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‘If you are a citizen of the world,’ Theresa May said in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference today, ‘you are a citizen of nowhere’. Many British people are certainly feeling like citizens of nowhere, as the country they thought was theirs seems to be dominated by an increasingly alien rhetoric of far-right nationalism.
As an historian, I am keenly aware that the nation state is a creation of the early modern period that evolved slowly between c. 1500 and c. 1800; there was a time before nation states, so there seems no prima facie reason why there should not be a time after them. Indeed, we thought we had seen the final, supremely grotesque form of the European nation state in the Fascist regimes of the 1930s; the post-war period saw the diminution of the nation state across Europe in the artificial partition of Germany, the absorption of Eastern European states into the Soviet bloc, growing self-consciousness of national minorities in Spain and the UK and – of course – in the development of the European Union. The fall of the Iron Curtain, the advent of economic globalisation and the rise of technologies that make national borders increasingly meaningless all led us to the inexorable conclusion that the nation state would give way to more meaningful supra-national entities.
But the wounded beast that is the nation state still has the capacity to evolve, it seems, into a final threadbare parody of itself in the form of Brexit Britain – the nation that chose to opt out of the world’s largest progressive peace project, a project that so many European countries have yearned and worked earnestly to be part of. The roots of Brexit run deep indeed in English history – no phrase, perhaps, better sums up the foundations of Vote Leave’s mentality than the famous claim in Henry VIII’s Statute in Restraint of Appeals of 1533: ‘This Realm of England is an Empire…’ In the context of the time, this did not mean that England was in possession of colonial possessions, but rather that the English monarch was sovereign without any qualification and therefore subject to God alone; but the rhetoric of empire soon translated into practical colonialism, as Henry assumed the title of ‘King of Ireland’ in 1541. Likewise, the new conception of absolute sovereignty allowed Henry to invade people’s personal spiritual lives and even enact some of the world’s first laws against ‘thought crime’.
The Government’s belief that it has the right to impose Brexit and its consequences on subject nations and colonies who rejected it at the ballot box – Scotland, the north of Ireland and Gibraltar – is rooted in the conviction that the coercively centralist ‘empire’ of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more important than any supra-national federal entity that operates by the mutual consent of its members. Ruth Davidson made this plain in the Scottish Parliament’s debate immediately after the referendum vote when she claimed that Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom mattered more than its membership of the European Union – in spite of the fact that Holyrood is ultimately subject to Westminster, while the member nations of the EU enjoy equality in sovereignty and decision-making.
I wrote before the referendum about the collision between Henry VIII’s conception of the nation state and Thomas More’s rejection of Henry’s absolute sovereignty at his trial in 1535. When More declared, ‘I do not think my self bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom’, he was not completely rejecting the nation state; rather, he was asserting that nations were equal partners within the spiritual unity of Catholic Europe, each one perhaps observing the Catholic faith with its own particular flavour and emphases. But all considered themselves part of a greater whole, defined by loyalty to a commonly understood tradition rather than by coercive, legislatively constructed yet tyrannical authority. Between Henry and More there could be no meeting of minds: More’s trial represented the parting of the ways between More’s Catholic England, an active participant in the fervid, borderless intellectual exchange of Renaissance Christendom, and a Protestant England with its eyes fixed on the ‘imperial’ destiny that would give birth to an oppressive colonial power.
No-one seems to have noticed that the Prime Minister’s controversial comment turns out to be an unintended pun on the best-known of Thomas More’s works – Utopia – whose transliterated Greek title is deliberately ambiguous; does it mean eutopia, ‘a good place’, or outopia, ‘no place’ – or both? A citizen of the world may indeed be a citizen of outopia, in a world where universal peace and justice seem as far away as they did in the sixteenth century; yet a citizen of the world is also a citizen of a better place – a eutopia – than a nation state set on a path towards historical irrelevance. I for one am content to be a citizen of Utopia.