Brexit was a vote against London, globalization, and multiculturalism as much as a vote against Europe. It was a vote against cosmopolitan elites who brought Britain into the European Union (EU), who benefited from the EU, and who were widely believed to look down on those who felt they did not. And of course it was a vote for the good old days, in complaint against a frustrating present.
The Brexit story is at once very British, especially English, and part of a troubling global pattern. Similar populist pushback against globalization is prominent on the European continent. It was a central theme of the Donald Trump campaign in the United States, where it was married to authoritarianism and open racism as well as a similar hostility to immigrants. Partially similar populism, nationalism, and indeed authoritarianism shape politics in Russia, India, and China. There is a tendency to discuss each in terms of national history, context, personalities, and cultural memes – but the explanations of each are partly international, not all idiosyncratically domestic.
There Will Always Be an England
In a sense, Brexit is misnamed: England voted to leave the EU. Technically, of course, the state that held the referendum and will now negotiate withdrawal was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in Europe. It was England that decisively chose Brexit. Wales, lacking any significant independent economy, did stick with England against Europe but brought a tiny number of votes. In any case, England and Wales are not quite enough to make a Great Britain.
Curiously Brexit is an expression of English (more than British) nationalism. It came on the heels of a decades- long decline in British unity. Before the referendum, many proudly displayed the St. George's Cross – a symbol of England not Britain. Still, most supporters showed no desire for a breakup of Britain. Most seem to wish for Britain to be Great again, though their yearning for renewal of Great Britain presumes English dominance.
British nationalism, when it was ascendant, was anchored in the British Empire. The British nation was forged significantly overseas, in war and empire. These were backed up by trade and religion.