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The Brexit day: When a reality show becomes a reality

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South Africa

The Brexit day: When a reality show becomes a reality

Ultimately, a decisive share of British voters heard the mock siren call of the final chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore”(and the sneering of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson) rather more than they listened to David Cameron and a virtual boatload of the country’s economists and doomsayers. An extremely surprised J. BROOKS SPECTOR woke up early on Friday to gaze on the results of the Brexit vote with a sense of astonishment – and not a little bit of horror at the outcome.

He is an Englishman!

He is an Englishman!
For he himself has said it,
And it’s greatly to his credit,
That he is an Englishman!
That he is an Englishman!
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!
For in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!

“For He Is An Englishman” from “HMS Pinafore” — William S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

In the end, the voting was not quite an election in which the down-to-the-very-last-vote reported from the far-distant Island of Skye needed to make a determination of the winning side. Those who insisted that Britain would be better off inside the tent than out of it lost the day and the actual vote was a stunning rebuke to the last surveys that had come out in the days leading up to the actual vote.

By Friday morning, the results were clearly – albeit closely – in favour of exiting the European Union, and they represented a sharp division in a not-so-United Kingdom. Scotland (at an amazing 80% or so), London, Northern Ireland were solidly in favour of remaining inside the EU, while most of the rest of England and Wales came in solidly in favour of departing. In a number of English cities beyond London that could have been expected to deliver solid margins for remaining, according to the latest figures available at this writing, while remaining led, turnout was lower than expected, helping to make the difference to the overall result.

More than 46 million people were registered to vote in the referendum, which asks: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The campaign produced a national debate over Britain’s place in the modern world, even as it questioned the direction it wanted to take in the future. As investment banker Hasan Naqvi told reporters outside one of London’s polling stations, “This is, I’d say, the most important day in the past 20 years, at least for the U.K., and the economic consequences of a vote out are huge.”

Meanwhile, Brexit campaigners insisted that only a departure could restore sovereign power to the British Parliament and regain control over immigration. By the time the result was coming into focus, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party – a fervent supporter of Brexit – called 23 June Britain’s “Independence Day”, seemingly trying to echo that cry from the American president in the eponymously named film as he took the fight to the aliens’ mother ship.

As the poll drew ever closer, global financial markets had been increasingly volatile ahead of the vote, especially as polls seemed to indicate the result was too close to call. Over this past week, the British pound had actually risen in value as investors gained some optimism that the uncertainty over what happened next – whatever it was – would finally come to an end. But, as the results came in, the British pound took a pounding, at times in the early morning, already falling over 13% against the dollar in very early trading. In Asia, the overnight stocks plunged on the news.

In Britain’s only third national-style referendum ever, after an increasingly ill-tempered national debate, Thursday’s referendum took place as much of the UK was pelted by heavy rain for much of the day, perhaps keeping the number of voters lower than had been anticipated out of the 46 million registered voters eligible to make their mark.

Reporting on the weather as an important electoral variable, the AP had noted, “Affecting that turnout were torrential rains, especially in the ‘remain’ stronghold of London. The capital was hit by up to 1.75 inches (4.6 centimeters) of rain overnight — roughly the monthly average for all of June — and sections of the train and subway network were shut down by flooding. A handful of polling stations were forced to close because of flooding. Another band of rain Thursday afternoon disrupted journeys home from work for thousands of commuters.”

In the end, “the bad weather made us do it” may become a default excuse, even though it seems increasingly clear that a majority of English and Welsh voters simply were not sold on the benefits of national membership in the EU (for themselves) and their complaints about immigration may have finally clinched the deal.

Prior to the vote, the experts had been saying that the turnout would be critical as pre-voting polling had indicated a significant number of voters remained undecided, despite the extended public furore over EU membership. Those experts had been arguing that a large turnout would favour the remain in the EU supporters, given a belief that voters who still waver at the moment of voting as they approach their respective polling stations have, historically, tended to go for a status quo choice. By contrast, Brexit supporters would be the more committed to their cause of overturning the current situation, regardless of weather, and would, in the end, turn out to make their choice.

Before the balloting actually begun, early in the morning, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, one of those leading voices for a Brexit, and a serious pot stirrer over immigration, had told the press as he stood outside his house and picked up his morning newspapers, “It’s all about turnout and those soft ‘remainers’ staying at home.” And so it has come to be.

Just a week prior to the actual vote, the astonishing and terrifying spectacle of a member of Parliament, Jo Cox, being shot and killed, presumably because of her fervent support for staying in the EU and the killer’s self-identification with radical racist causes, provoked a kind of national shudder. Initially, the outpouring grief and anguish over what had happened in the run-up to an election in Britain had been seen as a possible halt in the momentum towards leaving the European economic union. Speaking at a rally of nearly ten thousand people at Trafalgar Square, Cox’s husband had said in widely reported and viewed remarks, “Jo’s killing was political. It was an act of terror designed to advance an agenda of hatred toward others. What a beautiful irony it is that an act designed to advance hatred has instead generated such an outpouring of love.”

But for “remain” forces, that initial outpouring of sympathy ultimately was just not enough. Fear and hate, turns out, trump love.

