In other words, Britain really is going to make itself poorer so that it can restrict immigration. Welcome to the new nationalism.
But let's back up a minute. Ever since the referendum, markets have wondered whether Brexit really meant, well, Brexit. May insisted it did, but there were good reasons to doubt that. Reasons like the fact that 45 percent of all British exports go to Europe. The problems is that even if Britain is able to negotiate the best free trade deal it possibly could, that'd still be worse than the one it has now — a.k.a. E.U. membership. In return for allowing the free movement of people between it and Europe, Britain has received free and unfettered access to Europe's market for its goods and services. That's a pretty big deal when you're talking about your top trading partner. Which is why it seemed like a decent bet that Britain would back down at least a little and accept the kind of E.U.-lite deal — agreeing to most of Europe's rules, including on immigration, so it could keep most of its access to Europe's market — that Norway has.
Well, until now. May has made it clear that she values “taking back control” of Britain's borders more than she values trade with Europe. That's not to say that she doesn't care about its economy. She does. Indeed, she wants the best trade deal she can get that doesn't involve allowing the free movement of people, and she's willing to use whatever leverage it can to get it. Even threatening to turn Britain into a Singapore-style tax haven, leeching off everybody else. Not that that would necessarily force a deal. Europe, you see, isn't too inclined to make leaving the E.U. can easier than it has to be — by, say, coming to terms like Britain hopes to — as a way of making an example of any country that thinks it'd be better off on its own.
But this kind of tit-for-tat misses the broader point: Britain, economically speaking, is either going to be slightly worse off or slightly more worse off. There are no good Brexits. Think about it like this. A world where it's harder for Britain to trade with Europe is one where it doesn't trade as much, and, as a result, doesn't specialize as much. That, in turn, means its workers won't be quite as productive as they could be, and the country as a whole won't be able to afford to buy quite as much from the rest of the world. Now, that doesn't mean the country is going to fall into a recession. It probably won't. But it does mean Britain will be poorer — and more than you might think if Europe's Wall Street really does move from the City of London to Frankfurt. (Among other issues, Brexit might mean that London bankers lose their “passporting” rights to provide services in the E.U.). You can see that in how much the pound has fallen since the Brexit vote. It's down 12 percent against the euro and 17 percent against the dollar.
That's the trade-off 52 percent of British voters signed off on, though. They wanted a Britain for the British, even if it meant not as many exports for the British. Which, of course, they were well within their rights to choose. It's a reminder that man does not live by GDP alone. National identities matter too. Although the irony is that's more true the less the economy has grown. As economist Benjamin Friedman argues in “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” there are two ways you can compare yourself: to how you were doing before, and to how other people are doing now. When the economy is growing well, people don't tend to worry about everyone else since they themselves are better off than they used to be. But that changes if their incomes don't. People become jealous of others, particularly Others with a capital-O. That is, they're less likely to be tolerant of people who don't look, sound, or worship like they do when they don't feel like they're getting ahead. That doesn't excuse a move away from openness, but it does at least partially explain it.
A lack of growth, then, can actually make people more willing to sacrifice it. And as the rest of the world is finding out, Brexit is only the beginning.