Brexit Is Fueling the Nativist Movement in Britain: A Debate
On the second anniversary of Britain's split with the EU, two leading British intellectuals duel over this question
On Jan. 27, the Mercatus Center and American Purpose co-hosted a debate on the above motion featuring:
Stephen Davies, a historian, who is the head of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of “The Economics and Politics of Brexit,” 2020, “Empiricism and History,” 2003, “The Wealth Explosion,” 2019, and “The Streetwise Guide to The Devil,” 2020. He is also a regular contributor to this site.
David Goodhart, head of the demography unit at Policy Exchange and founder and former editor of Prospect magazine. Goodhart has written two books related to Brexit, “The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics,” 2017, a Sunday Times bestseller, and “Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century,” 2020.
Davies argued in the affirmative and Goodhart in the negative.
Chair of the American Purpose editorial board, Francis Fukuyama of “The End of History” fame made introductory remarks and yours truly moderated.
What follows is a transcript, lightly edited for clarity and flow, of Fukuyama’s opening remarks and Davies and Goodhart’s comments.
You can watch the whole debate here. A robust audience Q&A followed that is well worth watching. It starts at around the 34-minute mark.
Francis Fukuyama’s Introductory Remarks:
Brexit marks the coming of populism in established democracies. You had people like [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban for several years previously, but this kind of vote in a big well-established democracy like Britain was a huge shock. Of course, it was followed very shortly thereafter by the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016.
The debate that was kicked off is what we're going to rehearse in many ways today, which is really an interpretive one over why this was happening. It led to a number of divisions in opinion. There were many correlates of populism and one of the big divisions was whether this was primarily about economics or whether it was about culture and in which direction the causality was going. I think there was also a moral debate over the right and wrong of the people that had voted for Brexit and that would go on to vote for Donald Trump in the United States.
One side castigated the Leave vote and the Trump voters as being nativists, basically tinged with racism or fears of losing their privileged position and so forth. Others had a more sympathetic view that actually the elites, the targets of the populace, in certain ways deserved the treatment that they were getting. I think that David Goodhart in particular, in his book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future, talked about the ways in which that anti-elite feeling was actually grounded in something real and understandable.
Of course, this debate differs in different countries. So, for example, in the United States race has been a much more prominent issue than in Britain or certainly than in continental European countries. To what degree populism is really a hidden debate about race? Issues have been evolving very rapidly not just since 2016, but in the past year under the conditions of COVID. Populist sentiment has shifted from anti-immigration to opposition to vaccines and a generalized distrust of experts, particularly medical experts.
I look forward to hearing the two sides of how the United Kingdom has moved since then.
Stephen Davies’ Opening Statement:
Brexit is definitely fueling the nativist movement in Britain because, first of all, it has structurally changed the incentives facing British politicians. Secondly, it has mobilized and given an identity to a particular group of voters for whom nativism and hostility to globalism is a core and central value. This may not be apparent at the moment but I think that it will become very apparent in the next two to three years because of the way those two factors interact with each other.
When Brexit actually happened, a lot of the people arguing for Britain to leave the European Union did so in the expectation that it would lead to a global Britain. That it would open an opportunity for a much more classical liberal British policy and economy, a “Singapore-on-Thames” as it was called. I always thought — and said so at the time in several places — that this was a fantasy. That, in fact, it was likely to lead to other results, which were not so welcome.
I think you could get an idea of this from the campaign that the Leave side actually fought. One of its core claims was that Brexit was important because it would enable the British state to control its own borders by restricting immigration. A crucial event in the campaign was when Nigel Farage, one of the leading spokesman’s of the Leave side [and the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party —UKIP], showed a large picture of refugees coming into Europe from Turkey. This was claimed to be the kind of thing that we would be able to avoid through Brexit. At the same time, there was a completely fraudulent, I have to say, scare story whipped up by his campaign that Turkey was about to join the EU and this would lead to the influx of 90 million Turks and others, many of whom would come to the U.K. Nativism and hostility to immigration was, in reality, a central feature of the Leave campaign and a major mobilizing factor for a substantial part of the 52% of the population that voted to leave in 2016.
