Why Brexit happened and what it means

Yes, I am still pro Remain, and also generally pro immigration, and I am still hoping the Brits take a cue from DeAndre Jordan.  (I also see geopolitics and national security as a significant reason to favor Remain, just ask Putin; furthermore the transition problems are looking worse than many had expected.)  But I am growing distressed by the material I am seeing from the Remain side.  At some point we have to limit our moralizing about the vote and start treating it more like data, if only to figure out how to best overturn or reverse it.

As I interpret what happened, ultimately the vote was about preserving the English nation, and yes I use those last two italicized words deliberately; reread Fintan O’Toole.  Go back and read English history.  For centuries, England has been filled with English people, plus some others from nearby regions.  Go visit Norfolk and also stop in Great Yarmouth, once described by Charles Dickens as “…the finest place in the universe,” and which, for whatever decline it may have experienced, still looks and feels like England.  London does not.

As Zack Beauchamp notes (in a piece which is mostly an example of what I am criticizing): “…the number of foreign-born people living in the UK has gone from 2.3 million in 1993 (when Britain joined the EU) to 8.2 million in 2014.”

In terms of distribution and influence, the impact of those numbers is much larger yet.  London, the cultural center, business center, and political capital of England for many centuries, is now essential a global and indeed foreign city.  I spent almost two weeks in London in 1979, and while I clearly prefer the new version the difference is glaringly obvious to me, as I am sure it is all the more to most English people.  (And that contrast is clearest to the older English of course, and that helps explain one of the most pronounced demographic features of how people voted; it is inappropriate how many Remain supporters are cursing the arguably better informed preferences of the elderly.)

Cities such as Bradford, while still predominantly white, no longer feel as English (and German!) as they once did.  And if you are thinking that voting “Leave” does not at all limit Pakistani immigration, you are truly missing the point; this vote was the one lever the English were given for sending a message to their politicians.

It would be a falsehood and exaggeration to say “Islam is now the major religion of England,” but given low rates of Anglican church attendance, it is not an entirely absurd claim to at least wonder about.  And for better or worse, a lot of people just won’t put up with change that is so rapid and far-reaching.  Believe it or not, they are not persuaded by my “British Muslims must lead the global Islamic Reformation” conviction.

All of this migration has brought a “cultural trauma” arguably more significant than anything for England since the Norman Conquest.  In fact, under a lot of estimates the Norman Conquest was no more than about 10,000 men, relative to an estimated English population of 1.7 million at that time.

Quite simply, the English want England to stay relatively English, and voting Leave was the instrument they were given.  That specific cultural attachment is not for Irish-American me, no, I feel no sentiment, other than perhaps good humor, when someone offers me “a lovely biscuit,” or when a small book shop devotes an entire section to gardening, but yes I do get it at some level.  And some parts of the older England I do truly love and I am talking the Beatles and Monty Python and James Bond here, not just the ancients like Trollope or Edmund Spenser.

Much has been made of the supposed paradox that opposition to immigration is highest where the number of immigrants is lowest.  Yes, some of that is the racism and xenophobia of less cosmopolitan areas, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss it as such or even to mainly frame it as such.  Most of all it is an endowment effect.  Those are the regions which best remember — and indeed still live — some earlier notion of what England was like.  And they wish to hold on to that, albeit with the possibility of continuing evolution along mostly English lines.

One way to understand the English vote is to compare it to other areas, especially with regard to immigration.  If you read Frank Fukuyama, he correctly portrays Japan and Denmark, as, along with England, being the two other truly developed, mature nation states in earlier times, well before the Industrial Revolution.  And what do we see about these countries?  Relative to their other demographics, they are especially opposed to very high levels of immigration.  England, in a sense, was the region “out on a limb,” when it comes to taking in foreigners, and now it has decided to pull back and be more like Denmark and Japan.

The regularity here is that the coherent, longstanding nation states are most protective of their core identities.  Should that come as a huge surprise?  The contrast with Belgium, where I am writing this, is noteworthy.  The actual practical problems with immigration are much greater here in Brussels, but the country is much further from “doing anything about it,” whether prudently or not, and indeed to this day Belgium is not actually a mature nation-state and it may splinter yet.  That England did something is one reflection of the fact that England is a better-run region than Belgium, even if you feel as I do that the vote was a big mistake.

Of course, USA and Canada and a few others are mature nation states based on the very idea of immigration, so they do not face the same dilemma that England does.  By the way, the most English of the colonies — New Zealand — has never been quite as welcoming of foreign immigrants, compared to say Australia.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have much less interest in “the English project” and of course they voted for Remain at high levels; the Welsh are somewhat closer to the English perspective and they had a majority for Leave.  I also would argue that Scotland and Northern Ireland have in fact never been truly coherent nation states, with many of the Irish in chaos for centuries and Scotland piggybacking on a larger Great Britain.  They (correctly) see the EU as a vehicle to attaining greater coherence, and thus it is no surprise that EU membership led to a nearly successful Scottish independence referendum, with perhaps another independence vote to follow.

Adam Ozimek has some good remarks on debating immigration.  Here are some interesting accounts of those who voted Leave.  Note that voting “Leave” may not even end up giving the English/British control over their immigration policies, once a new deal is struck with the EU.

Restoring and maintaining what is English?  “Too little, too late!’ says I, “you should instead find a way of strengthening and redefining English identity under the status quo ex ante,” I might have added, but of course I was not given the deciding vote or indeed any vote at all.

Most of all, I conclude that the desire to preserve the English nation [sic] as English is stronger than I or indeed most others had thought.  There is a positive side to that.  And if all along you thought there was no case for Leave, probably it is you who is the provincial one.


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