Like most Americans, I didn’t pay close attention to the Brexit campaign. It seemed a foregone conclusion. The prediction markets were signaling that a vote to leave the EU was a long shot; the polls indicated that Remain was comfortably ahead; the stock markets were quiet. Besides, anti-EU protests never amount to anything. When national majorities vote against the EU in referenda, the EU always finds a way around them. In politics, elites usually get their way, and Europe’s elites, including Britain’s, are solidly pro-Europe. If nothing else, one would have thought inertia would keep Britain in the union. The EU always manages to chug along, notwithstanding all manner of crises. Why would this time be different?
But it seems it was. A small, but clear majority of Britons voted Leave, and, at this writing, the authorities say they will honor the choice. The skeptic in me suspects a trick, but more experienced observers tell me that a stall-and-vote-again strategy won’t work this time. The vote was definitive and, besides, people are too angry to risk irritating them further. The EU says it wants to move the process along quickly. Sometime in the next several months, Her Majesty’s government will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the divorce.
Many factors influenced the vote. Economics had a role. The Leave side argued that membership in the EU was holding down British growth, and that the UK could strike better trade deals on its own, notwithstanding President Obama’s warning that, without the EU, Britain would go to “the back of the queue.” But nationalism and cultural issues were more important: irritation at a loss of sovereignty to Brussels; worries about the effects of mass immigration; resentment of a cosmopolitan elite that demeans local ways; a sense of creeping social disorder, epitomized by recent satires like Martin Amis’s 2012 novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. A fascinating survey I saw on Twitter reveals that Britons who see “multiculturalism” as a “force for ill” voted 81% in favor of leaving the EU.
It’s striking how powerful nationalism remains in Europe. Although elites have been trying to suppress it for decades, the affection national populations have for their own communities and traditions remains strong. Whenever I go to Europe, I ask people whether they identify with Europe or their native cultures– “What are you?” With the exception of one or two academics, I have yet to meet anyone who responds, “European.” They are British, or French, or Dutch, or Czech. And what is the contemporary “European” identity, anyway? Managerial government, neoliberal economics, and progressive human rights—not the stuff to inspire deep loyalty.
By contrast, national identities do inspire deep loyalty. That’s why they persist, more so in some countries than others, of course, but everywhere in Europe. Thursday’s vote shows that a strong sense of national identity continues in Britain. Even Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU, which one might first see as a rejection of nationalism, can be explained in nationalist terms. The Scots are using EU membership as their own mark of national identity, a way of distinguishing themselves from their neighbors to the south.
Of course, not all Britons are enthusiastic about national identity or dubious about multiculturalism. The vote reveals a deeply divided country. The Remain side reacted to Thursday’s vote with fury and despair. Young Britons, in particular, are decrying the lost opportunities for travel, work, study, even love, which they say will result from Britain’s leaving the EU. (I’m not sure how realistic these worries are, especially the last). Older, backward Britons betrayed their country’s future! But Thursday’s vote reveals that commitment to multiculturalism and European integration isn’t a majority sentiment in Britain, at least not yet, and that the nation isn’t so ready to give up on its own, particular past.