Now, right now the opinion polls show that the British concern for immigration has actually fallen quite sharply compared with where it was before the referendum. It's now quite a long way down the list of priorities. People quite obviously think that the Coronavirus is a higher priority, as well as other things such as inflation and the state of the British economy. Also, British attitudes towards immigration measured by surveys appear at first sight to be going in precisely the right direction, much more liberal, much more open, much more prepared to say that immigration is on net a good thing for the U.K.
What those polls also reveal, however, is that there is a significant and substantial minority that remains deeply hostile to immigration, strongly nativist in sentiment, and strongly opposed to any measure to relax immigration controls. And also very concerned and agitated by things like the passage of migrants across the Channel in small boats and dinghies despite the breast-thumping rhetoric of Priti Patel the British Home Secretary. The Brexit campaign mobilized a significant number of previous non-voters and those who otherwise were divided between both the Conservative Party and the Labor Party but for whom national identity, nativism and opposition to immigration was a central priority, a central part of their political identity. These people had felt before 2016 that their views had no chance of success. Now they felt that if they got Brexit, their views would be put into effect and they would be recognized and addressed by the political class.
This mobilized them to vote in large numbers. It also gave them a clear sense of an identity. Now, this has had two effects. The first is that the incentives facing British principal parties, particularly the Conservative Party, have shifted. The Conservative Party now, in order to retain the majority that it acquired in the 2019 election, has to keep those voters on-site because they are a critical part of the coalition that delivered major gains in the north of England and the Midlands.
The other part of the incentive is that if they do appeal to those people, they may well lose centrist voters. Now, it seems to me that therefore going forward, as the pandemic recedes, immigration is going to once again return to center stage. The people who voted for Brexit in the expectation that immigration will be controlled and their concerns addressed, about half of the total 52%, are going to be extremely angry and agitated if they feel that this is not happening.
Either the Conservative Party will have to pander to that nativist sentiment as it's already beginning to do. Or those people will, once again, rally around someone like Nigel Farage, an explicitly populist party. What we are talking about here is 25% to 26% of all voters for whom it's a central issue and who have now been given a clear-cut identity by the Brexit campaign and by the expectations that it has raised.
We are faced with the rather grim prospect, I think, that either those expectations will be met and nativism will succeed. Or they will be disappointed and they will become more mobilized and therefore politically effective.
The motion has it exactly right. The rocket of nativism in Britain has maybe not taken off, but it's just been fueled and primed by Brexit.
David Goodhart’s Opening Statement:
There is a great irony about this debate, because I actually voted “Remain,” and Stephen voted to leave the European Union. I have subsequently not become a kind of full-blooded Brexiteer, because I don't think that — contrary to what Stephen was saying — they actually do still constitute a major merger of British politics. But I was certainly one of those Remain voters who thought that we should recognize — we should fulfill — the outcome of the referendum.
Partly through the book I wrote, The Road to Somewhere, and my looking at what I would regard as legitimate populism, I do have some sympathy for a lot of the impulses that lie behind the Brexit vote. I think most of them are perfectly decent impulses. There is a nativist, even racist, fringe in all developed countries. I don't think it's particularly large in the U.K., and I think it's probably become smaller since Brexit.
There is a problem in defining the word “nativism.” It's not particularly commonly used in British politics — perhaps more so in the U.S. When it is used, it is often a polite word for racism. All of the British Social Attitudes surveys’ evidence and the evidence of one's own eyes suggest that racism has been in sharp decline in Britain over the last 40 or 50 years. I think the latest figure I saw was that 94% of people thought that you didn't have to be white to be truly British. That's not the only kind of measure, and no doubt many of those 94% are people who do hold prejudices of one kind or another.
But there isn't really a nativist movement in the U.K. Nigel Farage was a very powerful and successful politician, never elected to the House of Commons, but the power of the UKIP vote did contribute very significantly to what Frank did just describe as the first big populist breakthrough. I think that oddly enough, because of the first-past-the-post system, we do not have lots of small populist parties, as they do in much of continental Europe. That used to make us rather smug here — it used to make liberal Britain rather smug — thinking that we’ll never have the kind of populist movements that they have in the Front National in France, or the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, or whatever, not necessarily because we're winning the argument, but because our system sort of prevents it.
