The Brexit referendum of June 2016 has become a prism through which political passions are endlessly refracted. Analysts and commentators return to it again and again, finding in it some combination of populism, xenophobia, fascism, tribalism, localism, nostalgia, ignorance, and the righteous anger of the dispossessed. It’s taken to be a harbinger of the end of the EU, or the UK, or both; or to provide evidence of a peculiarly English form of anti-Europeanism; or to show, decisively, the dangers of government by plebiscite. In retrospect, it also seems to have anticipated the election of Donald Trump five months later. It certainly upended British politics. Without it, Theresa May wouldn’t be prime minister, nor would Jeremy Corbyn have become so popular. And it was surprising. It did not, in advance of the vote, seem possible to most people—even to those who hoped that the result would be what it was—that a majority would repudiate EU membership. But that’s what happened, if narrowly: 52 percent of those who voted checked the “leave” box, with a turnout of 72 percent. That’s much less than half of the whole electorate, of course, and there were areas of the UK, particularly Scotland, in which the “remain” vote was well over 60 percent. But still, as plebiscites go, it was a narrow but decisive victory: the British people had spoken—not with one voice, certainly, but loudly. What to make of it?
Among the more distinguished contributions to the flood of Brexit analysis is Roger Scruton’s Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (Bloomsbury, $24, 256 pp.). Scruton is an English philosopher now in his seventies who has written intelligently and interestingly on a wide variety of topics, including music, sex, art, political theory, ecology, and fox-hunting. He’s held professorial positions at top-flight English and American universities, and is self-consciously a public intellectual: he writes well, and he writes about topics that many outside the academy care about. Those virtues are evident in this book. In economics and politics he’s broadly conservative in an old-fashioned way (see How to Be a Conservative, 2014), with the likes of Edmund Burke and George Orwell among his household gods. He’s allergic to religion in general and Christianity in particular (more on this below), except when it serves as a guarantor of virtues external to itself, and so is very far from the theocon schools of thought that still have influence in the United States. Neither is he an apologist for unrestrained free-market capitalism, sounding often more like an English Wendell Berry (see England: An Elegy, 2000) than a disciple of Friedrich Hayek. This makes him hard to locate on the American political scene, in spite of his considerable experience in this country and his affiliation with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.