The scariest thing about Britain’s referendum on European Union membership — and the thing that ought to resonate acutely with Americans — is what it exposes about the political culture: the refusal to take responsibility, the contempt for truth, the willful numbness to human suffering beyond one’s own borders. Britain was once a country that prided itself on punching above its weight and stood out as a model of enlightened pragmatism. But returning to live here after nearly two decades in the United States, I encounter a version of the political decay that pains my friends in Washington.
Of course, Britain has always stood aloof from Europe. Generations of orators have channeled John of Gaunt, the patriot in Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” who celebrates “this scepter’d isle . . . this precious stone set in the silver sea . . . this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” When Michael Gove, the erudite leader of the anti- E.U. “Leave” campaign, calls on schools to give “children the ability to hear our island story,” he stands as the heir to a powerful tradition. For centuries, Britain has been a sort of diluted Japan: an island on the edge of a great continental mass, proud of its insularity.