But in a funny way, it made our system more brittle and vulnerable to a brake light represented by Brexit — that actually having populist parties absorbs the populist voice, gives it a representation in the public sphere, and therefore, I think, in some ways weakens it. I think that is what has happened now with Brexit.
Now, you might say that there's a fair amount of collateral damage in that process, and that we have now left the European Union, and that this will obviously have some economic damage. But I think it will also have some benefits, both economically and politically. Hostility to the way that free movement worked was a substantial part of Brexit, but that is a subset of the bigger anxiety, which is about national democratic accountability. Looking at how the European Union is likely to develop — how it is going to need to develop over the next few years and decades — it is going to have to take more and more decisions more and more centrally. The national vetoes are going to have to be weakened. People are going to have to accept that decisions are taken — both political and often legal decisions will be taken — that they will have no say over, they will have no recourse to overturning.
As I say: What is nativism? If you define nativism as placing the rights of national citizens before noncitizens, then I'm a nativist, and probably 80% of citizens of most liberal democracies are nativists. Or if you think that nativism is the idea that national democratic accountability should come before rule by international agreement or legal decisions over which you have no control, then again, I would plead guilty to being a nativist. That is stretching the concept of nativism to include, like I say, most citizens in modern democracies.
One of the key differences between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump is, I think it's fair to say, that Boris Johnson effectively co-opted what might be described as our nascent nativist movement. I think it's probably more accurate to describe it as a nascent populist movement — a kind of [Nigel] Farageist grouping, which probably does represent 10% to 15% of the population, mainly elderly voters, so it is going to decline over time. That group was essentially co-opted and brought into the mainstream in the 2019 election that he won so decisively. Whereas Trump stimulated very aggressive forms of populism and even nativism. Boris is essentially a very liberal figure, and you can see that from our current immigration policy, which is more liberal than it's been — significantly more liberal than it's been — in recent decades, with much greater support.
Stephen admitted this. I wonder in some ways why we're even debating this, unless you are going to not accept the evidence of opinion polls. There has been actually a remarkable liberalization of views in Britain, but particularly towards immigration, which is probably the most important. If you're talking about nativism and nativist attitudes, then attitudes towards immigration are obviously key. Stephen admitted that the salience of immigration has declined, partly because Brexit has happened. Free movement has ended.
There was actually a substantial fall in the East European population. Partly because of COVID, a lot of East Europeans went home when the pandemic struck. People actually felt that for once, the people whose views were not usually represented by the political class had had their say in the referendum, and it had come to pass that free movement had ended. The result is that we are now significantly more liberal in our attitudes to immigration. For most of the last 30 or 40 years, 70-plus percent thought that immigration was either a bit too high or much too high. That figure has now fallen to 45%. That’s the lowest figure since records began.
There's also been a convergence, a really positive convergence, between Remainers and Brexiteers on the immigration question. I think a lot of Remainers came to accept that there was a problem with the open-endedness of free movement from the European Union. We would become probably one of the big countries that attracted the most people. It was very difficult to predict how many people were going to come. Back in 2004, when labor markets were opened to the East Europeans, it was predicted that 10,000 people would come a year. In fact, it was about a million and a half over two or three years. That broke people’s confidence in governments, really, and indeed in the European Union.
But we are now significantly more liberal. We've had a convergence between Remainers who accept that some control is needed and Brexiteers or Leavers who accept that control is, in a sense, more important than numbers. They’ve become a bit more relaxed about higher numbers.
I should draw my thoughts to a close. But to very briefly mention just how much more liberal our immigration policy is now, we've reintroduced something called a “Post-Study Work” scheme, which allows people who study here to stay on and work for a couple of years. That had been stopped. We have a very light-touch point system for people coming for jobs that are even remotely skilled. About 65% of jobs in the U.K. economy are covered by the light-touch immigration system.
