LONDON — So Britain got its country back.
To be more precise: The older, whiter parts of England and Wales think they’re getting their country back — a nostalgic vision of Britain that, one could argue, never existed.
If the situation sounds familiar, then you’ve heard any one of Donald Trump’s stump speeches, or seen the four words he has stamped on thousands of ill-fitting baseball caps: Make America Great Again.
It harkens back to a better time, a simpler time. Back when you could leave your door unlocked and everyone still went to church. When your neighbors were friendlier, cars were bigger and the neighborhood was less, er…ethnic.
It brings to mind a comment made by John Cleese, comic legend of Monty Python fame and certified old person, who lamented in 2011 about how “London is no longer an English city,” referring to the city’s multicultural transformation. He went on, “When the parent culture kind of dissipates, you’re left thinking, ‘What’s going on?’”
It was that seductive nostalgia for a lost culture that many older Britons yearned for as they went to the polls Thursday. The young didn’t feel the same yearning. According to the YouGov unofficial exit poll, 75 percent of voters under the age of 24 voted to remain in the EU, compared to only 39 percent of those aged 65 or older. The youth voted to keep the union together. The elderly tore it apart.
The official results show that London — or, as British pundits insist on calling it in recent weeks, “young, metropolitan London” — voted Remain, as expected. So did Scotland and Northern Ireland. But most of England and Wales, especially in areas with high proportions of older voters, decided they wanted to “Make Britain Great Again.”
That “greatness” can be translated to a homogenous society, disconnected from the global community, free from the tyranny of international organizations and their red tape. A society able to keep immigrants out of the country and away from our jobs and culture. Society as it was before all the bad stuff, like progress, ruined it all.
While running for president in 1976, Reagan gave a speech called “To Restore America,” where he set out why he was running for the White House: “I would like to be president, because I would like to see this country become once again a country where a little 6-year-old girl can grow up knowing the same freedom that I knew when I was six years old, growing up in America,” he said.
Reagan turned six years old in 1917, the same year America entered World War I. By the end of the Great War, over 116,000 Americans would be among the 17 million dead.
That same year, Ell Persons, an African-American woodchopper, was lynched by a mob in Memphis, Tennessee. Five thousand people stood around and watched as Persons was burned alive. One would imagine that Persons did not enjoy “freedom” as much as young Reagan did in 1917.
Whether these memories of a “better yesterday” are based in reality or merely the cherry-picked recollections of an older generation afraid of change, they are driving people all over the Western world to vote against whatever they fear — or think they should fear. Thanks to Great Britain, an alarm has been raised among progressives and liberals in America: If the anti-establishment, anti-immigrant rhetoric could prove persuasive enough to result in Brexit, could it drive Donald Trump to the White House?
Young supporters for the Remain side here tend to be politically savvy about what’s going on in our part of the world. When the subject of Donald Trump comes up, they visibly cringe. Everyone here knows the name, and it seems to bring about actual irritation and fear, like a very annoying Voldemort.
As much as we Americans have become accustomed to see Trump on our TVs every day, in England they usually only see the ‘highlight reel’ of the most alarming, ugly and outrageous things he’s done or said. He has become a bit of an American boogeyman, a caricature of everything they see wrong about America. A common term was used for the possibility of Trump becoming president after Brexit: “a double blow.”
Robin Phelps, a volunteer for the Leave campaign, went so far as to compare Trump to the rise of far-right groups in Europe after World War I. He also saw the same kind of rhetoric in the UK when the Leave campaign stoked the fear of migrants to get votes. “I think the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump show a lot of similarities.”
Ben Cattanu, a British resident originally from Canada, expanded on the idea. He drew a parallel between the refusal of Leave supporters to listen to seasoned statesmen and expert economists, who have been raising the alarm for months about how much Brexit would hurt. In both Brexit and Trump, “it is a rejection of expertise. There’s a jingoism, a nationalism that exists that is the opposite of what something like the EU is doing with the free movement of people and trade… and it’s a very dangerous trend.”
And then there’s Omri, a university student, on why Americans should not vote for Trump: “I think it’s the same type of populism that we’re seeing on the rise in Europe, also seeing on the rise in this country. It’s basically a way of triggering people’s fears in order to cynically exploit that for political gain,” said Omri, who declined to give his last name. “I think Trump has taken it to an extreme that is even beyond what we’ve seen in other places, that he’s willing to basically say and do anything; it’s very incoherent, it’s inconsistent, and it’s very clear that he doesn’t actually care about anything. I think he’s a huge danger to the United States, I think he’s a huge danger to the Western world and to global stability, and it’s very important that Americans don’t vote for him.”
That is just a small sampling of what you hear from the under-24’s here — the young people that this referendum has thrown at the wayside, whose views and desires were discounted as either infantile or naïve. Soon they won’t have the ability to freely move across the continent to travel, work, or discover another future outside the UK – as jobs here are disappearing and London has become unaffordable to virtually everyone. They will no longer feel like they are part of a truly global community.
The youth of Britain have taken a collective gutshot as a decision was made for them that probably never should have been put to a referendum in the first place. They just never thought their fellow countrymen would do “something so ridiculous” and ignore every warning sign.
When they see the words “Make America Great Again,” many Americans are probably thinking the same thing.
Deepan, who is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, was in the UK last week covering the lead-up to and aftermath of the Brexit vote.
Photo credit: Deepan Dutta