I spent last Thursday evening in Manhattan, where I happened to be at a dinner party at Rusty Reno’s with my old friend, Francesca Murphy. Thus, perhaps the only two English ex-pat Brexiters in the U.S.A. found themselves together on that most historic of evenings in the very belly of the metro-Left beast. The night air was a little gloomy. At that point Brexit looked improbable. Psalms of lamentation seemed likely to be the order of the next day. We should both have remembered the words of Psalm 30:5, that “weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning.”
My favorite moment came on Friday, when some Europe-based American journalist from The Daily Beast appeared on the breakfast news, fulminating about how it was racism and xenophobia that had won. So that explained the “Leave” votes cast by my elderly apolitical mother and my favorite feisty feminist—my youngest sister. This correspondent had also casually indicted about 38 percent of the adult population of Britain as being motivated by nothing but bigotry. Ignorant and offensive as his comments were, I confess to a moment of sinful pleasure: There is surely no more satisfying a start to the day than seeing some dim representative of the metro-Left seething impotently with self-righteous indignation at the realization that the oppressed masses have let him down again. What a simple world of goodies and baddies such people inhabit! An added delicious irony: The picture accompanying his vintage whine was that of a West Indian woman, cheering in delight at the result of the referendum.
If this correspondent had bothered to research his subject, he would have known that, whatever the case elsewhere in the U.K. (and the results in Northern Ireland and Scotland do pose serious questions for the continuation of the union), England's Eurosceptics are not so easily explained. Europe has been the central question of English politics for most of my nearly five decades of life. Throughout that time, it has consistently cut across conventional Left-Right lines, as it did in the vote last week. From our earliest involvement in Europe, figures such as Enoch Powell and then Roger Scruton made arguments against the E.U. based on notions of national sovereignty, history, and culture. On the Left, those like the late Tony Benn, doyen of unreconstructed socialists, pointed continually to the lack of democratic accountability of E.U. institutions. Both Left and Right Eurosceptics also raised repeated questions about administrative waste and corruption. And behind it all was the obvious fact that the British had never voted for the Europe we now have. We had voted for little more than a free-trade zone. What we have is a legislative and administrative behemoth that aspires to be a transnational state. This Europe has never had a popular mandate—a point that has reinforced feelings of resentment and impotence as it has advanced across people’s lives like some giant, bureaucratic glacier. And this understandable resentment is by no means an English monopoly, as I suspect the coming months will make very clear indeed.
The demographics of the English part of the referendum were predictable. Those who have done well out of Europe—mainly the London metro-elite—tended to vote Remain. As Reno has noted before with regard to U.S. politics, such people benefit from globalization: For example, it gives them access to cheap and readily available foreign labor, to fancy designer goods, and to the professional freedom that comes from open markets and open borders. Those who find the effects of globalization intimidating, who feel that their jobs and wages are threatened by free movement of labor and capital, and whose local ways of life are eroded by mass immigration, tended to vote Leave.
Was the battle thus between enlightened cosmopolitanism and ignorant xenophobia? Perhaps in some cases it was. Certainly the metro-Left of the Remain camp had the aesthetic advantage of being able to construct such a narrative by co-opting the language of progressive tolerance for its cause, a tactic that was unavailable to the supporters of Leave. But a more accurate assessment of the overall picture might be that both groups voted mainly out of self-interest. And then there were others who have neither greatly benefited from nor been particularly threatened by globalization—people like my mother and youngest sister. Many of them are simply tired of the nebulous but very real feeling that they have less and less say in how their country is run. Their hope—and mine as an ex-pat (who did not vote in the referendum, by the way)—is that, whatever the inevitable short-term economic pain, this move will lead to a strengthening of democratic institutions, to more government accountability, and to less bureaucratic waste.
Perhaps the one loss in all of this is David Cameron. A Boris Johnson or Michael Gove government will be competent, and a Johnson premiership would undoubtedly be memorable—if not always for the best of reasons. But Cameron has done a decent job. After all, as the pre-vote leader column in last week's U.K. Spectator noted, it is only countries with comparative economic and political success that have problems arising from immigration. Immigration is not a big electoral issue, for example, in Albania or what is left of Iraq. Yet, having staked all on a “Remain” vote, he is right to resign. It is the honorable thing to do.
His action may plunge the Conservative Party into the kind of internecine warfare that crippled it in the post-Thatcher nineties. It was damaging enough then—but the stakes are much higher this time around. The desperately divided and far more economically incompetent Labour Party is waiting in the wings. Perhaps Cameron should have taken his cue from Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister at the time of the last British referendum on Europe, that which was held in 1975. I recall Joe Haines, his Press Secretary, being interviewed years later and revealing that, even as a member of the P.M.'s inner circle, he had no idea whether Wilson was in favor of staying or leaving until the vote was finally declared. That’s a true politician for you. But then again, if Wilson had been a true leader and taken a clear stand against, maybe we would not have wasted the last forty years on a costly but doomed experiment in social engineering and bureaucratic overreach.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.