I’ve been coming to Britain – not just London – regularly since 1989. But when I visited London again last month, I felt something different. New York is remarkably diverse, but it remains, indefinably, a distinctly American city. London no longer feels British – and certainly not English – to me.
I still love London, but it now feels like nothing in particular: not British, certainly not American, and yet not foreign either. London has always been a world city in spirit, thanks to the docks, the City, and the Empire. Now it feels like a world city on the streets.
In many ways, that is a testament to Britain’s extraordinary pulling power and to what it has done right. The nation needs to be less heavily taxed and governed than it is, but even as it groans under its burdens London offers better prospects for finding a job than the continent, or most of the rest of the world.
But it is also a testament to the high level of immigration into Britain under the Labour governments after 1997. And in a way I had not appreciated before I visited, that has transformed not just London, but British politics and the future of its relationship with the European Union.
I’ve opposed British membership of the EU for years, because the EU is anti-sovereignty and often anti-American. But I have no personal skin in the game, and the reality is that arguments about sovereignty have never swayed a majority of Britons to reject EU membership. Resent it, yes; vote against it, no.
But immigration has changed that. In talking with MPs from the Cabinet to the backbench, journalists, and activists, one fact came through clearly: the British people have recognised that as long as Britain is in the EU, it cannot control its borders. And that means it cannot control the pressure that immigration has put on housing, schools, and hospitals.
Sovereignty is a wonderful issue, but it is abstract. Not being able to get your child into a school because there are no places available is not abstract. For the first time, there is a clear link between British membership of the EU and the things that people care about in their daily lives.
The problem is not that immigrants have stolen British jobs: there is no fixed number of jobs that exists merely to be divided up. But immigration has likely made the less-skilled less well off, and with only a limited number of houses, classrooms, and beds available, pinch points are inevitable.
No wonder Ukip polls so well. And that, too, was a revelation. Ukip’s rise is no secret among those in the US who care about such things, but it is usually explained by referring to the defence of British sovereignty from the EU, a cause with which most Americans naturally sympathise.
There is that, of course. But what I did not appreciate was how much Ukip’s activists hate the political New Class, to which David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Miliband all belong. In the 1980s, the Kippers would have been Thatcherites, not so much for her policies but because as an aspirational politician she rejected the class system.
Today, the dogma of the New Class is not the cloth cap or the top hat: it’s the EU. The UK activists I met want Britain out of the EU not merely to defend Britain’s sovereignty or to make Britain better off. They want Britain out because the EU embodies a smug, elite political consensus, the kind of consensus that likes open borders because, dear, it makes finding a nanny, a cleaner, a painter, or a barista so much easier.
Ukip is as much a rebellion against a class establishment as Thatcher was – look at Yorkshire entrepreneur Paul Sykes promising on Monday to give financial support to Ukip ahead of next year’s European elections.
The only asset the EU has going for it in this campaign is the traditional appeal to fear that has long been a staple of the campaign for Europe. Perhaps the EU chorus genuinely believes that if Britain exits the EU everyone will have to live in caves and eat rocks, but I doubt it. In any case, the track record of the chorus, which loved both the EMU and the Euro before they collapsed, is dreadful.
The only problem with the way that immigration has brought the EU to the fore in Britain is that it tempts the Out campaign into negativity. It will be all too easy to urge voters to exit the EU because the EU is responsible for problems in Britain. But there is no way the Out campaign can beat he In brigade in a competition of fear: the Outs can point to hospitals, but the Ins will harp on the entire economy.
The EU’s problems are real, and underneath, they will drive voting in the referendum. But the Out campaign needs not just the Thatcherite spirit of rebellion: it needs her optimism. Even in terms of immigration, the EU means favouring talent from Europe, a tiny part of the world, at the expense of talent from the rest of it. And that makes less sense today for Britain than it ever did in the past.
The need is not to stop immigration: it is to give Britain the freedom to pick talent from the entire world, from Europe, the US, and, yes, the Commonwealth. The need is not to jealously hoard existing hospital beds: it is to reform the system, as Michael Gove is doing in education, to create more beds.
There is all the difference in the world between a disunited No campaign that seeks, defensively, to protect what Britain still has, and a cohesive No campaign which asserts that, outside the EU, it can have a great deal more.
• Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.