Nationalism is irrational, bizarre and threatening. Unless it’s your own, in which case it’s natural and reasonable. That’s a lesson I’ve learned as a foreign correspondent and one that teaches a lot about the U.K.’s furious debate over whether to leave the European Union.
With each passing week of the campaign, the evidence that voting to exit the EU would risk significant economic and political costs for the U.K. has grown more compelling. By contrast, the Leave campaign’s claimed benefits appear unrealistic where they aren’t threadbare. Even so, opinion polls suggest the vote on June 23 is likely to be close.
The Brexit Debate
This is overwhelmingly thanks to English voters. In Scotland, according to a detailed survey of 16,000 people across the U.K. published last month, the “Remain” camp was ahead by 26 percentage points. In Northern Ireland, it led by 30 points and in Wales, where more than a fifth of the population is English-born, 10 points. In England, which accounts for 83 percent of the U.K.’s population, sentiment for leaving was narrowly ahead.
Moreover, opposition to the EU is heavily defined by politics, age and social class. Among those surveyed, Conservatives (who tend more toward English nationalism) solidly favored leaving; Labour Party voters overwhelmingly wanted to stay. The young (age 18-29) favoured staying in the EU by a margin of 46 percentage points; over-60s wanted to leave by a 26-point margin.
There are, of course, many factors that explain the desire to leave the EU, including the perception that it is associated with unwanted immigration and the globalization of job markets that has pushed down wages and driven up inequality. Then there are the manifold imperfections of the EU itself. But these things cannot explain the different responses of the English versus other U.K. nationalities, or between the young (who have most to risk from any loss of jobs and investment after Brexit) and the retired.
Bloomberg View columnist Pankaj Mishra recently identified the emotional drive to reject mere calculations of economic and geopolitical well-being as the lingering twitch of British imperialism. That might indeed explain the vast difference in the views of the young and the old, for whom memories of empire would be more real. Even in my 1970s Surrey junior school, I recall a class wall map with the former Empire marked in pink. (I’m 53, American and grew up in the U.K.).
It seems more likely, though, that Britain’s European exceptionalism is less the result of imperial nostalgia than of common English nationalism. What defines the EU, after all, is the agreement by 28 nations to pool elements of their sovereignty. That’s an offense to nationalists almost by definition — even to those who nevertheless accept the EU bargain as the best means to maximize national prosperity and minimize potential for conflict. (How else to explain the desire of fiercely nationalistic Serbs to join the EU?)
It also helps explain why England’s Leave campaigners are willing to sacrifice what is arguably the last great vestige of the British Empire — Scotland — on the altar of a Brexit. The Scottish Nationalist Party has said it would “almost certainly” call a second referendum on independence, should the U.K. vote to leave the EU, after losing one in 2014. Brexit campaigners appear not to care.
England is hardly unique in this strand of nationalism. France’s National Front, which recently out-polled the establishment parties in regional elections, also favors leaving the EU. Similarly nationalist, anti-EU parties have gained in strength across Europe, including in Germany.
What differentiates the U.K. may be its experience of the 20th century, during which Britain fought two world wars but — like the U.S. and unlike most of the rest of Europe — was never invaded or at risk of Soviet occupation. That experience has set Britain apart since the inception of the EU project. It has made the emotional case for sacrificing sovereignty far less compelling than for most of its neighbors, and in the U.K.’s Brexit debate has abandoned the field of the heart to England’s nationalists.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall