With The Future In The Balance, British Voters Head To The Polls In ‘Brexit’ Vote
After months of often bitter campaigning that exposed real, and somewhat unpalatable, divides in British politics, the citizens of the United Kingdom are headed to the polls as we speakS to decide their future as part of the European and, perhaps, much, much more:
LONDON — Britons from the far Scottish isles to the tip of Gibraltar began casting their ballots Thursday in a historic referendum that could reshape Britain’s place in Europe and radiate economic, political and security implications across the globe.
After months of bitter campaigning that sharply divided the country over questions of immigration and identity, election day dawned with a cliffhanger. Among the five polls released on the eve of the vote, two showed a lead for “in,” two gave the edge to “out” and one forecast a tie. The final average of all polls was 50-50, with Britons evenly split over whether the country should exit the 28-member European Union.
Although “leave” had been leading the polls as of last week, “remain” has caught up since pro-E.U. member of Parliament Jo Cox was fatally shot and stabbed last week, jolting the country and prompting calls for an end to some of the campaign’s more hateful rhetoric.
Voting takes place throughout the day on Thursday, and the results are expected early Friday (Thursday evening Eastern time).
The referendum marks an existential decision that could dramatically reshape Britain’s global role in a way not seen since London shed its empire after World War II. It could also lead to another push on Scottish secession, the further unraveling of the European Union and the fall of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
As the first votes were cast — 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.
Advocates for a British exit — popularly known as Brexit — argue that tossing off the shackles of E.U. bureaucracy will restore Britain’s sovereignty. A powerful selling point for many votes is the claim that a farewell to E.U. ties could give the country the latitude to dramatically reduce immigration, which has hit record highs as Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and others from across Europe have flocked to the relative prosperity of the British economy.
“I really think tomorrow can be independence day,” former London mayor Boris Johnson told supporters Wednesday as he posed for photos with fishmongers and waved copies of the virulently anti-E.U. Sun newspaper.
Pro-Brexit leaders used the hashtag #IndependenceDay on Twitter Thursday morning to exhort their followers to get out and vote for what they promise will be a liberation from Brussels bureaucrats.
But opponents say a vote to leave could be a grievous self-inflicted wound from which it would take years, if not decades, for Britain to recover.
“We don’t solve our immigration challenge by leaving the European Union, but we do create a massive problem for our economy,” Cameron told the BBC on the eve of the vote. “This is irreversible. You can’t jump out of the airplane then climb back in through the cockpit hatch.”
Most economic, political and defense authorities — including nearly all foreign leaders — have joined the call for Britain to stay, and they have issued dire warnings about the consequences of Brexit.
Economic forecasters have said a British break could push the country back into recession, with the rest of the globe vulnerable to the ripples. Many geopolitical strategists also warn that a vote to leave could divide the Western alliance and be a boon to others such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But many of the 46 million Britons eligible to vote have paid little heed, with surveys showing that anxiety over immigration is trumping all other voter concerns.
The “leave” campaign has played on those fears, arguing — with little supporting evidence — that Turkey will soon join the European Union and intensify the flood of migrant workers arriving on British shores under the bloc’s free-movement rules.
It has also dismissed warnings from independent experts as part of an elitist plot, what it terms “Project Fear.”
Two of the top Brexit campaigners — Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove — have invoked provocative Nazi comparisons. Johnson has suggested that E.U. ambitions mirror those of Hitler’s Germany, and Gove has painted Brexit critics as akin to Nazi propagandists who sought to discredit Albert Einstein.
The “remain” side has returned fire in recent days.
Whichever side wins Thursday will have to reckon with the profound and emotional schisms in British society that have come to the surface during the campaign.
When Cameron promised a referendum in January 2013, he had hoped the vote would put to rest a debate over Europe that has bedeviled Britain for decades and that has generated particularly deep fault lines in his Conservative Party.
Instead, the campaign appears only to have made those divisions worse, while also layering the debate with the added complexity of personal ambition. Several prominent campaigners — especially Johnson — are thought to be jockeying for Cameron’s job if the country defies the prime minister and votes for an exit.
Even if “remain” wins, Britain’s angst is unlikely to be resolved. Some “leave” campaigners have said they will press for another referendum if they come up short in a close vote.
