In a result that shocked most observers (and, clearly, the stock market), almost 52% of Britons voted to leave the European Union. And, as an aside, maybe its time to stop paying attention to UK polling. Most pollsters got the 2014 Scottish independence referendum right but dramatically underestimated how well the victorious “no” side would do. Last year there were a lot of pollsters showing that parliamentary elections were a dead heat between the Tories and Labour, only to see the Tories win decisively, and this time even outfits that called last year’s vote correctly were wrong about Brexit.
British politics ain’t my thing (obviously), but I think there’s a pretty reasonable explanation for this vote, and I think Dave Brockington articulates it pretty well here:
In terms of why 52% of the population voted to leave the European Union, this dovetails neatly with a class that I teach here on the effects of globalization on domestic politics. Yes, part of it was racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. But I don’t believe that 52% of the British (and Irish) population are those things (however, they are those who speak the loudest). To quote my friend, Cllr. Bill Stevens (Labour), “It means England (especially the poorer areas) have felt ignored and saying the only reason they voted that way was due to hate, nationalism, racism etc. will make it worse.”
Thanks in no small part to Cameron’s inexplicably stupid insistence on austerity, Britain has struggled to emerge from the economic downturn in 2008. And the people who have felt the most pain, older British workers, are the ones who voted in large numbers to leave. This was a vote against the EU, which is pretty wedded to austerity economics itself; it was a vote against immigration, because immigrants make an easy target when times are tough; and it was a vote against Cameron and against the status quo.
Also, and maybe this is a related point, a lot of people who voted “Leave” seem to be declaring today that they didn’t really mean it, or something. I don’t fully understand this part of the story, I’ll be totally honest with you.
As to what happens now, aside from the market collapse that leaders of the Leave side assured everybody wouldn’t take place…well, in the short term, not very much. The UK will need to inform the EU of its intention to leave, which could happen quickly but will them trigger a long process (probably a couple of years, despite what seems to be a mutual desire to get this over with as quickly as possible) of negotiating the terms of the exit. The least disruptive scenario would be for the UK to negotiate a deal like the one Norway has with the EU, which gives it access to the European market without the requirements of membership in the union. But Norway still had to agree to a number of EU conditions in order to make that deal, and the next British government, which will probably be led by a pro-Brexit Tory like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, may be disinclined to make those same concessions. The EU may also want to treat Britain harshly as an example to other nations that may contemplate leaving. There will absolutely be consequences to Britain’s economy, particularly its banking sector, and to its status internationally, though how large those consequences will be depends on how the negotiations go.
There will be consequences for the EU, as well. Other nations may try to follow the UK’s lead and try to leave. The loss of Britain, and of London as the EU’s banking capital, will mean that Europe will take an economic hit as well. The EU, as ever, still needs to decide what it wants to be. You can’t impose some policies on the unified whole–migration and monetary policy, for example–but maintain separate national policies on other, related areas–foreign policy and fiscal policy, say–and expect that this will remain a tenable way to maintain a stable union. On the plus side, the UK was one of the main forces resisting further European integration, so with them out of the EU altogether it could be easier to get the remaining countries to figure some of these issues out.
There are also potential consequences for British unity. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, and it shares an open border with Ireland, which is an EU member. What happens to that border will be a major part of the separation negotiations, and while it would be stunning to see Northern Ireland vote to leave the UK and unify with Ireland, there is at least some discussion about that very possibility today–and that, in itself, is a little stunning. Scotland is another story. I wrote a few days ago about why another Scottish independence vote is unlikely in the immediate aftermath of this vote, but that was based on polling of a hypothetical scenario. Now that Brexit is a reality, over Scotland’s strong objections, the emotional response could trigger another attempt to take Scotland out of Great Britain. I still don’t think that’s likely in the short-term. The Scottish National Party has to realize that another failed independence referendum could put the issue of independence to rest for a generation or more, so I think they’ll be very careful to watch the polls and only move when there seems to be a consistent and significant majority in favor of independence. With Britain likely still a couple of years away from actually leaving the EU, the SNP has time to let things settle a bit before they take any drastic action.