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As I write this, there's debate going on inside the post-Brexit-vote mess in British politics. After Britain withdraws, will European Union citizens who live and work there, some of them for decades, be allowed to stay? Or will they be told to bugger off back to where they came from? There are arguments for and against, as if this was a perfectly reasonable topic to ponder.

One can imagine the characters on Downton Abbey engaging in exactly this kind of debate. The consensus on Downton would be that the bloody foreigners don't belong here in the first place. Not "PLU" – people like us.

You can tell a lot about a country and culture from its popular culture, in particular the stories that societies tell themselves on television. In Britain there have, for years, been two wildly opposing sets of stories told. The dominant strain is represented by Downton, Midsomer Murders, Foyle's War, Poldark and Call the Midwife, to name just a few.

These shows are about the past, and a past that is glorified as good, stable and, really, a lost utopia. Not like the Britain of now, that loud, chaotic, confusing Britain of crime, youthful and working-class indigence and, well, a lot of people who aren't really British at all.

The latter set is represented by a slew of TV series, from Skins to Misfits and The Inbetweeners to the crime dramas Luther, River and Happy Valley, among others. If anyone wanted to know how divided Britain was, and is, and wanted to see the context of the Brexit vote, all they had to do was examine the two opposing cultural strains in British TV storytelling.

This is not a judgment as much as it is an observation.

The fetishizing of Britain's decline is a staple, and is in fact the bedrock of at least half of contemporary British culture. Nostalgia for the old days or old order. A place for everyone but everyone in their place, as long as they're British. A place of conservative cultural forms and solid templates for social status and privilege.

In the collective consciousness of Britain, as illuminated in its robust TV industry, the urge to tell stories that are about remoteness from the contemporary is very strong. To outsiders, especially in the United States and Canada, such shows as Downton and Foyle's War have a great charm.

Our 21st-century sensibility doesn't bristle at the social inequality, the near-slavery of servants and the distrust of all things foreign. We accept it as an escapist entertainment. We think of the upper classes – for all their snobbery, nitpicking about status and loathing of "the other," the foreign and the new – as benign.

A lot of British viewers think the same way, but some take it as entertainment with a seriousness of purpose. The old order was good, less messy. Britain's separateness from the rest of the world was a good thing. In Downton and other series, the view of Americans as mostly facile, airheaded people is accepted, just as the view of the Irish as dangerous louts is accepted. As for people from France or Germany, or anywhere beyond, they end up being viewed as ridiculous. Unless they are upper class, of course.

Pining for that time is at the beating heart of half the British culture. Once, things were great, good and ordered. Now, that time is fetishized. The same applies in English soccer and England's bizarre exit from the Euro 2016 tournament on the heels of the Brexit vote should have been no surprise.

England won the World Cup, in England in 1966, at a time when there were no foreign players or coaches in English soccer. England hasn't matched that achievement or improved since then. So everybody involved in the game has a predilection for nourishing memory of that time.

There is also a tendency to keep polishing the same artifacts of the past, with as much vigour as the servants on Downton polished the silver. Doctor Who, a relic of old times, specifically a pre-EU Britain, keeps getting burnished and revived over and over. Sherlock is another example – the Sherlock Holmes figure from late Victorian and Edwardian England spiffed up, renovated ceaselessly.

It even happens with series set in periods closer to our own time. It's nice that there's a new Absolutely Fabulous movie, but the continuing impulse to revisit the show is a revisit of its origins in the early 1990s, when the characters and context were very much part of the Cool Britannia period.

On the other side of the equation are the slew of shows less popularly acclaimed abroad and appealing more to a younger British audience. Skins and Misfits were genius-level depictions of contemporary Britain in all its glorious multicultural vigour and zest. The two seasons of Happy Valley have dealt directly with the chaos and deeply unsavoury aspects of contemporary Britain without flinching. There is no nostalgia for the past.

Anyone surprised by the tight vote on Brexit might well have seen it coming if they'd studied the storytelling on British TV. The period-piece dramas steeped in reverence for the past, be it the British Empire days or simply the pre-EU days, have a slight edge in the numbers and popularity. All those series that worship the past and have a fixation on decline.

Those who favoured the contemporary storytelling of Britain as it is now – youthful, European, complicated and open – got their comeuppance in the end. Just as those EU citizens living and working in Britain now will surely get their comeuppance when the Brexit is complete.