Thursday’s vote also has the potential to reawaken another fundamental question of British identity. Scottish leaders say that if Britain votes to leave the European Union against the will of the pro-European Scots, they will renew their push for independence just two years after losing a referendum vote.
The outcome will be watched closely in capitals around the globe. President Obama has weighed in strongly for the “remain” side, saying he thinks Britain is a more valuable ally from within the European Union.
All of Britain’s E.U. allies have said they, too, want Britain to stay. To illustrate the point, European landmarks from Paris to Warsaw have been bathed in the colors of the Union Jack this week, along with the message “Vote Remain.”
In an op-ed in Britain’s Guardian newspaper Wednesday morning, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wrote that a vote to leave would be “the wrong choice.”
As things stand, the battle between the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ forces remains far to close to call and it could be well into Friday morning London time before we have any idea what the outcome might be, especially given the fact that authorities are expecting record-breaking turnout across the U.K. The Poll of Polls, roughly equivalent to the polling averages of polls in the United States kept by RealClearPolitics and and Pollster, has ‘Remain’ with 51% of the vote to 49% for ‘Leave, a number that indicates that the outcome could go either way. To some degree, this is a shift in momentum in favor of ‘Remain’ given the fact that it was just about ten days ago that polling indicated that it was the ‘Leave’ side of the debate that was taking the lead. Since then, though, there have been several developments that may have had an impact on the contest. The most noteworthy and tragic, of course, was the cold-blooded assassination of Jo Cox, a Labour MP from Northern England who was outspokenly in favor of ‘Remain’ and playing a prominent in the campaign alongside her husband, a murder which clearly seems to have been influenced at least in part by the ongoing Brexit debate and the nationalism of the British far-right. When considering these polls, of course, it’s worth keeping in mind that it was just a year ago that pre-election polling was pointing toward a tight outcome in the General Election and the possibility that neither David Cameron’s Conservative Party nor the Labour Party would end up with enough power in Parliament to form a government. The outcome, as we know, turned out to be quite different in no small part because pollsters appeared to significantly underestimate the turnout for Conservatives across England and the extent to which Scottish voters would punish Labour in favor of the Scottish National Party. The pollsters in Britain say that they’ve acted to fix the flaws that made last year’s errors possible, but we won’t know for sure until we see the results of the referendum. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that it’s entirely possible that the Brexit polls are similarly flawed and that the outcome will be decisively more in favor of one side or the other.
No matter which side wins or loses today this is unlikely to be the end of the debate about Europe in the United Kingdom, or in other parts of Europe for that matter. The issues created by bureaucrats in Brussels making rules that purport to bind a continent of 300 million people have been a part of European politics beyond Great Britain for some time now, and that’s going to continue whether the British people vote to leave or stay. Additionally, if the polls are correct that the outcome of today’s vote will be close then the Euroskeptics that have long been a part of post-war British politics will be wounded, but hardly defeated and they are merely likely to lick their wounds and wait to fight another day. Meanwhile, the long-term problems facing the European Union, ranging from fiscal issues to the problem of what to do with the tens of thousands of refugees arriving from Syria and Libya will remain. A vote to leave, meanwhile, will only be the beginning of the process since it is not considered legally binding and it will be up to this and future governments to negotiate and deal with the terms of any such break with Europe, a process that raise complicated issues regarding trade relations, financial issues, and other matters that won’t be resolved easily or quickly. Additionally, a ‘leave’ vote is likely to revive pressures inside the United Kingdom for greater autonomy from Scotland, and perhaps from Northern Ireland as well. In other words, today’s vote will be historic and its outcome important, but it’s hardly the end of the debates about the future of Europe as a whole and the United Kingdom in particular that have become a central focus of British politics in recent years.
In any case, for those here in the United States interested in following the outcome of the vote, C-Span will be carrying the live broadcast of ITV News’s coverage of Election Night. Coverage begins at 5pm Eastern time and will likely continue as long as necessary if past C-Span/ITV simulcasting arrangement are any indication. Additionally, those of you who can access BBC World News on their cable provider will be able to watch the coverage there and, if last year is any indication, Sky News will likely make its coverage available for free via live stream, although I haven’t confirmed that one.
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