I cycled home on Friday night feeling pretty sanguine about the vote. The latest polls looked as though Remain would win and, despite the fact that polling had proved so inaccurate during the last election, I trusted them. When I got to the park near my house I found my way blocked by a metal fence—the Secret Cinema had set up shop there for a screening of Dirty Dancing. Annoyed, slightly drunk, and fired up with celebratory visions of open borders, I pulled down the fence and cycled through. A tired security guard caught me, telling me off and sending me on my way. When I got home I switched on the television and watched the results roll in.
I spent all of Friday in a deflated and slightly manic state. I refreshed my Twitter feed. I read about why what had happened had happened, and what it might mean. I watched a shell-shocked Cameron resign, and an even more shell-shocked Boris Johnson nervously accept victory for the Leave campaign. I watched Nigel Farage gloat and renege on his promises. I read that this was a vote against London, against liberal elites, against generations of lack of investment in those parts of the country that had suffered most under Margaret Thatcher. I read that this was a vote about immigration, a howl in the void by a disenfranchised working class, and that it was now time to have a “serious conversation” about the free movement of people. I read that it was all Jeremy Corbyn’s fault for being an ineffectual Labour Party leader. I Googled to check if my mother might eventually be forced to return to the Netherlands, or if I could apply for a Dutch passport.
The tone among Remainers has been one of muted disbelief. There has been much bitter cosmopolitan told-you-so-ing. Declare independence! Londoners proclaim. Let’s raise the drawbridge! Move to Scotland! Interviews with reticent Leave voters who now regret their decision have become memes. The electorate are stupid! But it’s easy to see how, with our creaky and messy electoral system, people might have been surprised by the fact that their votes do seem to have counted for something this time around.
Councillors in both Cornwall and Yorkshire—places where the majority of people voted to leave—have asked for assurances that they will continue to receive centralized funding in line with that which they used to get from the EU. A petition for a second referendum has amassed almost two million signatures. Meanwhile, for many people outside the big cities, England feels like a more dangerous, less welcoming, more insular place to live. The walls are going up.
I’ve spent much of the last month sitting on a balcony in Paris drinking coffee and reading the French newspapers, like the detested member of the liberal elite that I am. As a UK national nevertheless soon to start an academic project in France funded by the EU, I may well be one of the last to be in such a position.
The French already thought we were messing them around with David Cameron’s renegotiation of our membership, presumptuously asking for special rules to apply to us and us alone. Then they observed the Brexit campaign. The local press reported on the campaigners’ spiteful language about France and Europe and their tasteless remarks likening European politicians to the Nazis. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of the UK, but the coverage was accurate. Michael Gove’s obscene comparison of himself with a persecuted Albert Einstein should in a rational world earn him ridicule, yet the atmosphere is so febrile that it has probably earned him the Chancellor’s job.
In addition to its ugly tone, what was striking about the referendum debate was its solipsism. There was hardly any discussion about what effect a Brexit would have on Europe. One gets the sense that many of our neighbors feel we’ve chosen a moment of great difficulty to blithely abandon them. While France as a whole is also split on the merits of the EU (an editorial in the conservative daily Le Figaro argued the same result could have occurred in France and elsewhere), the exasperated French political establishment wanted us to stay. This was seen as an unhelpful and unnecessary move at a moment when the French are still reeling from last year’s terrorist attacks. They remain in a state of emergency—they regard themselves as at war.
Our exit plays squarely into the hands of the insurgent far right led by Marine Le Pen, who poses a threat in the coming presidential elections. Le Pen has warmly saluted our departure as a step toward the total dissolution of the EU. Others have said bon débarras (a phrase that trended on Twitter, meaning “good riddance”) for our years-long reluctance to engage with the European project. Despite the quixotic assurances of the Brexiteers about the fantastic deal we’ll soon get from Brussels, on the other side of the Channel, there are intimations that some will seek to punish the City of London, long perceived as unduly privileged.
