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Opinion | Noah Guiney

Brexit was a referendum on what it means to be British


Last Thursday my wife, along with over 1,000 people representing 83 countries piled into a theater in Sacramento, Calif., to be sworn in as United States citizens. It was a celebration of the unity that can spring from difference. Later that day the United Kingdom, the country where I was born and raised, voted to leave the European Union, and in doing so rejected the exact sort of unity that my wife had just pledged to uphold. It was a stark juxtaposition, and one that gets at the heart of the cultural crisis gripping the UK.

Britain is a country with an identity crisis. Is it still a world power, or is it just an American client state? Is it European, or not? Are tolerance and multiculturalism defining civic virtues, or is it a country primarily for people with British blood — however that is defined?


Last week’s vote shows just how fundamental those questions are. Brexit was meant to be a way for Prime Minister David Cameron to quiet a vocal faction of his Conservative Party that was deeply skeptical of a united Europe and enamored with a nostalgic vision of Britain’s place in the world. Remaining in the EU should have been a slam dunk: Economists almost universally agreed that leaving would be a disaster for the economy. But for many in the United Kingdom, the European Union isn’t an economic body. It is an organization that gives people from Southern and Eastern Europe unfettered access to British jobs and benefits. As the European Union struggled to solve the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Leave camp began to lean more heavily on an ugly, anti-immigrant message, the Brexit vote turned into a referendum on what it means to be British. And in that context, numbers never stood a change against nativism and nationalism. On June 23, a majority of the British public voted for a future that rejected immigrants and open borders in favor of inward-looking xenophobia.

It was the clearest expression the British people have given since the end of the Second World War of what they think it means to be British. It was deeply troubling to see.


But as much as the pro-Brexit camp would hate to admit it, leaving the European Union will do little to slow immigration. Almost 75 percent of net migration to Britain comes from outside the Eurozone. Bureaucrats in Brussels have no say in whether these people come to Britain or not. Even if cultural purity was a legitimate reason to enact public policy – and it is not – Brexit was a bad way of going about it.

The United Kingdom will keep on indulging in this sort of toxic self-delusion until it realizes that identity and nationality are not the same thing. Globalization brings British culture out into the world just as in brings immigrants in. In the process, what it means to be British changes. Sadiq Khan, the Pakistani-British mayor of London, is no less British than Boris Johnson, his predecessor as mayor and one of the most vocal advocates for leaving the Union. Thursday’s vote didn’t change that. The British live in a nation of immigrants whether they like it or not. Whether your grandmother was born in Manchester has never been less relevant in determining whether you are British.


Brexit passed because a majority of voters bought into the idea that their country’s future should look like a fairy-tale version of its past. The sad part is that they traded economic prosperity and global influence for a lie. The future of Britain looks a lot like the swearing-in ceremony I saw in Sacramento — a group of people from all over the world trading in one nationality for the chance to live, work, and thrive in another country.

Noah Guiney is a former Globe opinion writer.