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Brexit Is About Taking a Country ‘Back’

It’s not hard to find parallels to Donald Trump’s campaign.

By Elena Gooray


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The world is receiving the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union as a shock. But, in many ways, the shock comes from an affirmation of fears driven by social change—fears that have been brewing in the U.K. — and the United States — for much longer than the Brexit campaign.

The first major change: immigration. The U.K.’s immigrant population has more than doubled since the E.U. formed in 1993, increasing from 3.8 million to approximately 8.3 million. Europeans constitute a significant portion of immigrants to the U.K., although the top five countries of origin for U.K. immigrants include India (at No. 1), Pakistan, and Nigeria (the other two are Poland and Romania). This massive immigration trend was seized upon by the U.K. Independence Party, which used the Brexit to build a campaign on anti-immigration rhetoric and xenophobia, in effect urging Brits to take the island back for its “rightful” inhabits, with parameters drawn on ethnic and national lines.

The second major change: income inequality. Between 1981 and 2011, the top 1 percent of British earners increased their share in national wealth from 6.7 percent to 12.9 percent. In that same period, that group’s income tax dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent. And the average income of the lowest-income earners dropped throughout the 2000s, falling far behind other Western European countries like France and Germany. This legitimate economic scare for the country’s poorest helps explain the appeal of UKIP’s promise to “bring the money home” from Europe.

And all of this is happening amid what Britons across ideologicalspectrums have hailed as an “erosion” of the social safety net.

How does this concern Americans? The same social changes — and nationalist pushback — have been happening here. Our immigrant population increased by one million between 2013 and 2014 alone; income inequality has, in the past decade, reached levels not seen since the 1920s; our social programs for the most vulnerable don’t hold up. This combination of factors has helped enable a presidential campaign from Donald Trump driven largely by white voters who feel “voiceless” and “powerless” in a demographically changing, economically stratified America.

British voters — almost entirely those aged 40 or older — signed off on Brexit to grasp for a country they feel belongs to them. And one of our presidential candidates just praised them for exactly that: “[taking] back their country.”