One way to think about recent British policy—from the EU to immigration to the economy—is as a project to turn the UK into Greater London. Powered by its international financial sector, London is tied to Europe (and the broader global elite) by law, immigration, and culture. Trying to get as much of the UK as possible to like this arrangement has a certain logic: London is prosperous, while much of the rest of the country has decayed economically and frayed socially; the tolerance and cultural exchange that characterize elite London are something in which all Brits should take pride. But clearly the rest of the UK isn’t buying this project.
The Brexit vote divided the United Kingdom into two camps—but not those of the traditional left/right divide. A coalition of older citizens in the shires and white lower/working-class voters in England faced off against university-educated cosmopolitans in London (particularly the younger set), Scots, and immigrants. And the referendum became a proxy vote for issues that did not have much to do directly with the European Union; the most significant focus (but by no means only one) was immigration.
Remainers have been only too happy to tell you that most of Britain’s immigrants neither come from the EU nor come as a result of the EU. These facts were offered as proof of both the ignorance and racism of the Leave camp and the inherent moral superiority of their own.
But the Brexiteers, sensing that the political ground had shifted, were only too happy to join the fight on those terms. There were two distinct Brexit campaigns: a more respectable, free-market oriented, official “Vote Leave” campaign backed by Boris Johnson, and the Nigel Farage-backed Leave.eu group, which was more nationalist, populist, and rough-edged. In different ways, both of the Brexit campaigns highlighted the fact that an unprecedented, largely undiscussed wave of immigration was rolling over the UK. This message clearly resonated with voters.
As Benjamin Schwartz wrote this winter in the American Conservative:
[H]istorically England never resembled the sort of 1900-Lower-East-Side-writ-large of multiculturalist fantasy. In fact, Britain today receives more immigrants in a single year than it did in the entire period from 1066 to 1950. Over those nearly thousand years, the country took in two sizable influxes, each spread over a lengthy period of time and each, even given England’s far smaller population during those times, on an incomparably tinier scale than the post-1997 immigration wave. Some 50,000 Huguenot refugees arrived in two phases, the first in the 1500s and the second in the 1600s. And some 200,000 Jews came—one stream of about 150,000 fleeing Tsarist persecution from the years 1881 to 1914, and then another, of about 50,000, fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Today, per Conrad Hackett of Pew, Britain has the fifth-largest population of foreign-born residents in the world.
The one exception to this historical lack of immigration into England has been among the cultural elite settled in and around London, where a small, well-educated émigré population, from George Frideric Handel to Karl Marx, indeed made momentous contributions to British culture. But the current pace of immigration and assimilation not only falls outside any experience for the vast majority of Brits today; it’s historically unprecedented as well. Not even something as momentous as the Norman Invasion seems to have made as significant a demographic change.
Even in the United States, the assimilation of immigrants was much more difficult than popular imagination (aided by a forty-year mid-century pause in immigration) would have it. In Britain and in Europe more broadly, the mass immigration of the past few decades, and particularly in the past few years, is without precedent. UK leaders failed to do the hard work of building a broad-based consensus for the policies they were rolling out. When challenged, these same leaders often fell back to a posture of self-righteousness. (Consider the episode in which Gordon Brown referred to a life-long Labour voter who asked him a question about immigration levels as that “bigoted woman.”)
Meanwhile, through their repeated mismanagement of one crisis after another, both British and EU leaders have lost the benefit of the doubt. In Britain, the century since World War I has, as Walter Russell Mead wrote recently, been one long record of elite failure and decline. And across the Channel, Europe’s leadership has botched the euro and the migrant/refugee wave, while overseeing the general economic and geopolitical stagnation of the Continent. (It is notable that of these crises, it is not the one the elites were most worried about—monetary policy—but rather the one that struck at national and community identity concerns—mass immigration—that has caused the most serious ruptures.) The mandarins in Brussels and the Chancellor in Berlin have repeatedly vowed reform, and regularly failed to deliver real change. Is it any wonder that promises that this time would be different if only Britain stayed in largely fell on deaf ears?
Britain, the European Union, and the United States are in a much weaker state today than they were a week ago. At the same time, we must remember that Brexit has merely revealed the depth of problems, not caused them. Britain’s elites have been governing a country they wished they had rather than the one they have. They fudged the half-hearted renegotiation effort with Brussels and were struck dumb when the voters threw the whole European project back in their faces.
From Twitter to the editorial pages, the unexpected “Leave” vote has inspired a(nother) round of cathartic shaming of the ignorant by their betters. I would suggest another way of reading the class and education splits from this referendum: the British working man clearly does not feel that the country’s policies have been doing him any good. If their revolt has been somewhat inchoate and rough around the edges, that was the inevitable consequence of a divide so deep that almost everyone with an education was on the other side. But widespread rejection of elite policies by the less-advantaged is hardly something that should be taken as evidence of elite enlightenment. If the elite wants to be trusted with what is going to be a long and difficult rebuild, it needs to think clearly—and publicly—about why the rest of the country parted so sharply, so disastrously with its preferred course (and the answer must go beyond “racism!”). The rest of the West would do well to ponder the question too.