It’s official, we’re the leaving kind after all. Voting last Thursday concluded with a 52% majority that Great Britain’s future path lay outside the EU framework, ending a 43-year association. The easy conclusion – particularly given how much the result has been affected by voted cast south of the Solway-Tweed line – is that insular England has held the Union hostage, but I suspect things are far more nuanced than that.
Voter turnout was high, over 30 million or 72% of eligible persons, indicative of how important the issues at stake were (framed largely by the cost of the EU, its ever increasing bureaucracy and control of borders). Much has also been made of how the vote to leave was favoured more by older folk than younger. The BBC as always has a fascinating breakdown of the numbers here.
In the immediate aftermath, David Cameron who campaigned vigorously for remaining announced he is to step down in October. The opposition Labour leader who also campaigned (some same less interestedly) for a remain option faces a renewed leadership challenge. Here in Scotland, the noises are all about a second independence vote being ‘highly likely’, a straw the SNP were always likely to clutch at in their quest to extract Scotland from the Union. The economic impact has been swift, the pound fell to a 30-year low before recovering somewhat, the FTSE 100 losing 8% before also recovering and Moody’s downgrading the UK’s credit rating to ‘negative‘ following the result.
De-tangling the legal, economic and political machinery of the United Kingdom from the EU is likely to require significant time and resources, given the significant integration with EU frameworks over the last 70 years. Formal separation still requires the UK to trigger the so-called Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, a process which provides for a 2-year road map for negotiations.
Private conversations with a number of friends leading up to the vote illustrated the difficulties. On the one hand the cost of the EU – the so-called new £350 million hospital every week – appealed to very many people, as did the opportunity to claw back control of laws and regulations which a section of the population felt drove the country increasingly towards a ‘god-less’ future, a point made by the Telegraph’s Charles Moore here.
Much like the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, the result highlights how deeply fractured the country is; Scotland vs England and Wales, the young vs the old, affluent urban London vs the rest of England – the contrasts go on and on. A number of leave voters appear to have voted in protest, in the belief that their single vote wouldn’t sway the overall outcome. To their surprise, our new reality is an advisory to government to initiate leaving the EU. It is by no means certain what happens next. By choosing to step down, David Cameron might just have had the last laugh – leaving the actual decision to act on the ‘mandate’ to those who might benefit from blaming him. They – Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Michael Gove or whoever else inherits the seat – now have to deal with the legacy of whatever happens next and what that leads to in the long run ; if article 50 is triggered or not.
The wider context is what worries me a bit – the rise of far right, anti-immigrant parties across Europe (France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands) and Trump’s ascent in America – perhaps speak to an under current of concern around borders, and the loss of a certain way of life which main stream politics has failed to address.
All told, there are days of critical importance ahead – I hope we haven’t handed our children a poisoned chalice.