This past weekend, I found myself in the British borough of Luton, pondering a British exit from the European Union. “How did you find yourself in Luton?” you will ask, and I will reply, “That is a long story, and alas, a very dull one, so let’s just proceed upon the assumption that I was indeed in Luton for good and sufficient reasons.” And why was I pondering Brexit? Because the penultimate chapter of this dull story involved many hours spent in a horrible third-tier European airport with middle-class Britons heading home from their holidays.
The airport was short on seats and power outlets even before flight-delayed travelers were stacked eight-deep along the floors. Perhaps a dozen of us middle-aged folk had wrested a single power outlet from the teenagers who had tethered themselves to all the other sources of battery-life-giving energy in the vicinity. We huddled around this small electric flame in the manner of travelers everywhere, taking what sustenance we could, drinking wine and swapping stories of our homelands. I was asked to explain Donald Trump. And by way of getting my own back, I naturally asked about the referendum on Brexit, which is now just days away.
The folks I talked to were from all over Britain, but they had middle age in common as well as, mostly, membership in the petit bourgeoisie. What did they think about leaving the EU?
“I still don’t know how I’m going to vote,” said an adult-education teacher from the Midlands, who then proceeded to deliver a long and earnest speech about the cost of providing social services to immigrants, which suggested that she wasn’t really so unsure. Her sentiments were echoed by other people I talked to during that endless layover.
These weren't racist diatribes; no one mentioned race or nationality, and, in fact, they were very sympathetic to the plight of immigrants. They just didn’t want to have to accept them into their country -- operative words “have to.” The dominant tone was what is often called compassion fatigue, and their arguments were not unreasonable.
Riding a refugee-crowded ferry back from the Greek island of Lesvos last fall, my heart broke for every one of the families I saw. But I couldn’t help but ask myself just how many such people Europe could absorb in a short period of time. The people in the airport were asking themselves the same question, and the answer they were getting was “no more, please.”
Around 1:30 Monday morning, a budget jet brought me to Luton, where I stayed overnight. The next leg of my travel did not begin until late afternoon, and so I took the opportunity to walk around the area near the Mall Luton, which turned out to be a very good place to think about Brexit.
Luton is a city of about 200,000 people on the outskirts of London. It was once known for its manufacture of hats, and in 1905, Vauxhall Motors opened a manufacturing plant in Luton. The company stopped making passenger cars there in 2002, and the town is now -- like so many places in Europe and America -- looking for its post-industrial future. EasyJet, a budget airline, is based there, but as you so often find in similar cities in the U.S., the biggest employers are the local government and the local hospital. It has also had a dramatic shift in population. The Luton council estimates that “between 50% and 75% of the population would not have lived in Luton or not have been born at the time of the 2001 Census.” It is now minority white British, and only barely majority white.
You can see it in the area around the mall. It’s not a notably prosperous place: multiple dollar stores, not much in the way of upscale retail. The Duke of Clarence pub is closed, having apparently run afoul of the local constabulary; one Polish food store appeared to be doing a land-office business. I wandered into several off-license shops in search of batteries and found that all of them appeared to cater to a significant foreign-born clientele. I bought some Polish sausage and pastry at an off-license, some Indian dumplings and Thai noodles at a couple of food trucks, and I sat on a bench in the mall, listening to people from three continents chat with each other in more than half a dozen languages, none of which I spoke.
As an American, this did not strike me as odd; this is what our cities have been like for centuries, particularly on the coasts. One group of immigrants moves in, creates an enclave, then gets rich, assimilates and moves out, making way for the next group that will throw a little of their food, their language and their customs into our vast melting pot. But this is not normal in most of the world. Nor is it necessarily welcome.
Most places in Britain are not like Luton, of course. But that’s not quite the point. Anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. is often found in places that don’t have enormous immigrant populations, and wonks who proclaim this to be irrational seem not to grasp that those people may be looking at the places that have been transformed by immigration and responding with a fervent “No, thank you.” There’s a lot to be gained from globalism, the mixing of two or more cultures into something new. But something specific and local and much-loved is inevitably lost at the same time, and the people who feel that loss most keenly are the inward-looking people who stay in place, not internationalist elites.
So it’s not that my food was bad -- it was all quite good -- or that there was anything wrong with the immigrants serving and eating it. They all looked like quite nice people. But it was all very different from traditional British food, traditional British people. And no matter how hard we try to argue that it doesn’t matter, it does -- politically, if in no other way. Especially when things aren’t going all that well for the natives.
Somehow, over the last half-century, Western elites managed to convince themselves that nationalism was not real. Perhaps it had been real in the past, like cholera and telegraph machines, but now that we were smarter and more modern, it would be forgotten in the due course of time as better ideas supplanted it.
That now seems hopelessly naive. People do care more about people who are like them -- who speak their language, eat their food, share their customs and values. And when elites try to ignore those sentiments -- or banish them by declaring that they are simply racist -- this doesn’t make the sentiments go away. It makes the non-elites suspect the elites of disloyalty. For though elites may find something vaguely horrifying about saying that you care more about people who are like you than you do about people who are culturally or geographically further away, the rest of the population is outraged by the never-stated corollary: that the elites running things feel no greater moral obligation to their fellow countrymen than they do to some random stranger in another country. And perhaps we can argue that this is the morally correct way to feel -- but if it is truly the case, you can see why ordinary folks would be suspicious about allowing the elites to continue to exercise great power over their lives.
It’s therefore not entirely surprising that people are reacting strongly against the EU, the epitome of an elite institution: a technocratic bureaucracy designed to remove many questions from the democratic control of voters in the constituent countries. Elites can earnestly explain that a British exit will be very costly to Britain (true), that many of the promises made on Brexit’s behalf are patently ridiculous (also true), that leaving will create all sorts of security problems and also cost the masses many things they like, such as breezing through passport control en route to their cheap continental holidays. Elites can even be right about all of those things. They still shouldn’t be too shocked when ordinary people respond just as Republican primary voters did to their own establishment last spring: “But you see, I don’t trust you anymore.”
In some ways, the modernity that we thought was supposed to wash nationalism away on the tide of history made things worse for the cause of mass migration. For the first few centuries of its existence, America had a chronic labor shortage, which eased any frictions with new arrivals. We also lacked a modern welfare state, to which low-skilled immigrants are likely to be net costs rather than net contributors. I heard the strain on the National Health Service cited multiple times this weekend as a sore spot for Brexiteers, and though the “Remain” campaign says “You’ve got it all wrong, the problem is Conservative budget cuts,” this rather aggressively misses the point: When things are hard, immigrants compete with natives for scarce government resources, and the natives don’t like the competition.
I don't know whether Britain will end up leaving the EU; based on my conversations this weekend, and the polls, I’d put the chances at slightly above 50 percent. But that’s not a very educated guess, and I wouldn’t stake anything important, like money or the future of my country, on its correctness. Even if Remain wins, however, elites will face the question of what to do next. They can decide that they’ve skated by the crisis and may now return to business as usual while they wait for the populist storms to blow over. But there’s a real danger in doing so, in Britain or in any of the other countries that are currently being swept by populist movements. The storm may indeed pass, but it may blow up into a hurricane -- and the majority may go shopping for a new elite, one they trust to take care of people like them.
is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy. To read more of her blogs, Click HERE.
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