Brexit seems like a self-inflicted wound. It turned legitimate grievances about questionable regulation into a grotesque overreaction.
The recent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a good time to ponder the now common impulse around the world to offer voters the candy of cultural segregation. Brexit was about many things: everything from the price of butter in the shops to tighter controls on who can visit and stay within the United Kingdom. Donald Trump’s southern wall is a cruder manifestation of the same impulse, as were the recent chants of “USA! USA!” from thugs in the halls of the Capitol.
Around the world nationalism is having its moment against internationalism. This resurgence has hobbled the work and play of many who rightly sense that their futures depend on engaging others across political borders that are out of date by hundreds of years.
Until this year, residents of the U.K. had an open ticket to explore an incredibly diverse part of the world.
The idea of forming a kind of United States of Europe was one of the real international achievements of the Twentieth Century, tossed aside by expensively-educated Tories looking for an easy way to mollify restless voters. It was a modern marvel to witness France, Britain and Germany working together to open borders and minds. And so many benefited, especially younger Brits and their continental counterparts who understood that it was now their birthright to explore a range of traditions and languages only a train ride away. It wasn’t just businesspersons who woke up in Britain and met clients for lunch in Paris. Swedes and Scots, Northern Irelanders and Greeks, English and Austrians traveled a vast and open region encompassing 28 countries. Up to the end of 2020, U.K. residents had greater opportunities to go to college, work, and to explore an incredibly diverse part of the world. Musicians could do the same, accepting a gig in an Italian club or French theater with a minimum of paperwork. Visas and work permits were relics of the last world war and a more suspicious age.
Britons will need to relearn the rules of foreign travel in ways that many still inside the EU will not. Most European youth and some cross-border workers on the continent have escaped the effects of Brexit. But a British student or musician is now more confined to their shrinking home country, which has triggered new pleas for independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland especially benefited as an equal trading partner with other nations in the EU.
It is surely no coincidence that Britain’s most beloved orchestra conductor, Liverpool native Simon Rattle, just announced that he is seeking German citizenship and will abandon his post with the London Symphony Orchestra. Rattle has made his point: as a musician he wants no part of a English provincialism.
It is reassuring that Joe Biden generally takes a dim view of Britain’s attempt to go big on patriotism and think small as an island. Biden’s internationalist instincts represent at least a momentary pushback against the separatism that fueled Brexit. But he will have his hands full with a withered GOP that still panders to a base of aging white Americans wishing for a monoculture that never was.
In the end, I seriously doubt that Britons are going to feel any better about their politics, save for those who viewed the rest of the world as much “too foreign” to visit. There are some signs that buyer’s remorse may already be setting in. But if they are still able to warm to the new status quo, they will come to resemble the travel agent I once met near Birmingham in the center of England. Even in middle age she had yet to find her way to Scotland just a few hundred miles away.