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The local and the global cannot be separated

12 January 2017

The PM’s criticism of ‘global citizens’ does not provide an excuse to neglect people beyond our borders, argues Rowan Williams

“THE year is going, let him go,” Tennyson wrote in In Memoriam. Many will have echoed those words as 2016 ended. Whatever their place on the political spectrum, they will have been through a year of exceptional upheaval in public life, nationally and internationally — and most of us do not relish quite such an eventful programme.

The arguments of the past year have revealed, here and in the United States, a disturbing level of dividedness in society. There has been a revolt against a certain kind of internationalist vision, a deep anger about the neglect of the local needs, and of fears that are most immediate to people outside the circle of decision-makers and opinion-formers — the neglect of the voice of those who are made to feel superfluous in the new world of the global economy. Much of the most animated and often embittered argument has been about national boundaries and the claims of migrants.

Boundaries no longer feel safe. There is a growing sense that extreme terrorist violence can reach directly into our neighbourhoods; global economic instability is seen to have a direct impact on jobs and incomes on the doorstep.

And the Prime Minister’s remarks in September, at the Conservative Party conference, about the impossibility of being a “global citizen”, crystallised some of this resentment. To be a citizen, Mrs May insisted, is to be committed to making this specific local community work; and for this you need clear, unambiguous, local, and historical loyalties.

Part of the attack was directed against an international elite of the super-wealthy, whose global citizenship seems most apparent in their reluctance to pay taxes in any of the societies whose members actually create their wealth.

But the speech was also taken by some to be a comment on how we respond to needs beyond our national boundaries — including the needs of those who have felt driven from their own homes, the tens of millions for whom extreme local violence or catastrophe have made those homelands terrifyingly unsafe, who will take whatever risks, and spend whatever resources they can, to find a safer place for their families’ future.

These are not people aspiring to be “global citizens”. They want to belong and to contribute, either in their host country, or in their home country when peace is restored. Rootless and irresponsible mobility is exactly not what they are seeking.


AND yet, in the past few months, there has been another round of controversy about the admission of refugees. The courageous adoption of the “Dubs Amendment” to the Immigration Act, which opened the door to a wider category of child refugees, was overshadowed by loudly expressed scepticism about the ages of some of those admitted.

About 1000 unaccompanied children have proved to be untraceable in the aftermath of the demolition of the Calais “Jungle”. And then the programme designed to help such vulnerable children was halted. Months of delay, indeed of what seems like institutional paralysis and confusion on both sides of the Channel, have led to the kind of result that has been widely predicted — more missing children and teenagers, more frustrated and desperate people.

The question is not, however, just about the hopes and thoughts of individual migrants. Mrs May is entirely right to say that citizenship means a solid commitment to making specific communities work. But the truth is that this is a world where making those local communities work is bound up with global issues. No significant crisis of our time can be dealt with by the action of one nation alone.

Environmental risk and degradation, health threats, violence, and terror — all these are challenges that do not stop at national boundaries. They need generous co-operation: a willingness to share control and yield some aspects of absolute national liberty to achieve a really effective response.

Ignoring or minimising the questions around displaced people does not make them go away. And, if we do not have a clear commitment to dealing with the root causes of displacement in their home countries, if we are not committed to helping them develop secure civil space, political justice, and stability, and a properly sustainable and self-supporting economic life, we have no right to be surprised when the waves of unrest and frustrated hope wash against our shores with increasing force.


IT DOES no harm to be reminded that no one learns anything about love for humanity without learning it in the context of particular and local loyalties. The crucial discovery is when we realise that the true and best interest of our immediate neighbours (never mind ours) is closely bound in with the well-being of those further away, and that the challenges that face apparently distant societies are not separable from our own.

Either we learn to act together more effectively, or we condemn ourselves to greater levels of anxiety and denial. Language about being a “citizen of the world” may be used to cloak selfish and irresponsible patterns of activity, not least in the world of transnational elites. But it would be a tragedy if we imagined that this justified us in forgetting the ideals of universal dignity and universal responsibility which have helped to identify and combat many atrocities and abuses in the past few decades.

With Tennyson in mind again, perhaps these ideals should be what we hope to “ring in” again this year:


Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.


The Rt Revd Lord Williams is the Master of Magdalene, Cambridge, and chairs Christian Aid’s board.

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