The elite narrative since the Brexit vote has focused on condescending views of those who voted to Leave: they did not know the consequences, they will be ones most hurt, they are so anti-immigrants, don’t they know that the U.K. economy will tank without the labour influx from the EU, and so on.
I was in Britain during the years leading up to the Brexit vote and also on that momentous occasion. I had the privilege of being Hercule Poirot in a murder mystery. As Agatha Christie explained, Poirot had a unique advantage: the English were willing to share with this Belgian foreigner things they would not share with their close British friends and family. Being a U.S. citizen of South Asian origin, people felt comfortable telling me things that left me unsurprised by the Brexit result.
First let me tell you about the sentiments I heard from British citizens who were first and second generation traditional immigrants. They just could not understand why those who wanted to stay in Europe thought that those who wanted to leave were being racist vis-à-vis immigration. The problem was that Nigel Faraj, the UKIP and even Michael Gove were making speeches about the perils of all these non-British immigrants coming ashore, especially the potential of Turkish immigration one day. For the immigrants who were from South Asia, Caribbean and Africa, all those new immigrants were actually white, including the Turks. In fact, the sentiment among the traditional immigrants was that the Remain proponents were the ones who were racist, albeit in a much more sophisticated way than Faraj and co. You may be surprised to know that many educated professionals of South Asian and West Indian descent voted for Brexit and against what they perceived to be racism.
My friends from the working class told me that EU membership had eroded their job prospects and wages by opening doors for those from Poland, Romania and other east European countries to compete for lower-end working class jobs. Well-educated professionals from Europe have always been able to work in Britain even before EU membership. They were angry that the Labour Party really did not represent them during the Brexit vote. The Labour Party liked many of the EU laws and regulations that were more progressive and labour-friendly than the ones prevalent in the U.K. However, these Labour laws and policies only helped those who had jobs – not those who had their jobs taken away because of membership of the EU. By the way, my friends and relatives, all of them elite professionals and voted to Remain bemoaned the fact that they would lose great plumbers and electricians from Poland who were much better than the “lazy English” who did not have a work ethic. My Professional friends were oblivious to the negative impact this sentiment was having on the British working-class men and women. What made the working class voters even angrier was that the elite left were talking down to them, not understanding their plight at all. The more the educated elite tried to tell the working class that Britain would collapse if there was Brexit, the more they could not relate to this analysis because the world had collapsed around them already!
Many of my friends who were entrepreneurs also did not say out aloud, with the exception of James Dyson, that they were going to vote for Brexit because they were surrounded by corporate friends and venture capitalists for whom Europe was El Dorado. However, for most of them it was clear that the policies and regulations coming out of Europe were stifling innovation in many ways. When the Brussels turned against Uber and Air BnB, darlings of the entrepreneurial set, the die was cast.
My entrepreneurial friends also pointed out that over 40 per cent of start-ups in Silicon Valley were founded by new immigrants from India and China who came as students and stayed on. Their view was that because of EU membership U.K. immigration policy kept away, or at least restricted, the most important people it should attract: well educated students who have the best of technological savvy and entrepreneurial spirit. To paraphrase, what UK needed was “not Polish plumbers but Indian innovators”. My entrepreneurial friends told me that they were going to vote to change the “colour” of immigration.
The government and the educated corporate elite on the right and the left can either react by assuming that those who voted for Brexit did not know what they were voting for, or take the unspoken reasons for the Leave vote seriously, get on with Brexit without an elitist attitude, and with more enlightened immigration and employment policies.