But that gets it backward. This people’s revolt represented, in many respects, the Americanization of British politics. The “leave” campaign’s slogan — its devastatingly effective slogan — of “take back control” was positively Trumpian. Indeed, some of the same forces of alienation, discontent, economic insecurity and racial animosity that produced Trump in the United States have now hauled Britain out of the European Union. This past week’s revolution, arguably the greatest political insurrection since the dawn of the democratic era, offers further evidence that some political trends recognize no borders or boundaries. It was more than just a political battle; it was a culture war, too. And it bore the hallmarks of the one that began in the United States 50 years ago.
The campaign, at its crudest, pitted the “people” against the “establishment,” the powerless against the powerful. The “leave” side cast itself as a guerrilla insurgency against a complacent and out-of-touch governing elite. Like recent U.S. campaigns, this one was marked by a distaste for experts. There were shades of Barry Goldwater and the United States’ 2010 tea party wave in this; shades, perhaps, of the Reagan revolution, too. Brexit might break everything, the thinking went, but unless things are broken, nothing can change. This is Year Zero now.
The referendum laid bare the fault lines in British society, and they turn out to be as stark as the divisions between red and blue America. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in Europe; England and Wales opted out. Within England, London — cosmopolitan, liberal, wealthy — voted for the status quo, but rural areas, from the sleepy shires to the rusting post-industrial towns of the north, chose to leave. In doing so, they revolted against more than just Brussels and the institutions of the E.U.; they delivered an Anglo-Saxon rebuke to London and Westminster (as Parliament is known), too. Only a quarter of members of Parliament came out for Brexit: The gap between the people and their representatives has never before, at least on an issue of this significance, been so wide. You do not speak for us, voters said, and we hold you in some contempt for your failure to represent, or even understand, our concerns. G.K. Chesterton’s lines seem hauntingly appropriate: “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget/For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.” Now the people have spoken, and the whole world has heard their roar.
As the GOP establishment has discovered in this U.S. election cycle, a hurricane of contemptuous discontent demolishes everything in its path. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, had warned against the destabilizing effect of Brexit. But as far as many voters were concerned, he was a paid-up member of the establishment tasked with issuing such warnings. The louder the alarm, the more likely it was to be disregarded: Treasury’s estimate that, by 2030, Brexit would cost every British household 4,300 pounds (or $5,700), for instance, was widely derided as mere propaganda. The Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also agreed that Brexit would cost Britain dearly in terms of jobs and treasure.
But expertise, it turned out, was part of the “remain” campaign’s problem, not its strength. Americans would have found the campaign — with its claims of media bias and “rigged” systems — perfectly familiar. Opinion polls suggested that “leave” voters didn’t trust politicians, economists, academics, foreign leaders or, indeed, anyone or anything else. Voters trusted their gut, and that was enough. William F. Buckley’s claim that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty received a glowing endorsement in Britain on Thursday.
After all, it was experts who crashed the world economy in 2008, and it was experts who said very few Poles or Romanians would move to Britain once their countries were admitted to the E.U. In 2004, Tony Blair’s government estimated that just 13,000 Poles would move to Britain seeking work; a decade later, about 600,000 had done so. Prime Minister David Cameron once promised to cut net migration to less than 100,000 people a year. It is a target that has been missed every year. Between March 2014 and March 2015, more than 330,000 immigrants arrived in Britain.
In the vote, geographical polarization paled beside Britain’s class divide. In American terms, wine-track voters endorsed “remain,” and beer-track voters opted for “leave.” Those with the most to lose from future economic turmoil backed the government’s case; those whose lives are already freighted with economic uncertainty, like Americans in the same position, felt they had little to lose from irrevocable change. Among the middle and upper-middle class, 57 percent voted to remain; 64 percent of working-class voters opted to leave. Economic insecurity in places such as Lincolnshire and northeastern England trumped all other concerns. Mirroring the American experience, some of England’s least-diverse communities delivered the strongest protest votes against globalization, immigration and the economic doctrine that there is no alternative.
Nativism and hostility to untrammeled immigration played their part in stripping the bark from Cameron, but there was more to this English revolution than that. The winds of populism are sweeping across the Western world, and there was little reason to suppose that even an ancient and stable democracy such as Britain would develop an immunity to this pandemic. The mad-as-hell populism that in large part inspired the “leave” vote was instinctively nativist and sometimes at least borderline racist. But above all, it was rooted in the suspicion that something, somewhere, had gone badly wrong in British society and politics. If there are echoes of Trump here, there are also echoes of the tea party and, at least on the disillusioned left, the Occupy movement.
Immigration, however, remained the touchstone issue. “Leave” promoted the lie that Turkey is on the brink of joining the E.U., conjuring the specter of a Turkish invasion, the better with which to encourage voters to “take back control.” Only a “free” country could protect its borders — and it would need a bigger wall than just the English Channel.
And what of the E.U. itself? In recent elections, populist parties on the right have made significant gains in Sweden, Finland, Austria and Hungary, while left-wing populists have overthrown the established order in Greece and Spain. The continent is in a state of bubbling insurrection, and nothing Brussels — or Angela Merkel — does seems likely to quell the discontent. Indeed, past experience suggests that the European hierarchy in Brussels will be tempted to dismiss this repudiation as nothing more than a flesh wound. That’s wishful thinking; other countries are also likely to rethink their relationship with Brussels. Suddenly the prospect of a nativist President Marine Le Pen in France seems more plausible than it did just a few days ago.
As acts of lacerating self-harm go, this vote has few rivals in recent memory. A referendum is forever; there is no do-over and no consolation that in four years’ time there will be a fresh chance to put matters right. But it is also a reminder that voters are not always motivated by rational calculations of self-interest.
The quiet people of England have made their voice heard. We are the little people of England, they said, and who dares meddle with us? Americans would do best to remember their cry this fall.