The world’s oldest democracy has stunned the world, even itself, by choosing to leave the European Union. For 43 years, the UK has been a semi-detached member of the EU. It has had its opt out from a single currency and from the borderless Europe on the other side of the Channel.
A referendum is a peculiar instrument for gauging public opinion. In an election, there are multiple parties and the crooked arithmetic of a First Past the Post system gives a party a large majority if it secures a third of the total vote. In a referendum, it is yes or no. There are no ambiguities. The margin at the end was fairly small, less than four per cent. But the decision is irreversible.
The debate divided the liberal, cosmopolitan people from those feeling disempowered and left out. While the remain group talked of the adverse economic costs of exit, the exiters expressed the fear that the UK had lost control over its own affairs and they wanted to reclaim independence.
This is a strange idea for a country which is the oldest continuous polity in Europe. The notion that joining a multi-country union is loss of independence is hard to credit. But ultimately that is the message the people have given. They were worried about what they saw as mass immigration from within EU which could not be stopped as free movement of labour is a basic principle of the EU. The EU seemed remote with its technical jargon about institutions, policies and regulations.
Acronyms abounded. The European Parliament never engaged the British public as their own does. For a long time to come, questions will be asked. Is it a result of the long history of Great Britain, being always the top dog, which held the key to balance of power in Europe? Is it because an island country has its own unique sense of isolation and independence? Is it because the recent recession has left the poorer people behind while the rich have profited? It is being hailed as a ‘win for real people’. This is a hyperbole as the 48 per cent plus who voted against are hardly unreal people.
The consequences of this decision will affect British politics for a generation. The Conservative party was at the heart of the demand for a referendum as it has been split on the issue of Europe since Margaret Thatcher failed to win her leadership bid in 1990. It is most likely the party may split within a year or two. Cameron has already resigned. He will hand over to whoever is chosen as the new leader of the party. This will most probably be Boris Johnson. There will be a Cabinet reshuffle with a new leader.
A more serious problem will be about the unity of the UK itself. Since the late 1990s, there has been regional devolution. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own devolved legislatures. England has decisively voted for out. Scotland has voted to remain. This will revive the demand for Scottish independence as Scotland wanted to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland also wanted to stay. As it shares a border with the Irish Republic, a movement to reunite the two Irelands may develop. That will be historic.