I’ve spent much of the last ten years studying twentieth-century European literature and thought, and one lesson that comes up repeatedly is that Europe really can crash and burn. To my mind the texts say unambiguously that it is incumbent on thinking people not to let it happen again. And yet the complacency and recklessness of our politicians, press, and public is such that this barely even registered during the referendum debate. This is to say nothing about the use of outright lies by the Leave side. It is deeply worrying to see us hand power to people who are so ready to abuse facts and manipulate the truth.
I came back to the UK for the vote. Many of my friends are young academics, and many of them are EU nationals. They are beginning to wonder whether it is worth bothering with the UK now. The vote was won by people who made clear their contempt for “experts” and intellectuals, while racist incidents have spiked in the days since the vote. Whatever else is going to happen now, the country is going to lose so many good people.
A couple of summers ago I visited Lowestoft, the most easterly town in England, to follow the trail of a Polish sailor named Konrad Korzeniowski, who’d first arrived in England here, in 1878. He landed as a nobody with an unpronounceable name, not speaking a word of English. He remembered learning English from a crew of jolly shipmates “coloured like a Christmas card” and by poring over newspapers in the pub. In time he learned English so well that he became one of Britain’s most important novelists, under the adopted name of Joseph Conrad.
I smiled on stepping out of the Lowestoft train station to see a pub named The Joseph Conrad. I was even more chuffed to find, amid the predictable Indian restaurant, Turkish-run chip shop, and Chinese take-away, a Polish delicatessen. More than 800,000 Poles live in the UK today, making them the country’s largest foreign population.
Lowestoft has that dogged look-on-the-bright-side aesthetic of English seaside resorts, decked out in pastels and candy-stripes just in case the sun decides to put in an appearance. But it takes more self-denial than even most English will muster to holiday on this stony cold beach instead of jumping on a bargain flight to Spain or Greece. Along the high street, Victorian pubs were shuttered, many storefronts bare. In the windows of the sea-facing guesthouses I saw UKIP signs, flying in the face of the continent.
The part of the country geographically closest to Europe has become its most fiercely anti-European. With perverse historical justice, the UK’s highest Leave vote (75.6 percent) was recorded in the eastern town of Boston, from which the Pilgrims fled to the Netherlands and then Massachusetts. The Joseph Conrad belongs to the Wetherspoons pub chain, whose chairman Tim Martin campaigned vigorously for Leave, going so far as to print beermats with anti-EU messages, doubtless magnified through the lens of empty pint glasses.
Joseph Conrad came to Britain as a young jobbing sailor, despite knowing nobody and not a word of English, because Britain offered more work and greater freedom than anywhere else in Europe: no visas or passports required, no conscription, no police surveillance, no censorship, no arbitrary arrest. Britain’s openness to foreigners allowed him to rise through the ranks and become a certified sea captain, a naturalized British subject, to marry a Londoner, and achieve literary acclaim in a language he learned only as an adult.
Last week the Great Britain that made Konrad Korzeniowski into Joseph Conrad collapsed. Brexit slams the door on centuries of accommodation and international engagement in favor of xenophobia, racism, and smug, ignorant, Little Englander nativism.
There are many explanations for what Brexit is “really” about: the failure of the EU to create popular buy-in; a protest against Tory austerity; a string of political blunders that makes David Cameron the most foolish Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain. These are all true, but miss the underlying point. When people hurt, they hate. Ordinary people in Britain hurt because globalization is going against them. But the only compelling answer they’ve been given—blame the foreigners!—will just make things worse.
For about two hundred years, Britain got to set the terms and reap the benefits of globalization as the center of the world’s largest empire. Today’s world order still bears its marks, in London’s prominence as a financial center and the revival of the Empire’s liberal faith in free trade and deregulation.
