I’m not an economist. The handful of articles I’ve read on the subject don’t leave me informed enough to form an opinion about Brexit. But the event doesn’t surprise me. Britain has always kept the rest of Europe at arms length, and it has worked well for them.
Even before Brexit, there were debates as to whether the UK should be described as a European country. On one hand, the UK is certainly culturally closer to European countries than, say, Asian ones. On the other hand, there are significant differences between UK and the rest of Europe.
“Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world,” said Napoleon. For centuries, the English Channel has protected the UK from the worst of the turmoil on the continent. They fought wars on their own terms, entering or leaving as they saw fit and not having to recover from ground wars raging on their soil.
That protection allowed Britain to become the world’s first superpower. It allowed them to defend their existing colonies and acquire new ones even when other powers were losing theirs. (America’s independence was an exception to the general trend.) It gave them the economic power to start the Industrial Revolution.
Britain has a different legal system than the European countries. Britain’s system is common law, which depends heavily on precedents set by earlier court cases, and America inherited that system. On the continent, canon law is the model.
England’s religion, even when Catholic, was influenced less by Rome than continental countries because of its distance. England was converted significantly by Irish missionaries, borrowing Celtic Christianity: still Catholic, but functioning somewhat different. It’s not surprising that England was one of the first countries to embrace Protestantism, as not listening to the pope had always been a bit of a national pastime.
England never had a war of religion, and relatively few people were executed on account of religion. It’s witch hunts were mild in comparison to France and Germany. It never had an Inquisition.
Of course, their separation has not always been positive. In the Middle Ages, England was one of the last places new technology reached. The first stone keep, for example, was built by William the Conqueror, who brought it over from Normandy, France. The Renaissance emerged in Italy about 1300, but it didn’t bloom in England until the early 1500s.
The UK has never been overly excited about joining the EU. The EU has given the UK exemption from various EU regulations to. The UK never adopted the euro, even when the EU offered to call the new money the pound, after the UK’s money. No deal. At the time, the UK had the strongest economy in Europe, and it remains one of the strongest today. That has left some with the impression the UK gives far more than it gets out of its membership in the EU.
The arguments for remaining didn’t help that outlook. Certainly, there’s been talk about how Brexit will negatively affect the UK, but there’s been a lot more talk about how it will negatively affect the EU and its members: it will damage their economies, it will encourage other countries to leave the EU, etc. That doesn’t win over people who are making a Britain First argument and feel like continental countries are benefiting at the expense of Britain.
Like I said, I have no real opinion on Brexit, other than within a historical context. And in that context, this is not really a surprise. Britain has a long history of succeeding on its own, and it’s people are expecting that trend will continue.