Brexit Is a Vote on UK Identity

Thursday’s referendum is about more than just Europe.

In the spring of 2007, I was working as an intern for a conservative talk-radio host when a mild panic broke out. President Bush was hammering together a partnership agreement with Canada and Mexico, which, in the imaginations of our more hucksterish guests, became a secret charter for continental integration. The phone lines promptly melted down over this incipient “North American Union,” and popular conservatism hopped another lily pad towards the fever swamp in which it finds itself today.

Actually, maybe that’s being unfair even to the Trumpist right. Those listeners might have been mistaken, but their fury had plenty of precedent. We Americans have long recoiled at any attempt to undermine our sovereignty. As Boris Johnson, the newfound blond bombshell of Euroskepticism, noted in an op-ed for the Sun, “The US guards its democracy with more hysterical jealousy than any other country on earth.” That’s why Johnson was correct to protest President Obama’s recent intervention on behalf of the “Remain” campaign in Britain’s looming referendum over its European Union membership. Obama was asking the UK to endorse something that his own country never would.

The president’s warning to the British was preposterous: vote to depart the EU, he threatened, and Britain would be muscled “to the back of the queue” for a trade deal with America—as though he would be diligently haggling with the Congo delegation while London shivered out in the cold. But his remarks were also concordant with the tenor of the argument in the UK, which has been nothing short of hysterical. The “Remain” side has spent its time warning of economic apocalypse if Britain vacates Brussels, with Prime Minister David Cameron squealing last week about “a bomb under our economy.” Meanwhile, Johnson has compared the EU to Hitler.

This scaremongering has shortchanged the British people, who are wrangling with the most significant issue that’s confronted them in a generation. Polls have consistently found voters evenly divided for a reason: the question of Brexit has no easy answer. Lawmakers have portrayed it as a policy debate of economic projections versus immigration levels, which it is, but there’s also a deeper cultural dimension at work. The Brexit issue penetrates to the heart of the British identity crisis, which began after empire and proceeded through Suez, Reagan-Thatcher and the Iraq War, to the present day. Winston Churchill was right when he declared Britain an anomaly, one that was “in Europe but not of it.” But does its future nevertheless lie with the continent? Or across the Atlantic, with the United States—the “special relationship” that Churchill envisioned?

The timber of that relationship is our shared language, to the extent that it is shared. Oscar Wilde, perhaps anticipating George W. Bush, once teased, “we have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Wilde, who traveled extensively in the United States, was fascinated by his transatlantic cousins—he contrasted their capitalism with stuffy English aristocracy in The Canterville Ghost and mocked their puritanism in A Woman of No Importance. Even in the nineteenth century, the Anglo-American relationship occupied a deep layer of British consciousness.

Post-Suez, the fascination took on a melancholy defeatism as the balance of the relationship shifted and America displaced Britain as the world’s preeminent empire. This was Roger Micheldene in Kingsley Amis’s 1963 novel One Fat Englishman, traveling to America only to find himself both impotently bitter and utterly humiliated. Then, during the Iraq war, the inferiority complex gave way to anger and Hugh Grant told an overbearing American president to shove off in Love Actually.

Americans also feel a kinship with the British: we devour their television, quaff their scotch, relish their tart humor and venerate their royal family more than they do. But the Anglo-American rope as of late is less intertwined with our national identity than with the UK’s. Ask about the special relationship during the Bush administration, and most Americans answered in security terms: Britain the ally, Britain the intel partner, Britain the willing warrior in Iraq. Margaret Thatcher said of the Libya bombing in 1986: “It made America realize that Britain was her real and true friend when they were hard up against it and wanted something, and that no one else in Europe was.” That encapsulates our understanding of the alliance in the 2000s—George W. Bush wanted something, Tony Blair acceded, Jacques Chirac refused. Not surprisingly, by the end of his premiership, Blair was being ridiculed in Britain as a poodle for the White House.