They say immigrants steal the hubcaps
Of the respected gentlemen
They say it would be wine an' roses
If England were for Englishmen again
--- “Something About England,” The Clash
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING, what just happened in Britain looks like a lot like an image from a scene in the Wachowskis’ “V for Vendetta” – when all hell is breaking loose at the end of the movie to the sound of the “1812 Overture,” and the terminal threat to the established order is brilliantly distilled in a single shot:
EXT. LONDON, NEAR PARLIAMENT -- NIGHT
As the city skyline glows with fire ... Big Ben explodes at the stroke of midnight.
The vote on Friday to take Britain out of the European Union after 40-plus years of common continental identity may be that “shot heard ‘round the world,” the one that we Americans like to think presaged the American revolution. But the Brexit referendum and its outcome weren’t just apocryphal events, they happened. This shot literally was heard around the world — and a far smaller and thoroughly more interconnected world than the one of the 18th century.
The vote breakdown (52 percent Leave, 48 percent Remain) can be interpreted as Britain’s at-least temporary surrender to a nativist streak, a mood against immigration, a fear given expression in previous and more graphic examples of life in other countries.
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LIKE GERMANY, where neo-Nazis have made and continue to make life hell for immigrants. Or Austria, where a neo-Nazi who threatened to kill refugees was recently arrested. Or the Netherlands, the former home of Anne Frank, where attacks on Islamic mosques have become too commonplace. Or Italy, where patience with immigrants is wearing thin. Or the United States, where the very foundation of our immigrant history has been overlooked in a new rush to xenophobia. Or Britain itself.
“I think that for Americans, it's worth understanding that this referendum was really an up or down vote on the European institutions, which are at best unloved and undervalued, and in some ways derided,” Milliband said Sunday.
“I mean, there's been 20 years of very poisonous attacks on the European Union. The current issue was immigration from other European countries into the U.K. And so in an up or down vote on an institution that is unloved, in a way it's not surprising that you get a downvote. The trouble is you have to live with the consequences. And I always say to people, ‘Populism is popular until it gets elected. And then it has to make decisions.’ And that's when the trouble starts.”
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Milliband continued: “As I said earlier, the major immigration issue was about Poles, and Bulgarians, and Romanians, other European countries coming to the U.K., contributing, I have to say. The unemployment rate among Poles in Britain is lower than the unemployment rate among Brits, which itself is very low at five percent on the American level.
“But the backdrop of the refugee crisis certainly colored this situation. Obviously for the U.S., you're in a very different situation because the blessings of geography mean that you can pick and choose which Syrian refugees you want, unlike in Europe where over probably three quarters of a million people have arrived across the Aegean Sea in smuggled rafts and boats.”
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THERE MAY BE some perverse upside to Brexit — though in real terms, “upside” means looking for a way to make a shit sandwich taste like foie gras. The narrow victory of the Leave campaign hardly suggests a mandate; winning by 4 points is close enough to indicate the broad sentiment of those on the losing side (just not broad enough to win). That ain’t nothing.