Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Citizens of Everywhere

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th November, 2020

At the Conservative Party conference in October 2016, in the wake of the EU Referendum, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, spoke derisively of “citizens of nowhere” — people who had unpatriotically abandoned their native attachment to Britain in favour of a European or even global identity. It is one of the few phrases for which Mrs May is likely to be remembered, and I doubt whether history will look on it kindly. Like Brexit, it represented a giant step backwards, away from internationalism and the values at the heart of the European project. For many Remainers, the intervening four years have been painful and even some arch-Brexiteers have, where possible, applied for a passport of an EU member state, having realised that they had curtailed their own freedom of movement. The Johnson government — personified in the smirking Home Secretary, Priti Patel — now trumpets with pride the fact that it has ended freedom of movement. As British exceptionalists, they could not bear the idea that any European had the automatic right to come to Britain if they wished. And for lots of their voters in Brexit Britain, free access to the Continent was never a high priority.

Living in Paris

For the Paris-based British journalist, Peter Gumbel, Brexit has made him feel like an orphan, abandoned by the Britain that he thought he knew. That sense of alienation is all the more acute because his Jewish grandparents had fled Germany shortly before the War, having their citizenship and most of their property stripped from them in the process. The family assimilated into the British way of life. But as Gumbel recounts in his rather moving short book, Citizens of Everywhere: Searching for Identity in the Age of Brexit (Haus, £7.99), the atmosphere around Brexit prompted him to claim the German citizenship that he was entitled to as a descendant of Jews whose citizenship had been removed. Moreover, he had come to understand that whereas Britain had been the open nation fighting against Nazi Germany, today’s Germany better represents the ideals and values previously cherished by Britain. Reconnecting with the German part of his identity actually started when he was younger, learning the language and then reveling in its literature, not least writers like Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig who went into exile to get away from the Third Reich. As a foreign correspondent for much of his life, Peter Gumbel also experienced some of the great events of the late 20th Century, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union — positive trends against which Brexit has established an unwelcome counteraction. By analysing both his particular personal circumstances and wider aspects of identity, the author has provided an eloquent and thought-provoking thesis that will resonate with many Brits who feel equally alienated by Brexit. As a Citizen of Everywhere, he is far from being alone.

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