A Disunited Kingdom votes to leave the European Union

It’s over. A large turnout of voters decided that four decades of British membership of the European Union should come to an end. The result became clear around five in the morning, even as a few geographical areas had still to report. Two hours later, in Manchester, the result was declared officially—51.9 percent had voted to leave, 48.1 percent to remain.

Overnight, the situation had changed entirely, after two polling samples had suggested, seconds after the polls closed, that “Remain” might edge it. The U.K. currency plunged to record lows against the U.S. dollar, experiencing its biggest fall in 30 years. Market turmoil was rampant from the moment the markets opened on Friday morning. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, made an unprecedented live television appeal for calm, seeking to reassure that contingency plans had been drawn up and that the bank stood ready to move to maintain stability. European heads of government lined up to express their dismay at the result, fueling suggestions that the political class had not taken the possibility of a Brexit vote seriously until it was too late.

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This United Kingdom is far from united now, but bitterly divided. A clear majority of a large turnout—higher than in any of the five most recent general elections, although lower than in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum—voted to leave, but asymmetrically. It’s looking ever more like a divided kingdom this morning. Scotland has voted substantially to remain; by about two-thirds. London, long seen by many as almost a different country, similarly voted to remain. Much of the rest of England, including many of the larger towns and cities, have voted to leave, in some places substantially. The disunion between Scotland and the rest of the current U.K. could now hardly be less ambiguous.

Socially, there is division, too, most remarkably by generation. Intergenerational solidarity, if not ended, is under strain. The young, whose future this vote most affects, chose Remain in large numbers. According to the polling organization YouGov, 75 percent of voters aged 18-24 voted to remain, as did 56 percent of those between 25 and 49; 44 percent of the age 50-64 segment went for remain while of those over 65, only 39 percent voted to remain. These numbers must increase concerns about disenchantment with the political process, yet these individuals did show up to vote, so are not completely disengaged.  

The vote means it’s over for David Cameron. Having decided to offer the country this in/out referendum in an effort to placate the Euro-skeptic right-wing segment of the Tory Party, he announced dramatically at breakfast-time outside Number 10 Downing Street that this would be his home address for only a few months more. His voice cracking towards the end of his prepared speech, he said that he would stand down in October, in the meantime pledging to “steady the ship over the coming years and months.” Cameron argued that it would “not be right for me to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.” He is expected to attend a scheduled conference of E.U. leaders next week just at the point when the government looks likely to invoke Article 50 of the European Treaty, the complicated procedural mechanism which allows for any member-state to begin withdrawal negotiations.

What might also be over is the United Kingdom as we have known it.

In Scotland there have already been calls for what is popularly known as “IndyRef2”; a second independence referendum, with one source reporting a move to press for this as early as the autumn. Some are saying that, as it is England that voted to leave, Scotland can take over its status as an E.U. successor state and that Scotland needs to be ready to do so as an independent state.

At the recent general election for the Edinburgh Parliament, won by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, the manifesto commitment was clear that there should be another ballot were there a "significant and material" change in circumstances from the 2014 vote, understood as Scotland being taken out of the E.U. against the will of the Scots. Now at a press conference in Edinburgh, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon M.S.P. has made it clear that the Brexit result is that “material change” over 2014.

She has announced that it is “democratically unacceptable" that Scotland, having voted to remain, "faces the prospect of being taken out of the E.U.” Because the U.K. had voted to leave the E.U. while two-thirds of Scottish voters wanted to remain, the Scottish government "will begin to prepare the legislation required" for a second referendum to take place. Sturgeon was careful to avoid saying definitively that IndyRef2 will take place yet made it clear that “the option of a second referendum must be on the table, and it is on the table.” In the same statement, Sturgeon went on to clarify that the Edinburgh Government would take "all possible steps" to secure Scotland's place in the European Union, including a direct communication to each E.U. member state that Scotland had voted against leaving.

It could also be over for the current leadership of the Labour Party, whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attracted criticism for not articulating the Remain case more clearly, thus cutting himself and the leadership off from the party’s natural, core vote in many places. Corbyn has left the impression that he was not close to the center of gravity of the debate and that the concerns of many working-class people were further away from him and the party than they realized. At time of writing, reports began to emerge of a vote of no confidence proposed by Labour M.P.s in their leader.

What lies ahead now is the uncertainty that many predicted. The country needs now to look at how the political leadership classes managed to misjudge the mood of so many voters; prominently in the Labour Party but elsewhere too. Across not only Britain, but Europe too, and arguably even around the world, including the United States, there is frustration and resentment at the hitherto-accepted political process, as new forms of protest and unforeseen allegiances arise.

There is an undeniable sense of splintering in Britain, elsewhere too, that urgently needs to be healed. Immigration was a key factor in the campaign, often leading to bitterness, but we may come to see this historic moment as being more about a felt disenfranchisement among many who, for all the benefits claimed for E.U. membership, have not felt it themselves. It has been, in many ways, a working-class revolt. There has to be another way of talking about the values of cooperation and solidarity and of how to reject isolation, just as much as whatever remains of the United Kingdom must urgently work out its new political and economic relationship with the rest of Europe, indeed the world. That there needs to be healing now cannot be denied; we won’t get far without a lot of intentional reconciliation. The next series of questions that must be asked, soon if not immediately, concerns how that healing is to come about and who will be its agents. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
I strongly suggest that the America Editorial Board collectively read this Canadians perspective http://www.nationalpost.com/m/wp/news/blog.html?b=news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/rex-murphy-results-of-the-brexit-referendum-is-a-rebuke-to-western-elites&pubdate=2016-06-24
lurline jennings
1 year 10 months ago
At last! the real subjects of the Queen can reclaim their country and close the borders. They can get back to being a civilized society.

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