Perhaps most surprising and welcome of all — and certainly, I think, further proof of the nonnativism of post-Brexit Britain — is the fact that we have recently announced that we would offer a very large proportion of the Hong Kong population the opportunity to come and live in Britain. By the government's estimate, more than 5 million Hong Kongers will have the right to come and live in Britain. This was done preemptively. Something like this was not done in the middle of the 1970s with some of these previous movements of, like, East-African Asians, the Southern crisis, when governments had to respond.
In this case, we preempted the issue, and it has been quite popular. Two-thirds of the population supports a move to allow 5 million Hong Kong Chinese people to come and live in Britain. I think that's game, set, and match for global Britain.
Now, it's true, as Stephen says, that there's a bigoted minority, a resentful minority, as there is in all countries. There was the potential that that minority was going to grow bigger and bigger and more and more resentful, partly for some of the reasons I laid out in my book, The Road to Somewhere. So much of British politics had been dominated for so long by what I called the liberal graduate worldview: pro-openness, pro-mobility, pro-autonomy — progressive liberal individualism, in effect.
The Brexit vote was partly a reaction against that overdominance; both parties, broadly speaking, expressed that worldview, that outlook. The Brexit vote was a rare opportunity for all of those voters who felt excluded by the dominance of that worldview and politics to do something about it. Brexit was collateral damage.
As Boris Johnson said the first day after Brexit, this was as much a vote against London as it was against Brussels — probably more of a vote against London than against Brussels.
Stephen Davies’ Response:
I'm in the strange position of agreeing with the content of what David says, but drawing different conclusions from it. The first thing is that the nativist group we've been talking about in Britain — people who strongly adhere to an ethnically based version of British identity — they're not a fringe; they make up, by most accounts, between 20% and 25%, 26% of the electorate. This nativism is not actually explicitly racist in the sense that it's not specifically or peculiarly targeted against people of color.
In fact, the major concern was with East European immigration, particularly from Poland, but also Bulgaria, Romania, and the like. It's a more generalized nativism, and opposition to mobility and high levels of immigration. Now he is quite right, as I said myself, there has been a distinct move in a liberal direction in terms of both policy and public attitude of Britain since 2019, all very well and good. I approve strongly of this. However, what I would also say is that the 25% I mentioned — about half of those who voted “Leave” — have been mobilized and led to expect that they would get something, which in fact, they're not getting.
What will therefore happen in my view is that they will become highly mobilized, extremely angry, and very likely to form a much more effective populist movement. Or, alternatively, the Conservative Party will find that in order to retain the seats it won the last election, it will have to appeal to those voters. The reason being that although they're only 25%, they are geographically very concentrated. In our electoral system, that actually counts for a lot. Concentrated votes count for a lot more than widely spread and diffused ones. That is why I think Brexit has set in place a dynamic. Now, I'm quite confident that the liberal side will win the argument. But it will have provoked, I think, a much more powerful, self-aware populist movement than we had before.
David Goodhart’s Response:
Stephen has a point, but I do think he's worrying too much. I think there is the possibility that it could turn angry. I think, actually, what all of these polls suggest is that the people who had felt excluded, whose voices have not been heard in the corridors of power, are rather surprisingly grateful that Brexit happened, that free movement has ended, that various other things that are almost the inevitable consequence of Brexit and that they have favored will happen.
Also, don't forget, as I've already said, these tend to be very old voters. To the extent that there is a nativist or populist movement centered around figures like Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, they have gone very libertarian — like American nativists, they've gone very libertarian in the pandemic, rather surprisingly in a way. You might have expected them to go in a more authoritarian direction, but they've gone very libertarian, very anti-restrictions. I think that has lost some credibility amongst the mainstream voter.
I think there's a bigger shift going on that Steven did allude to. I think this possibly represents another of those shifts the Tory Party has engaged in. Because the Tory Party ended up by chance having to manage and represent and drive through Brexit, it has ended up representing a larger chunk of working-class voters. Quite a few working-class voters have always voted Tory, but it's ended up with a much bigger chunk.