As historian Linda Colley has shown, the empire also helped forge a common British identity across the realms of England, Scotland, and Wales. The Scots and Irish, especially, served the British Empire disproportionately as settlers, bureaucrats, doctors, soldiers, and clergy. They saw material benefit in overseas engagement because they were marginal to (not to say oppressed by) mainstream English power—a tendency reflected in the strong Remain majorities recorded in Scotland and Northern Ireland today.
It’s easy to be tolerant when you’re on top. Britain throughout the long nineteenth century espoused a commitment to advancing “liberty” overseas and welcoming immigrants fleeing persecution. The obvious limits to liberty notwithstanding (the country remains, after all, a monarchy) Britons can rightly be proud of a longstanding openness to outsiders, from ordinary working stiffs like Conrad; to Hungarian, Czech, Chilean, and South African dissidents; to refugees from Uganda, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.
But every time Britain’s power has slipped relative to rivals, nativism surges. The first British Aliens Act was passed in the 1790s, during the bitter world war against Revolutionary France. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Britain was losing its economic and military edge to Germany and the United States, nativists pushed for the nation’s first comprehensive immigration control, the 1905 Aliens Act. In the 1960s, when Great Britain, in Dean Acheson’s cutting assessment, had “lost an empire and . . . not yet found a role,” the Tory politician Enoch Powell condemned non-white immigration into Britain as the precursor to a race war. Powell’s Tory colleagues widely denounced him as racist, but polls suggested that the vast majority of Britons believed he made a good point, as did Margaret Thatcher, then a rising Conservative star.
The 65-and-older voters who strongly tilted Leave on June 23 cast their first ballots in Powell’s day, and flourished (or so they thought) under the Euroskeptic Margaret Thatcher. Now they find themselves on the losing end of globalization, along with the entire post-industrial “west,” victims of reckless deregulation, reduced worker protections, technological revolution, and global demographic change. As inequality has risen under the last twenty years of Labour and Tory government, and benefits steadily cut, many of these voters have been persuaded to blame the EU for their woes, even though in truth the EU has tended to put a brake on the more extreme advocates of deregulation (which is why some Tories also supported Brexit).
Globalization will always have “losers.” The question is how to minimize and compensate for the damage, and the answer cannot be to retreat behind national walls. The EU emerged, after all, from efforts to heal Europe after it had been nearly destroyed by the perils of nationalism in World War II—fascism, militarism, genocide. Exclusionary nationalism is an especially insidious force today in a world whose biggest challenges are transnational: climate change, rising global inequality, terrorism.
In the summer of 1914, Conrad took his family on a visit to his native Poland. He cast a fond parting look at his English home “nestling in, perhaps, the most peaceful nook in Kent,” and took in the postcard-prettiness of fields, hedgerows, and cottages, the Downs rolling to the sea. “I carried off in my eye this tiny fragment of Great Britain,” he remembered, “and I felt that all this had a very strong hold on me . . . that it was dear to me not as an inheritance, but as an acquisition.”
Britain acquired something too when it allowed the homeless, nearly penniless Pole to make his way there. It has gained from the talents and contributions of hundreds of thousands more immigrants since, and it has been a richer, better country thanks to the principles of internationalism and toleration that allowed them to settle there, even when everyday cultural racism made it hard.
Today, with the social and political institutions that supported British cosmopolitanism at a breaking point, a future Konrad Korzeniowski would be better off disembarking in Scotland than Suffolk. This Scottish Joseph Conrad—let’s call him Jock—would see a Little England descending into menacing xenophobia, yobs yelling “fucking foreigner, go back to your own country” and signs reading “no more Polish vermin” shoved through letterboxes. England, too, he might think, can be one of the dark places of the earth. That’s why he’d be relieved when Scotland decided to separate from Britain in order to remain part of the EU, the better to preserve social welfare and inclusion. When Jock saw the triumphalist selfies of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, those nabobs of new nativism and old prejudice, he would be able to afford himself a snicker and murmur, in his Scots-inflected English, “the hair, the hair.”