It was so close. So breathtakingly close, only a few percentage points apart.
But still, most people thought that “Remain in the EU” would squeak through.
The first I knew of the final vote for the UK to leave the EU was when I landed in Dublin at 5 a.m. on June 24th, the day after the referendum. An airport worker, an Irishman, said, “It’s daft, really. Now we have to put back the border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland.” Northern Ireland is now out of the EU, and Ireland remains in, so there will no longer be a borderless free flow of travel for the Irish.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, of the ruling Conservative Party, has resigned. Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the other main party, the Labour Party, is under a great deal of pressure to resign; he is blamed for the failure of “Remain” due to his lack-luster support.
It was, in many ways, a very un-British campaign, with lies and threats and racist comments flying. An up-and-coming young MP, Jo Cox of West Yorkshire, was shot and killed by a mentally unstable supporter of the “Leave” campaign who had ties to U.S. neo-Nazi groups. The UK banned handguns in 1996, but this man constructed a gun by following an instruction manual he bought from the neo-Nazis. Jo Cox was the mother of two young children, had worked for the children’s charity, Oxfam, and was seen as an emerging leader of the Labour Party. Her murder was a terrible loss, and a direct outcome of the vitriol of the EU referendum.
In this campaign, both sides lied. The Conservatives said that the Turks wouldn’t be up for membership in the EU for 20 years (a major sticking point for many who voted “Leave”). It now appears that the process for considering Turkish membership in the EU is beginning in two days, on June 30.
The right-wing UKIP (UK Independent Party) said that if “Leave” won, 350 million pounds a week that was paid by the UK to the EU would now be available for the NHS (Britain’s National Health Service), and they’d be “building a new hospital every week.” That wasn’t true, either, and they are busy backtracking.
At least a small part of the vote was a protest vote; some people voted “Leave” to make a point that they were unhappy with the way that the EU bureaucrats made decisions, and were stunned when “Leave” actually won.
A prominent “Leave” group listed the following points on its website:
With the group telling people (see the second point, above) that “It is not legally binding–the European Court can tear it up the day after the referendum,” who can blame people for being confused?
The immediate reaction by the “Remain” group after the ballots were counted was shock, which soon turned to anger and fear. Amongst the “Leave” group, there was a feeling of joy, perhaps also tinged with some fear. Amongst those who ultimately voted “Leave” but debated until the very last minute, I sensed a feeling of resignation and a need to “get on with it,” because, as I heard said numerous times, “The people have spoken.”
There are also calls for a second referendum, to overturn this one. But it’s clear that this isn’t going to happen.
What was obvious in the vote was that there was a huge split between London/Scotland (“Remain”) and the rest of England and Wales (“Leave”), and between young people (“Remain”) and older people “Leave”).
One clever clogs, Michael Shaw, has created a new country comprised of the strongest “Remainers,” Scotland and London.
Immigration was a huge part of the vote to Leave, with the worry that the Turks would be granted EU membership, and therefore the right to live in the UK. Parts of England, particularly around Essex and Lincolnshire which have substantial numbers of immigrants from Poland and other EU countries, want to limit the number of people from overseas coming to live in the UK, which they couldn’t do under the EU mandate.
London, the financial capital of Europe, desperately wanted to “Remain” in order to maintain its power, financial and otherwise. Under “Leave,” the British pound is at the lowest level in 31 years, and shares around the world have dropped dramatically. Richard Branson is saying that Virgin shares lost one third of their value.
But this vote was not just a split between the UK and the EU, it was a split within the UK. In the countryside and smaller towns and cities, there was a sense of backlash against Londoners and the political establishment; a feeling that Londoners have little or no respect for anyone outside London, that they think non-Londoners are “simpletons,” and don’t understand what it’s like to live without vast amounts of money and with new threats to their traditions.
There was also a backlash against President Obama, generally very highly regarded in the UK, due to his comment that if Britain left the EU, it would go to the back of the line in terms of trade deals. “He’s trying to manipulate us,” I heard; “He wants to continue to exert his influence in Europe by working through the British puppets.”
Most members of my own family, who live in the countryside of England, voted “Leave,” though some were very much on the fence until the last moment. One wrote to me, “My head says one thing, but my heart says another.”
The farmers in my family, like most farmers and fishermen in the UK, were delighted to have the chance to jettison the onerous and sometimes ridiculous rules sent down from Brussels, the headquarters of the EU, dictating how they run their farms.
Others in my family believe that “Leave” would allow them to get better health services through the NHS (National Health Services), with fewer “health tourists” from countries in the EU with substandard medical care clogging up the queues for Britons.
But the truth is that no one knows what’s going to happen.
Whatever happens, it will be life- and nation-changing.
The British have wielded enormous influence in the world, far more than their size warrants. They have been some of the world’s greatest scientists, explorers, thinkers, and writers, and were the last hold-out against the Nazis when the rest of the Allies had succumbed. They fought to the very end, and won.
If anyone can do it alone, they can. If anyone can sort it out, they can.
I wish everyone involved in this referendum the best of British. Luck, that is.