Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, being primarily a political and economic decision, has left the political pundits reeling and the financial markets all a flutter. But the British have always maintained a stubborn insular streak towards the rest of Europe, which, in fact most dictionaries have cited (“British insularity”) to actually define the word: residing on an island and wilfully uninterested and supercilious of others.
The French were “Frogs” who were ridiculously lazy and yet rude; Germans were efficient but dour and dull; Southern Europeans were swarthy pretenders barely above the third world and the rest of Europe especially from the eastern regions poverty stricken louts. Muslims from Turkey and elsewhere were figuratively and literally “beyond the pale”. And in fact it is the invasion of Eastern Europeans – Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians etc into Britain under the EU’s “free movement of peoples” stipulation that convinced most of those that voted for ‘Brexit’ – Britain’s Exit – to do so.
While Britain has been dealing with immigrants in increasing numbers since the end of WWII, these were generally from its former’s colony in the West Indies and the Indian Subcontinent. That wave had raised xenophobic (intense and irrational fear and hatred of outsiders) concerns back in the 1960’s which resulted in restrictions in immigration from “the colonies”. As a result before the European Union was created in 1993, net migration — the number of people who move to the UK minus the number of people who move out of it — was less than 100,000 annually.
According to two Oxford researchers: “Between 1993 and 2014 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million. During the same period, the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million.” Most of these were from Central and Eastern Europe, after the EU allowed these ex-communist countries accession after 2004. With most of them being much poorer than other European countries their populace migrated in droves and in the decade between 2004 and 2014 increased Europeans from being one quarter of immigrants into Britain to half. By 2015 there were 3 million persons of EU origin in Britain.
Launched in the 1990’s when the EU was launched, the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party, UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by rabble rousing Nigel Farage, remained in the margins. But with the skyrocketing of immigration after 2004 their support followed the same trajectory: It garnered 4 million votes in the 2015 election, making them the third largest party in the country, just behind the Conservatives and Labour.
Anti-immigrant – especially of the anti-Muslim variety – stoked the xenophobic fears especially of those in the lower classes were were facing employment competition from the European immigrants for unskilled jobs. But more importantly than the votes it received, UKIP’s crucial role was to place anti-immigration on the national agenda and exert pressures on the major parties to move in that direction.
As in the US with the Republican Party, the British Conservative Party was always a latently anti-immigrant and openly “Euro-Sceptic”. The latter issue in fact had helped topple the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher from office. The campaign of fear against European immigrants pushed the majority of Conservative MP’s and their support base to vote for Brexit. Insularity and xenophobia have helped Britain to cut its economic nose to spite its immigration face.