The Siege of London
Back in high school, I knew a kid named Merrick. He was geeky to an extreme, awkward. Not bad looking, but in his junior year in high school he got his first girlfriend with a girl who (also not bad looking) had not yet had a boyfriend. He left the state for college, and we lost touch. We ran into each other in a very chance encounter, and he had transformed into someone completely different. Gone was the awkward arrogance of the geek, in was the confidence of someone who had made it in the financial world of London with a gorgeous wife and a polished demeanor.
Merrick had some sharp words about the Brexit. He voted against it for largely cultural reasons, though he said it would be economically disastrous as well. There is not much unusual in his analysis except for the personal aspect. This is not what he wanted, but it’s not the end of the world for him. He has skills and education. He is not rooted in Britain and if they hang out an unwelcome sign, he can do his thing in New York or Dublin or anywhere else. If Britain decides it doesn’t want him, he has no need of it.
His readiness and willingness is a perfectly fair response. And it’s fortunate that he has the opportunity to pick up and go. There’s a decent chance I would, too.
I look at it as (potentially) London’s loss and Britain’s. Merrick and his cohort are law-abiding, educated money-generators. Any sane country should want as many of them as possible. If he leaves London I hope it’s to return to the states. I want as many Merricks as we can find, regardless of their country of origin. I’m not in favor of open borders, but there aren’t that many of his caliber and if we took them all in, it would be almost all upside. Okay, okay, when it comes to Merrick I may be a bit biased, but you get the idea. I look at Merrick and people like him as a gain for any economy and culture that would have them, and I would similarly view their departure as a loss.
That’s not the only way of looking at it, however. Now, most uncharitably the other way of looking at it is looking at Merrick and noticing that he’s not white. He’s not not-white, either, exactly. He has olive skin, black hair, and a Scottish name. I suspect that as far as the census bureau is concerned, he’s white, but if a climate of hate were to take over Britain, he could very well be a target. In any event, no matter how good his accent, one thing he isn’t is English. He is as American as American can be, and to them he is a foreigner. Though he isn’t Jewish and doesn’t use the latter word, he’s a rootless cosmopolitan. Living in London.
All of these things are potentially important. In 2013, Alex Massie wrote a foreshadowing piece on the relationship between London and England, and it is pretty fraught. The internationalization and wealth of London has separated it from the rest of the country in a way that isn’t healthy. There was a predictable urban/rural divide, but notably England’s second largest city voted to leave. And despite Britain being an urban country, Leave won more votes.
The rest of the country doesn’t feel like it’s in it with London, and the response after the vote actually sort of confirmed that fact. “You want to leave the EU? Fine! We’ll leave you!” and something about inquiring whether apples were enjoyable. From afar, it looked a fair bit like the Remain’s motto could be boiled down to “London is who we are.” This sold better in London than outside of London. Which was lost due to the fact that everyone involved seemed to be from London.
As, of course, is Merrick. Which makes Merrick emblematic of three causes of resentment: He’s an immigrant, he’s based in London, and he’s in the money, both making good money and involved in the financial sector. As such, it’s really quite possible that the rest of England might not miss him as much as they should.
The debate that has erupted elsewhere is whether or not the Leave campaign was racist. Some observers are looking at other explanations, such as much of the above about London and inequality and the like. Others just don’t understand why we can’t call racism racism. It’s racist. It’s racist. It’s racist.
Which much of it is. Maybe most of it or maybe just some. It depends on how we define the term, and how much weight we apply to it. But somewhere north of 0% of it is racism, and somewhere south of 100% of it is racism. Advocates of Leave like to argue it’s not racism because racism is unseemly and they themselves are not racist so what gives? Organizers, though, know that they have the racist vote and have done little to distance themselves from the votes that they need. Advocates of Remain, however, like the theory because it means that they can ignore the other side. If it’s racism it’s wrong. QED. But what do you do when you draw the line of racism, and 52% of the country is on the wrong side of it? Saying racist isn’t enough. Even if we grant your moral and intellectual superiority, what do you do with an inferior electorate?
We often view these things as “local” problems. In the US, people are talking about what the GOP did to invite Trump, and of course Trump himself for what he is and isn’t doing. In Britain folks are blaming the Leavers and Cameron for giving the public a say, and playing footsie with them to begin with. But there is something in the water, because it’s happening “locally” in a lot of places concurrently. No matter how much Matthew Yglesias argues that Obama’s approval numbers suggest it’s a narrow phenomenon, 43% of the Democrats voted for a self-described socialist, 45% of Republicans voted for a megalomaniacal buffoon under a white ethnocentric banner, Labour voters remain firmly behind the Jeremy Corbyn that was firmly rejected by his own MP’s, the National Front remains a force in France, AfD is ascendant, Pirates are taking over Iceland, the right-wing party in Sweden has been atop the polls, both the Golden Dawn has been causing trouble in Greece and Syriza erected in the last decade, and the mainstream parties in Austria combined for 23% of the vote in the last presidential election, leaving a (newly vacated) runoff between the a left-wing independent and the far-right Freedom Party of Jorg Haider.
On the right especially, they’re becoming a force within mainstream parties and when they can’t they’re creating their own formidable ones. Its not clear what the effective response is. The consensus is breaking down. The politics of respectability is losing respect. Cosmopolis vs Hinterlandia has become an international phenomenon. The historical tactic of dismissing the fringe as the fringe isn’t working anymore. The fringe is closing in.
By the rules of the modern world, Merrick is what makes London great, and London is what makes England great. But only by some standards of greatness. Merrick doesn’t need Britain. Britain, or at least England, increasingly believes it doesn’t need Merrick.