In a two-hour debate, broadcast live over the BBC earlier this week in which “Brexit” forces had been called out for using some apparently Middle Eastern refugee (at the Croatia/Slovenia border) photographs as a sneaky way to play to concerns about those EU citizens living in Britain, per EU regulations on free movement of member citizens, might have contributed to a turn in opinion. And so, too, perhaps were Boris Johnson’s yawps. Johnson didn’t care what all those experts had pronounced about the economic impact of a Brexit; he wanted it to happen anyway. And so, in the end, did a slender majority of his fellow UK citizens that voted on Thursday.

Photo: British UKIP leader Nigel Farage poses for photographers during the launch of a new poster campaign ahead of the EU referendum in Smith Square in London, Britain, 16 June 2016. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

Despite the apparent closeness of the polls leading up to the actual vote, British bookmakers had stolidly stuck with “remain” as the odds-on favourite in this two-horse race. It may be a bleak day as those folks total up their losses this morning. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party opposition leader and a visible supporter of remaining in the EU, had told the media when he was about to vote, “You could either check the wind or check the bookies. The bookies usually get it right.”

Not this time.

For historians, the first British popular referendum had taken place over the original deal to enter the EU, while the second in 2011 was whether or not to keep the ‘first past the post’ system for members of the House of Commons. Of course there have been nine other regional referenda, including the recent Scottish decision not to tear up the 1707 Act of Union. The principle of mass, popular decision-making over vital national issues has been rarely used in the UK, but this has been rather different than the experience of some other democratic states. (In the US, while there has never been a fully nation-wide referendum, many states make use of them extensively for a whole host of issues, from the arcane to the frivolous, and on to the crucially important.)

Going forward, this division over Brexit runs so deeply in British society (significantly more along regional rather than traditional party and class lines); those who backed the losing side will be difficult to placate or win over to these now-inevitable results. Given the general ill-will this fight has generated (or drawn on), it is difficult to see just how Prime Minister David Cameron can make the kinds of proposals that will progressively draw out the stinger from this fight, other than to ask Parliament to pass the necessary mandate to begin the negotiations for Britain to withdraw from the EU. Then rough negotiations on a whole swathe of issues will have to take place. (There’s a 24 month deadline, once the decision is officially made.) And given Scotland’s very strong support for remaining in, there may well be increasing pressure for yet another referendum on Scottish independence so that they can stay in the EU. And there is the conundrum of Northern Ireland. They also voted to remain, along with the Irish Republic. Will this Brexit vote now finally push Ulster to seek a kind of union with their southern neighbour – especially since a Brexit would trigger a whole range of measures to enact border crossings and customs stations at what has now become an open border?

Photo: British Member of Parliament and Former London Mayor Boris Johnson during a campaign visit, Darlington, Britain, 22 June 2016. EPA/STR

Even within Cameron’s own party, after all, a majority of his MPs seem to have backed the Brexit side. And his chief antagonist and tormentor, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, is now increasingly likely to make a run for leadership of the Tories, given his championing of a Brexit in the face of Cameron’s opposition to this idea. The prime minister can now be much more easily blamed for provoking this divisive referendum in the first place by initially promising to hold such a vote – and making a hash of the campaign to stay in the EU.

Looking to the EU’s own future, this vote may well reverse the course of an entire post-war experience in Europe that had begun with the Benelux customs union and had moved forward to the current 28 member body that helped seal a rupture between rivals France and Germany that had led to two horrific global wars. Now there will be pressure on various other EU nations to jump ship – or at least push hard for all kinds of renegotiations over their status within the union. Think Denmark, Greece and France, just for starters. And just by the way, this victory for Brexit against the experts and the internationalists may give a not so little oomph to Donald Trump’s own populist nationalist ambitions.

Now the vast, complex process of renegotiating trade agreements with dozens of countries will have to begin – a process that will almost certainly be deeply fraught and enormously time-consuming, and will lead to fluctuations and uncertainty in stock and currency markets around the world. And there will be after-effects on South Africa as well – given this country’s large trade with both Britain and the rest of the EU. Inevitably, it will roil South Africa’s currency markets and its investment relationships with Britain – in addition to its trade arrangements.

The vote to depart the EU, however, will not end the question of immigration, a topic that has been roiling British society for some years. Immigration has been at the top of the list for those who wanted that Brexit. EU policy provides for free movement of citizens among its member states. Hundreds of thousands of people from Eastern Europe have moved to Britain since the bloc expanded eastwards more than a decade ago. Typical of such views were those of Sharon Chesney in London, who was reported in media to have said, “I’m fed up of giving money to other people, other countries, when we’ve got our own to look after — homeless, our old war heroes, the old people that go into care and things like that, we just haven’t got the money for them. We want our country back, we want our money back.”

Well, now Chesney has gotten the first part of her wish.

Now that the vote is over, Prime Minister Cameron’s government is going to need to figure out what is next. The prime minister and all his fellow citizens awoke to a country that has elected to say goodbye to all those devilish Eurocrats in Brussels who were on a mission to destroy Britain’s unique customs, as depicted in “One Foot in the Grave”, those languorously exquisite Merchant/Ivory films, or the textures of “Downton Abbey” – rather than embrace what had been the irreversible course to greater European integration. Europe, and the world, has now sailed into the truly unchartered waters. DM

Photo: The sun rises over The Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, 24 June 2016. Britons await the results on whether they remain in, or leave the European Union (EU) after a referendum on 23 June. EPA/HANNAH MCKAY


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