The evidence strongly suggests that Brexit, the UK’s vote to exit the European Union, was motivated primarily by xenophobia. Immigration has surged in Britain in the past 20 years, owing partly to the EU policy that allows citizens of any EU country to live and work in any other EU country. That fueled a nativist backlash against the EU, which ultimately put the pro-Brexit camp over the top.
How do we understand this surge in nativism? One place to start is by looking at England specifically, rather than other parts of the UK. Every region in England except London voted to leave the EU, making English votes the driving force behind the Brexit vote.
To Tyler Cowen, a renowned economist at George Mason University, this makes a lot of sense. England is one of the oldest nations in global history, which has given its citizens a strong sense of English national identity.
This means the English were more likely than others to be hostile to mass migration, and thus more likely to support Brexit. Cowen compares England with two other old nation states, Japan and Denmark, which he notes have long had restrictive immigration policies:
One way to understand the English vote is to compare it to other areas, especially with regard to immigration. If you read Frank Fukuyama, he correctly portrays Japan and Denmark, as, along with England, being the two other truly developed, mature nation states in earlier times, well before the Industrial Revolution. And what do we see about these countries? Relative to their other demographics, they are especially opposed to very high levels of immigration. England, in a sense, was the region "out on a limb," when it comes to taking in foreigners, and now it has decided to pull back and be more like Denmark and Japan.
"Quite simply, the English want England to stay relatively English, and voting Leave was the instrument they were given," Cowen writes. "Scotland and Northern Ireland have much less interest in ‘the English project’ and of course they voted for Remain at high levels; the Welsh are somewhat closer to the English perspective and they had a majority for Leave."
Cowen’s theory, at this point, is just that: a theory. It’s hard to prove something as complicated as the links between English history and xenophobia so soon after a major vote.
It is, however, a very plausible theory — one that fits the available evidence pretty well.
It’s also an important reminder for Americans that not all countries are "nations of immigrants": that many other places have a more exclusive national identity, one that more openly links the health of the country to it being populated by a specific kind of people with a specific heritage and specific customs and traditions.
These exclusive national identities have been very powerful forces throughout history — and we underestimate them at our peril.