Constructing nationhood: “Citizens of nowhere” vs “#WeAreScotland”

By Anne Templeton and Sara Vestergren.

At the Conservative Party conference, in a bid to persuade employers to prioritise hiring British workers, Home Secretary Amber Rudd advised that changes were needed to stop non-British citizens from potentially “taking jobs that British people should do”. She made clear that “British” workers were entitled to British jobs, and rendered anyone who was not a “British” citizen as taking the jobs from rightfully owed “British” people. Similarly, British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowed the criteria for being “British” to exclude anyone who did not prioritise their British identity first, by declaring “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.

Conversely, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cast an open net to incorporate all people within Scotland as part of the nation. In July she stated “Whether we have lived here for generations, or are new Scots from Europe, India, Pakistan, Africa and countries across the globe we are all of this and more. We are so much stronger for the diversity that shapes us. We are one Scotland”, and after Rudd and May’s statements she tweeted “In Scotland, it’s not where you come from that matters, but where we choose to go together as a nation. Diversity is strength #WeAreScotland”. The statements by Rudd and May in comparison to Sturgeon portray two very different conceptualisations of nationhood.[1] We argue that these constructions of nationhood can be used to mobilise actions which either empower behaviour against those defined as non-British citizens by May, or encourage support for those defined as Scottish by Sturgeon.

In unpacking the implications of these statements we draw upon two theories: Social Identity Theory (SIT), and Self-Categorisation Theory (SCT). The theories demonstrate how we perceive ourselves in terms of our group memberships and place people into social groups, as ingroup members (like “us”) and outgroup members (the “others”), with each group having set norms of acceptable and legitimate beliefs and behaviours. Before continuing it is worth noting that, in fact, most ingroup – outgroup relations are positive, and we enjoy them daily, such as supporters of competing sports teams coming together in a stadium to cheer for their teams. However, as we will discuss, certain categorisation and the content of those categories can lead to negative consequences such as prejudiced behaviour.

A plethora of research in social psychology has shown that we are more likely to help and support ingroup members than outgroup members, and that group norms can define violence towards other groups as legitimate or illegitimate depending on the context. The example of Bulgarians coming together to stop the deportation of Jews in WW2 shows the importance and implications of categorisation and group norms on a national level. In this instance, Bulgarians came together to provide life-saving help to Jewish people. Helping them was seen as part of the Bulgarian identity, and because Jews were defined as part of the Bulgarian ingroup, it was believed that persecuting Jews would harm the ingroup overall.

Further, the definition of who is ingroup or outgroup and associated norms can be changed in order to mobilise particular actions. A crucial part of Hitler’s leadership involved redefining the group norms of being “German” in the post-WW1 economic turmoil of Germany. Hitler reconstructed “German nationality”, and provided particular group norms to fit this ingroup; being hard-working and making Germany great again. Moreover, he blamed Jews (outgroup) for the “Germans’” (ingroup) hardships; such outgrouping can lead to dehumanisation, and we have seen the fatal consequences this had for Jews and those who helped them (seen as “non-German”) under Hitler’s definition of German nationality.

The implications of constructing ingroup and outgroup categories to guide particular behaviours have important resonance with the words Rudd, May, and Sturgeon use to conceptualise nationality. First, we turn our focus to how the ingroup is defined, and secondly to the norms associated with that group. In her speech, Rudd claimed, “the [visa] test should ensure that people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs that British people could do”. In this short excerpt, Rudd deftly creates a divide between the “British people”, portrayed as having a legitimate claim to jobs in “their” country, and non-Brits illegitimately coming from “outside”. Here, Rudd draws the ingroup boundary of being “British” as anyone born in Britain rather than anyone who is a resident in Britain, and she, opposes them to humans who were born elsewhere (the outgroup). Moreover, she draws upon the misconception that British people can’t get jobs because migrants are taking them, a myth perpetuated in the media as opposed to citing large cuts in various public sectors. However, Rudd does not directly blame migrants for British unemployment rates. Instead, she legitimises the belief that unemployment could be due to migrants by focussing on a potential gap in the labour market if migrants get priority over Brits. By doing this, she legitimises a norm of hostility towards the outgroup by rendering the ingroup as disadvantaged and wanting work, openly blaming these hardships on the migrants, thereby implying a norm that it is okay for fellow Brits to do the same.

While Rudd placed “Brits” and “non-Brits” in two opposing categories, May narrowed the content for the ingroup category further: “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. May positions anyone who was born abroad as an outgroup member. Perhaps particularly dangerously, her words create a situation where anyone who does not prioritise their British identity falls outside of the group norm, thus making them “non-British” themselves. Thereby, Rudd created the norm of hostility towards members of the outgroup category by blaming them for the gap in the labour marker, and May defined the content of the category. The message was clear: if you support non-British workers, then you are ostracised from our group of Brits.

May’s strict criterion dictates that if someone wants to be an ingroup member and be heard, they must identify and agree with the ingroup policy. Media, with headlines such as “Brits back Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s foreign worker curbs plan”, is painting a picture of most people (59%) agreeing with these policies, using a recent YouGov poll. However, the poll was asking if public want companies to release foreign worker numbers, and did not capture all content in the foreign worker plan such as prioritising British workers, and penalties for companies not prioritising British workers. Regardless, the reporting of this poll could justify and empower those already hostile, as beliefs that others share your views of an outgroup can enable and empower violence towards them. Equally dangerous, it sends a false message that the majority agrees with Rudd and May, leaving little room for non-conforming, and consequences for non-conforming have been made clear by May herself: you become “non-British”.

Rudd and May’s words indicate how “nationality” can be constructed and used as a political tool to divide people in a country and scapegoat a group for hardships. In comparison, by positioning everyone within Scotland as being in the same category, with a shared goal of deciding Scotland’s future, highlighting the importance of diversity and emphasising the benefits for everyone of having an all-encompassing group identity, Sturgeon creates a different concept of nationhood. Sturgeon conceptualises a nationhood that renders group norms of inclusivity and working together for mutual benefit. In comparison to May’s nationhood, which includes those who were born in Britain and agree with putting Britain first, Sturgeon defines nationhood as being made by all living there, therefore creating national group norms of support and reciprocity.

The words of Rudd, May, and Sturgeon may seem like mere political rhetoric, but as outlined above, these words can have severe consequences for how groups are treated, and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance recently highlighted the link between politicians’ speeches and rise in racist and religious attacks. On the one hand, Rudd and May construct a definition of nationhood where if people want to be British then they must be born within Britain and agree with putting Brits first, which could motivate negative behaviour towards non-Brits seen as illegitimately taking jobs from “legitimate” Brits. On the other hand, while Sturgeon also emphasises putting certain people first based on nationality, she creates a definition of nationhood that incorporates everyone living in Scotland. By doing this, Sturgeon’s categorisation of nationhood emphasises the mutual benefit of working together, thus fostering positive actions. The words used by Rudd, May, and Sturgeon demonstrate how group boundaries and norms can be reconceptualised to have vastly different outcomes. They serve as a reminder that while this may appear to be superficial political rhetoric, the consequences on behaviour are much deeper.


[1]For more on nationhood and national identities, see: Reicher, S., & Hopkins, N. (2001). Self and Nation: Categorization, Contestation and Mobilization. London: Sage

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