a deep sense of personal dread to start the new blog section of this website with a quote from Theresa May, but here it is: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world”, she told this year’s Tory conference, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

I could spend some serious time on Ms. May’s belief in herself as Prime Minister and apparent misunderstanding of what the word ‘elected’ means, but there is something else so powerful in her words that it top-trumps even democracy.

Invoking no less than Socrates (vs. May – a real battle of the heavyweights), who said ‘I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world’, the People’s Prime Minister posed a testing, and I think intended to be rhetorical question, the unexpected response to which inadvertently exposes it as the very eye of the post-Brexit sh*tstorm in which we find ourselves.

What does it mean to be a citizen? What is citizenship? And – given the inference that there’s room for misunderstanding – who gets to decide who’s right?

Those questions reminded me of some work I’ve done recently for the Heritage Lottery Fund, working with the RSA, where we explored similar ideas around heritage, and considered how we can determine a definition when something is inherently ubiquitous. So often with ubiquity, there is someone ready to make a claim on it – in the case of heritage, there’s the classic example of people’s candle-lit vigils outside old buildings whilst some councils and private developers have other ideas, but – in heritage and other sectors – there’s also challenging questions to be asked about the layer of professionals who can sometimes see themselves as having ownership of the agendas in question. In our work with HLF, we advocate for the role of the ‘heritage citizen’, of starting with people – and it’s a theme that’s picked up in a whole swathe of other initiatives including the RSA’s Citizen’s Economic Council.

Opening the recent Project for Public Spaces (PPS) conference in Vancouver a few weeks ago, Fred Kent, the founder and Chair of PPS said: ‘When you start with place, you do everything differently’. But for me, when you start with people you do everything differently. People are the new place. Citizenship is the new place-making.

It is no accident that I chose the name ‘Citizen-I’ for my business. There is something of the linguist in me which finds it hard to understand the word city in isolation from the word citizen; one cannot exist without the other. Much of my thinking at the moment is around citizen-led innovation, and people as innovators. In that way, I am very happy, thank you Ms May, with my understanding of ‘citizenship’.

But my thinking was tested again this week during a conversation with an American colleague, whose work I greatly respect and admire. She challenged my use of the word, and said that ‘citizen’ is so loaded post-Brexit and in the midst of a global crisis of ‘stateless’ refugees, and furthermore that, particularly in the US, ‘citizenship’ is so inextricably associated with borders and exclusion as to render it redundant, and even unusable in the terms in which I was using it.

Staggered by this response to an application of a word that I had taken as universal (at least in my echo-chamber), but acknowledging the strength of the current argument against its use, I retreated a little, but on reflection it strikes me that its definition – or redefinition – is in our own hands; we can choose – as citizens – to understand ‘citizenship’ as something that you apply for, which is bestowed upon you – or instead as something which is driven by the individual and which comes from a very personal sense of agency, purpose and contribution.

I am unashamedly obsessed with words, but this is far, far more than mere lexicon. We are at a pivotal point in time where citizens are critical drivers to the success and sustainability of advancing agendas such as devolution and public service reform, and to how much they achieve, and to addressing global issues like climate change, which have zero respect for borders and customs forms. Citizenship – in all of its ubiquitous, untamed glory – is a route – and perhaps the route – to a new social and economic system which is founded on equality, equity and social justice.

I’m with Socrates.