Skip to main content

There's nothing to celebrate in Brexit. The fallout will be more or less awful. It's hard to know who'll be hit worse, the European Union or Britain (or what remains of it). The entire postwar EU project has come to a crashing halt, with consequences that will play out for many years to come. Vladimir Putin is gloating. Britain is leaderless, and the EU leaders, with the admirable exception of Angela Merkel, are as vengeful as a husband whose unhappy spouse has walked out on him. The squabbling over the terms of the divorce will be prolonged and messy, and will surely distract everyone's attention from Europe's urgent problems of flailing economies, uncontrolled migration, terrorism threats and rampant Putinism.

The ruling classes know who's to blame for this humongous mess. The people! The knuckle-dragging cave-dwellers who live in Ramsgate and the Midlands. The ignorant masses who were deceived by demagogues and racists such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Enlightened people knew the vote would be a close call, but they never really doubted that their side would prevail. They are still in shock. They can't fathom how the Leave faction could have triumphed, especially when (as Pauline Kael once said of Richard Nixon) no one they know voted for it.

In fact, there's plenty of blame to go around. David Cameron was reckless for calling a referendum solely to appease the disaffected wing of his own party. Barack Obama was feckless in his disregard for Europe's growing troubles and the worsening relationship between two crucial allies, Britain and the EU. Even the usually prudent Ms. Merkel made a stupendous blunder when she provoked the migration crisis by inviting the world to come to Europe. Britons looked at the massive human tide washing over Europe and were appalled.

Maybe the elites should stop moralizing about the vote and try to understand it.

At its core, this was a referendum about nationhood and national identity. It was highly class-based and crossed all party lines. If there was a whiff of Trumpism in the outcome, there was also more than a whiff of Bernie Sanders. The vote was really about English people's desire to remain English – and it was an overwhelming rebuke to liberal internationalists who say that desire is illegitimate, atavistic and xenophobic.

Yes, there really is an English national character, and most of us have some idea what it is. Keep Calm and Carry On, as my coffee mug says. Stand in line and don't jump the queue. No reverence for the toffs. When all hell is breaking loose, how about a nice cup of tea?

These aren't just clichés, or nostalgia for a mythical England that never was. They express values that were real, and to a meaningful extent still are. "Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization," George Orwell wrote in 1941. (Today, he'd be ridiculed as a classic Little Englander.) "It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature."

Unlike Canada, Britain has never been an immigration country. The English gene pool is essentially the same as it was in 1066. That began to change after the Second World War when Commonwealth citizens were invited in. But it wasn't until 1997, when Tony Blair, a committed internationalist, opened the doors to immigration on a massive scale. Britain (or really England, where 90 per cent of newcomers settle) now has the fifth-largest population of foreign-born residents in the world. Visible minorities are about 14 per cent of the population. Many immigrants have integrated brilliantly. Others have not, especially Pakistanis and Bengalis from rural, intensely clannish cultures. As many people have observed, they didn't come to England to be transformed culturally.

Brexit was not about non-EU migration. But it was a chance for people to express their views about nationhood. Immigration can be hugely beneficial. Yet too much immigration, as sociologists have admitted, can erode social trust and social solidarity. The people who bear the brunt of this dislocation are not the globally-minded class of professionals, business people, technocrats and media. They're the people who have to wait in line for social housing.

Brexit shows that the liberal internationalists, Eurocrats, central bankers, party leaders, academics and pundits do not understand their own people. And for that failure, the world will pay dearly.