British voters have defied the will of their leaders, foreign allies, experts and much of the political establishment by opting to rupture this country’s primary connection to Europe in a stunning result that will radiate vast economic, political and security uncertainty across the globe.
The voters’ decision to abandon Britain’s decades-old membership in the European Union and its precursors is expected to jolt markets worldwide on Friday and unsettle Western capitals. When the BBC called the result at dawn in London on Friday, the pound had already plummeted to its lowest level against the dollar in decades.
The result is perhaps the most dramatic to date in a wave of populist and nationalist uprisings that are seizing both sides of the Atlantic and overturning all notions of what is politically possible.
For months, political and economic elites had looked on with growing apprehension as the U.K. flirted with a choice – popularly known as Brexit — that experts had warned could lead to global recession and a rip in the Western alliance.
But most analysts had predicted this pragmatically-minded country would ultimately back away from the abyss, and opt to keep Britain in an organization regarded as an essential pillar of the economic and political order.
Instead, a majority of British voters heeded the call of pro-Brexit campaigners to declare independence from what many here regard as an oppressive Brussels bureaucracy that enables mass migration to the country’s shores.
As results poured in through Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday, the “remain” camp was increasingly despairing, while “leave” advocates expressed a growing confidence that their side had pulled off a shocking victory.
Results from much of the country had yet to be counted as of 4 a.m. local time. But the BBC reported that “leave” had taken an insurmountable lead amid stronger-than-expected margins for those advocating a British exit.
The results came after 15 hours of voting, from the remote Scottish isles to the tip of Gibraltar. They suggest that Britain may be even more deeply polarized than was previously thought, with huge gulfs between the views in thriving metropolitan centers such as London and those in struggling, post-industrial areas in other parts of England.
As local authorities announced results, they reflected a tantalizingly close vote that sent markets swinging wildly between optimism that the country would stay in, the preferred choice of investors, and pessimism that Britain had just voted to get out.
After initially rising, the pound plunged in international trading as jittery investors prepared for a scenario that had not been priced into market calculations.
As the hours ticked by, there was a dawning realization that Britain could be on the verge of becoming the first to leave the 28-member EU. In media interviews, “remain” supporters looked stricken as they took in the results.
The pound’s sudden fall came only hours after it had surged to a 2016 high off news that an opinion poll conducted Thursday by the research firm YouGov showed “remain” with a four-point lead.
The results of that survey coincided with comments by anti-EU firebrand Nigel Farage, who told Sky News that it “looks like ‘remain’ will edge it,” suggesting he was ready for a loss.
Hours after conceding defeat, Farage declared victory at 4 a.m., telling cheering supporters that June 23 would always be remembered as “our independence day.”
Although Britain may not actually leave the EU for years, Thursday’s vote fires the starting gun on what is widely expected to be a messy divorce proceeding as Britain and EU officials begin untangling the vast web of connections between this island nation and the other 27 members of the bloc.
Thursday’s outcome will be a crippling blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned vigorously for voters to stay in the EU and had cast the referendum as a choice between an insular, intolerant “little England” and an outward-looking, pluralistic Great Britain.
Having failed to convince a majority of voters on such a fundamental issue, he is expected to come under intense pressure to resign.
Cameron initially promised the referendum in 2013 in a bid to unite the country, and especially his Conservative Party, behind a common stance on an issue that has divided public opinion here for decades.
Instead of resolving the question once and for all with a vote to stay in, Cameron has been left with the raw wounds of a campaign that exposed more clearly than ever the fault lines in British society.
Those fractures run straight through the ranks of his government.
When Cameron first set a date for the vote back in February, he may have expected a relatively easy victory. But the campaign soon went off script, as Justice Secretary Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson – friends and sparring partners of Cameron’s since his days at Oxford — both declared their intention to campaign for “out.”
The bombastic and populist-minded Johnson will now be seen as the most likely successor to Cameron if and when the prime minister is pushed from his perch at 10 Downing Street.
“I think the Boris Johnson momentum will be unstoppable,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “Cameron will try to find a dignified exit. But it’s not clear how long the backbenchers will give him to do that.”
With his February defection from Cameron’s pro-EU call, Johnson instantly became the face of the “leave” campaign, and he barnstormed the country challenging voters to make June 23 the country’s independence day.
The “leave” campaign found a compelling rallying cry with its call for voters to “Take Back Control,” a slogan that resonated among an electorate ill at ease with record levels of immigration – much of it from Europe under the EU’s free movement policy.
Polls suggested that “leave” may have overplayed its hand with its reliance on what critics saw as increasingly nativist rhetoric. That was particularly true after the killing last week of pro-EU lawmaker Jo Cox, a murder that appeared to awaken a passion in “remain” supporters that had been previously lacking, as well as a backlash against xenophobic aspects of the “leave” camp.
A “leave” lead last week in the polls turned into a dead heat. Surveys released Thursday as Britons votes had shown “remain” with a clear edge, results that cheered investors and boosted markets across Europe and Asia.
But as with last year’s British general election, the polls were badly wrong, apparently unable to capture the mood of an increasingly defiant electorate
The prevailing tone of the campaign on either side was fear and loathing, with neither venturing for long into hope or aspiration.
That spirit mirrored the angry mood of voters across the Atlantic, in the United States, and surprised even close observers of a nation that sees itself as deeply pragmatic and rational.
“Notions of Britain as a deferential, consensual society at ease with itself have been thrown out the window,” Fielding said. “This campaign has revealed a very profound mistrust among a substantial segment of society toward conventional political authority. The EU became a lightning rod for mistrust of politics more broadly.”
The vote split the country along essential lines: Old versus young. Provincial versus metropolitan. Scotland versus England. Native-born Britons versus immigrants.
The bitter divisions between the two camps – and within the country – played out right until the very end. In the closing hours of the vote, the “Leave” campaign emailed supporters to warn them of the potential for “people in London to force you and your family to stay in the EU.”
The plea featured a photo of voters lined up outside a polling station in “a leafy London suburb,” and urged those in “the heartlands of the country” to phone their friends and remind them to vote.
Turnout on Thursday was expected to be higher than last year’s general election, when two-thirds of eligible Britons cast ballots. They did so Thursday at thousands of polling stations nationwide – from the far Scottish isles to the tip of Gibraltar – in venues that included schools, church halls, tea rooms and laundromats.
In the small town of Birstall in West Yorkshire, voters streamed into a library where, exactly a week ago, Cox was murdered on her way to meet with constituents. A crowd of hundreds held hands during a minute of silence at 12:50 p.m. – the time of the attack – and chanted “We stand together.”
As the first votes were cast nationwide – with the often-variable British weather running the gamut from a torrential downpour in London to sunny, clear skies in Scotland – anxiety was the prevailing mood.
Hilary Clarke, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom, was the first to vote at a southwest London polling station. She said she would use her stubby pencil to check “remain” on her ballot.
“If I had been confident, I wouldn’t be standing in the rain at 7 in the morning,” she said as she sheltered beneath a colorful umbrella. “The reason I’m first in the queue is I’m going straight to the airport to go to Barcelona, and I may not return if vote goes the wrong way.”
Clarke, who had endured a sleepless night tuned to the cracks of thunder and the cries of woken children, said she could not understand the logic of those pushing for “leave.”
“I can see that sometimes it seems we are hemorrhaging money to the EU,” she said. “But at the same time, we seem to get so much more back than we give. Even if you’re disagreeing with what’s said at the table, it’s better to have a place at it.”
But for “leave” voters, Britain’s four decades of membership in the European Union and its precursors have only dragged the country down.