Now, part of that was because Jeremy Corbyn was so unattractive to mainstream Labour voters back in 2019. It may be that a lot of those voters won’t stay with the Tory Party — the so-called “red wall” voters who voted for Boris Johnson's Conservative Party in 2019. Nonetheless, this could be a semi-Disraelian moment when the party makes another of those big leaps almost into the unknown towards — to put it crudely, relative to its own historic past — a bit to the left on economics and a bit to the right on culture.
This is not a disgraceful position to take, and it's one that I would take myself. I regard myself as a — well, in fact, the same as what I would call the “Daniel Bell” position. Daniel Bell, famously in that interview back in the 1980s, was asked what his political credo was, and he said, "I'm a social democrat in economics, I'm a liberal in politics, and I'm somewhat conservative in cultural and social matters." [Editor’s note: Daniel Bell is the late Harvard sociologist who is considered one of the founders of the original neo-conservatism. He studied the cultural contradictions of capitalism and examined the role that the state could play in addressing them.]
This is the hidden majority in all of our countries. Because of the way that politics is played out — the way that left and right is played out, Republican, Democrat, Labour and Tory — that combination of a bit to the left on economics and a bit to the right on culture has never found a voice. Populist parties have often had that combination, but often in a very aggressive way that's rather unattractive to more mainstream voters.
You've now got the Tory Party representing that — it’s the Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings intellectual axis. Boris Johnson, as you know, he's now in a lot of trouble. He's a sort of front-of-house guy who doesn’t really have an intellectual political position.
But the Tory Party, because of the vicissitudes of the electoral system and Brexit, has found itself with a very different constituency. I think it is to some extent satisfying that constituency with some of the other things it's doing. It constantly talks about “levelling-up.” (We're going to have a white paper on leveling up in a couple of weeks.) It's shifted the approach away from the emphasis on sending everybody to university to investing much more in technical skills and further education. This is all part of the agenda of a lot of those people who felt excluded from mainstream politics. It's pushed back a bit against the kind of woke takeover of institutions, it’s attacked the people that attack statues, it's worrying about free speech in universities, and so on. A lot of people think it should be going further in that respect, but it's done something.
So Stephen fears that we're building up an angry 20% or so of the electorate who are going to explode at some point in the next few years because their nativism is not being reflected. I think the nativists are a very, very small group. They're very elderly, and they're not going to be dominating British politics.
Postscript: Stephen Davies’ explanation for why he voted for Brexit:
I did so because of my even deeper pessimism about the future direction and prospects of the EU — and also because of the concerns that David alludes to about national self-governments and sovereignty. The idea that a political community, unless it consciously and deliberately decides to surrender that sovereignty, should be self-governing to some degree, and this is for good or bad. What Brexit does is increase the range of options open to British voters and I expected that they might well choose options I didn't like.
The other reason, the big reason is that I think that in the [the 1992] Maastricht Treaty, the European Union's leaders engaged in an incredible hubris and folly when they created a single currency without a single government to back it up. Pretty much every economist on the planet told them this was a bad idea.
Now, going forward, there are only two routes forward as [French Prime Minister] Emmanuel Macron has clearly said: One is to scrap the Euro. The other is to create a European Central Government. The problem for the second call, which is the one I think they're going to be driven to, is that there isn't a European demos. In order for Macron to get his way on that, he's got to bring on board the so-called Visegrád countries, the East European countries like Hungary, like Poland that are ruled by populists.
Now, how is he going to do that? I think it's very clear if you look at the campaign he's running at the moment in France or the kind of cozying up to Orban that he's been doing is to create a European demos on the basis of a shared identity that is Christian — i.e. not Muslim and also not Jewish actually (but they won't say too much about that). Secondly, white, and therefore, not African or South Asian. And, also, thirdly, not American, because that's one of the key parts of the whole thing.
I think that's the political trajectory that I can see Europe going down. Alternatively, the European Union will be in really, really bad trouble. I think it may well fall apart, which is the lower probability outcome for me. Either of those is really bad. I don't want Britain to be a part of either of those projects, if you will. That's why reluctantly and with a very heavy heart, I actually voted “leave.”