Here are two truths; the question is, how can they be reconciled?
Truth number one: by far the biggest issue in the minds of the men and women who voted for Britain to leave the EU in the June 23 referendum was immigration. They felt it was out of control: that immigrants were undercutting British workers and driving down wages for low-skilled jobs, and that they were putting unbearable pressure on public services, making it harder for British-born families to have access to decent homes, schools, and healthcare. These voters wanted the UK to leave the European Union in order that Britain could reduce immigration and so repair the social and economic damage caused by the influx of people, especially from Eastern Europe.
Truth number two: the parts of Britain that voted most heavily for Brexit were, with just a few exceptions, those with the fewest immigrants. The places with the largest numbers—and, presumably, where the pressures on local wages, housing, schools, and hospitals were greatest—voted heavily for Britain to remain in the EU. (And no, this is not simply because immigrants largely, though by no means unanimously, opposed Brexit: the Remain vote was so big, often around 70 percent, that white British-born voters supported Remain in far greater numbers than white voters in the strongest Brexit areas.)
Reconciling these truths is far more than a matter of satisfying curiosity about quirks in Britain’s electorate. It goes to the heart of one of the biggest, most troubling trends in a great many countries: the growing resentment of the political establishment and the rise of rejectionist politics.
In the UK, these trends culminated in the Brexit vote—and, earlier, in the election by the center-left Labour Party after decades of moderation of a firmly rejectionist leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and an array of other European countries, rejectionist leaders from left and right are draining votes from the traditional parties of the center-right and center-left. Austria faces a presidential election rerun with a choice of Green and nationalist candidates. In Finland, Greece, Hungary, Norway, and Poland, rejectionist parties are in government. In the United States, one of the two big parties has a rejectionist candidate for the 2016 presidential election—and the other came far closer than any pundit predicted to choosing one.
Immigration is plainly a factor; but observers should be careful. Relative to their populations, Australia and Canada both admit immigrants in far larger numbers than Britain and, indeed, most of the countries listed above. Yet the impact of rejectionist politicians in both countries has been far less. Something else is going on.
The pattern of the UK’s referendum results suggest what that something else is. Rejectionist politicians appealed most to the people left behind by the twin revolutions of market liberalism and globalization. Britain’s typical Brexit voter left school aged fifteen or sixteen, has an insecure, low-paid job (if a job at all), grapples with increasingly tough welfare policies, struggles to make ends meet, worries that the big rises in recent years in rents and house prices will cripple his or her children’s prospects, and sees folk at the top enjoying ever-higher salaries and bonuses, larger homes, more exotic vacations, and greater influence over government ministers and officials.
The problem is not inequality as such but the perception that the rich are gaining at the expense of the poor—and that governments are simultaneously imposing measures that reinforce these trends rather than offsetting them. Mass immigration is seen as one part of this process, supplying cheap labor for big companies and well-off voters, while holding down wages and reducing job opportunities for unskilled workers.
This judgment may be harsh, but there is one specific respect in which it is undoubtedly true. The public services and welfare net that evolved across the industrialized world in the second half of the twentieth century are becoming hard to fund. The very success of social democracy, in its broadest sense, is causing its destruction. Thanks to better diets and healthcare, people are living longer—and making ever-greater demands on hospitals and pension funds as they grow older. Modern economies need a more skilled workforce, so most people stay in education longer: that also means greater public spending. And so on.
The irony is that while immigration is thought by rejectionists to make these problems worse (leading to complaints about the difficulties of native families in having access to social housing, good local schools, and prompt healthcare), in fact immigrants contribute far more in taxes than they receive in the form of public services and welfare benefits.
Even so, government services and social benefits are under strain in much of the world. Perhaps one reason why rejectionist politicians have enjoyed less success in Australia and Canada is that both are rich in energy and primary commodities and, so far, have not found it quite so hard to sustain the social democratic settlement of the twentieth century.
However, the larger point is this: even if one accepts that new immigration controls are needed, this will do little or nothing to tackle the West’s underlying problems or help marginalize rejectionist politics. The real and much larger challenge is to civilize market forces (without thwarting innovation or deterring genuine wealth creation) and develop a new model for funding and supplying public services, pensions, and welfare benefits.
In Britain, for the moment, it is a moot question whether Brexit will lead to the new thinking the country badly needs—or prove to be a lethally damaging and ruinously expensive distraction.
Peter Kellner is a journalist, political commentator, and former president of YouGov.