The SAS rescue of British citizens? More like corporate citizens

What intrinsic merit does someone who happens to hold a British passport have over a Bangladeshi or

"Who fires wins", proclaimed the Sun. It was a "dramatic rescue", said the Sunday Mirror: "SAS heroes launched a daring mission . . ." For the Express, it was a "desert rescue swoop".

It is hard not to conclude that, all in all, this was a successful media operation as well as a military exercise. Only when the Daily Mail started to howl about British laughing stocks and the Daily Mirror asked, "Is anyone actually in charge?" did David Cameron and Nick Clegg seem to realise that they needed to do something about the headlines - I mean, about British workers in Libya. A quick mention of the SAS on a radio programme did the job: it provided an excuse for pages of waffle about emergency plans, desert encampments, the special forces and rescue missions, all illustrated with sandy-coloured maps containing flashes and bangs and dangerous-looking Arabs. (Never mind that some of this could have jeopardised the rescue.)

The state at your service

The Chinese have evacuated the Chinese, the US has collected the Americans, the Turks have pulled out the Turks, and now the British have rescued the Brits. A happy ending for everyone. Grateful British nationals have appeared on the evening news to praise the soldiers and talk up the ferociously dangerous local militiaman who, apparently gunless, tried to slash the plane tyres with a knife - and our brave boys who shot at him.
Awards and multicoloured computer graphics all round. That just left the Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Thais, Filipinos, West Africans and Bangladeshis, whom nobody had collected.

As Abigail Hauslohner wrote in the 28 February edition of Time magazine:

On Saturday in Benghazi, a lone British diplomat scanned the lines of Chinese and Bangladeshi workers who were queuing in a cold Mediterranean drizzle, amid the overpowering stench of raw sewage, to board two Greek cruise ships that had docked overnight to evacuate more people. Sent by the British embassy in Tripoli, the diplomat said he was scouring the city for British citizens who still needed help. Finding none at the port, he got back into his car and drove off. Later, the ships departed carrying the Chinese workers only; the hundreds of Bangladeshis who
had waited for hours were left behind, many of them in tears.

Some do not even have passports, having had theirs confiscated by their Chinese bosses.

What intrinsic merit does someone who happens to hold a British passport have in this situation over a Bangladeshi or a Guinean? The standard answers are that the British passport entitles the British citizen to protection overseas and that it is the "first duty" of a government to protect its citizens.

But in a globalised world, where people work overseas, flitting from country to country, following contracts, what makes them British citizens? Many don't pay tax in the UK (or in the countries where they work; most of what they earn is paid into offshore bank accounts). Their allegiance to Britain appears to encompass all rights and no duties - the right to rely on the British state in periods of sickness or in old age, the right not to pay tax during their profitable years and then the right to be collected by the navy or the SAS when things go a bit amiss.

This is not citizenship. The motivation of these workers, whether in Libya or Dubai or Hong Kong, is money. This is appropriate in a globalised economic system. Look at the expatriate forums and it is clear that they contribute little to local society; most are concerned with keeping themselves apart from it. Often they take jobs that local people could do with, through no better qualification than that they happen to speak English. The oil industry in Libya has profited shareholders, governments and some oil workers, but not the Libyan people.

The corporations whose needs drive the movement of these workers are also motivated by profit. This sometimes demands that these multinationals impose themselves on new geographic areas, so that their influence and wealth can grow: a process that the sociologist George Ritzer termed "grobalisation".

If those who work for such corporations are citizens of anywhere, they are global corporate citizens. They are not citizens of any nation state (something that is perhaps a rather outdated concept).

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It was appropriate - indeed, right - that BP send planes to Libya to rescue its workers. It was not right to assume that the British government also had a duty to do so.

It isn't as if British embassies overseas are known for their helpfulness towards the ordinary traveller. It's been a while since I was a backpacker but I remember that one of the rules was never to bother asking an embassy for help if you got stuck.

Once, I met a woman who had had drugs planted on her by the Brazilian police: they threw her into a cell, took away her luggage and forced her to pay all her remaining money in a bribe to get out. When she made her way to the British embassy in tears, the staff threw her out. She was rescued by a Brazilian woman who saw her picking up bits of food from the gutter by the market and took her to live in a favela. She stayed with the family for two years.

Today, tourists and travellers take out insurance. Backpackers probably still eat in gutters. Citizens of private corporations, however, have their own state insurance service, with SAS rescue missions and embassy diplomats sent out to look for them and see whether they need any official help. It's a taxpayer-funded insurance system, operating in the interests of global corporations - which is becoming an unhealthily familiar gripe about government in the west.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle