There is a remark attributed to the German philosopher J.G. Herder that Heimat ist da, wo man nicht sich erklären muss: “home is where you don’t have to explain yourself.” The quote seems to be apocryphal (according to the scholar Peter Blickle, Herder never actually uses the word Heimat). But it’s stuck in my mind as I’ve followed the Brexit referendum. Although it’s conducted by means of political and economic arguments, the debate is actually about changing experiences of home. Leavers and Remainers are estranged from each other and their country because they are being forced to explain themselves more and more, with less and less success.
The phenomenon is more obvious in the case of of the Leavers. We have read countless essays about opposition to the EU by older, whiter voters who inhabit unfashionable corners of the UK. These “Little Englanders” might like the freedom to pop over to the Mediterranean coast without a visa and probably don’t think much about transnational regulation of business. But they are deeply disturbed by the mass immigration that has transformed Britain’s cities. Because immigration is so central to our national myths, it is difficult for many Americans to understand the extent and speed of this transformation. In a recent essay, TAC‘s Benjamin Schwarz provided some idea of the scale:
Over the last 18 years, about twice as many immigrants have settled in Britain as had done so in the 49 years (1948-97) that constituted the first wave of mass immigration…Since 2001, Britain’s visible minority population has nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 14 percent today. Already “White British” residents are the minority in London, Luton, Leicester, Slough—as they are in large districts of towns and cities throughout England’s Midlands and North. The visible minority population is projected to rise to about 38 percent by mid-century and to over 50 percent by 2070, which will make Britain by far the most ethnically diverse country in the West.
The standard response is to denounce objections to these developments as xenophobia or racism. Moralizing reductionism allows the referendum’s losers to console themselves with the thought that their opponents are evil. But it reflects a profound failure to understand the cultural trauma on which the Leave vote was based.
Although I’m certain there are exceptions—and among nearly 17,500,000 votes for Brexit, that means many thousands—Leavers do not hate immigrants and racial minorities or wish them harm. That doesn’t mean they want a society in which they feel like strangers. Home is where you don’t have to explain yourself. If you are middle-aged or older, ethnically English, and entertain no cultural pretensions, you have to do a lot more explaining than you used to.
But so do younger people and the educated gentry. Particularly if you live in London or the university towns, you might well feel that you’ve woken up a different country. Like the United States, Britain has been remade by internal as well as external migration. Residential sorting by wealth, education, and age makes it increasingly possible to live only among people who agree with you on every significant question. That is why so many Remainers were sincerely shocked by the result.
The much praised diversity of the New Britain, then, is vertical rather than horizontal. In other words, it tends to produce enclosed, unconnected communities rather than widening the scope of social experience (excursions to exotic restaurants don’t count). The result is that members of these communities feel simultaneously more and less at home. Within their own circles they have to explain almost nothing; outside them, nearly everything is up for discussion.
The same phenomenon is reproduced on the international level. Global cities like London and Paris have become increasingly similar even as they’ve grown more distinct from the countries in which they are located. And not only for the elite. Many immigrants find it easier to move between ethnic enclaves in the capitals than from metropolis to hinterland.
A dialectic of home and homeless helps explain the hostility and incomprehension with which Remainers and Leavers (and their respective transatlantic allies) confront each other. The demographic, economic, and cultural shifts of the last twenty or thirty years have given them both too much and not enough in common. In Sybil, Benjamin Disraeli wrote that 19th century Britain was divided into:
Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.
Today there are too many for the EU, and perhaps the UK, to contain.
Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University.