As I interpret what happened, ultimately the vote was about preserving the English nation, and yes I use those last two italicized words deliberately. For centuries, England has been filled with English people, plus some others from nearby regions. Go visit Norfolk and also stop in Great Yarmouth, once described by Charles Dickens as “…the finest place in the universe,” and which, for whatever decline it may have experienced, still looks and feels like England. London does not.I regard these questions of immigration and identity as inherently hard. Many, many people simply want their world to stay the way it has been. It may be hard to write down in clear prose what that means, but Cowen is right that a place like Great Yarmouth feels English in a way that much of London does not. Is that inherently illegitimate? Is it simply racist and wrong to prefer a homeland of native-born English and fish and chips shops to a diverse neighborhood with dozens of nationalities and every sort of ethnic food?
As Zack Beauchamp notes: “…the number of foreign-born people living in the UK has gone from 2.3 million in 1993 (when Britain joined the EU) to 8.2 million in 2014.” . . .
Cities such as Bradford, while still predominantly white, no longer feel as English as they once did. And if you are thinking that voting “Leave” does not at all limit Pakistani immigration, you are truly missing the point; this vote was the one lever the English were given for sending a message to their politicians. . . .
Quite simply, the English want England to stay relatively English, and voting Leave was the instrument they were given. . . .
Much has been made of the supposed paradox that opposition to immigration is highest where the number of immigrants is lowest. Yes, some of that is the racism and xenophobia of less cosmopolitan areas, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss it as such or even to mainly frame it as such. Most of all it is an endowment effect. Those are the regions which best remember — and indeed still live — some earlier notion of what England was like. And they wish to hold on to that, albeit with the possibility of continuing evolution along mostly English lines.
One way to understand the English vote is to compare it to other areas, especially with regard to immigration. If you read Frank Fukuyama, he correctly portrays Japan and Denmark, as, along with England, being the two other truly developed, mature nation states in earlier times, well before the Industrial Revolution. And what do we see about these countries? Relative to their other demographics, they are especially opposed to very high levels of immigration. England, in a sense, was the region “out on a limb,” when it comes to taking in foreigners, and now it has decided to pull back and be more like Denmark and Japan. The regularity here is that the coherent, longstanding nation states are most protective of their core identities.
The great example of a place that puts national identity first is Japan. As Japan's population ages and its economy stagnates, many outsiders assume that it must, at some point, open itself to large-scale immigration. But this view is not at all popular in Japan, and their government shows no sign of even considering it. Most Japanese prefer to live in an aging, shrinking, depressed nation that still feels Japanese, rather than invite in millions of immigrants who would re-invigorate the economy but change the culture. Are they wrong? Or, more important, do they have the right to make that decision?
I am myself a cosmopolitan, with very little interest in preserving American culture in whatever form. Given the choice that the people of Britain faced, I would choose a more open and worldly society; I would value the freedom to live wherever I wanted in Europe over the preservation of my native place as it used to be. But I am not at all sure that voting to keep your home as it was is inherently an illegitimate act.