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With The Future In The Balance, British Voters Head To The Polls In ‘Brexit’ Vote

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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:

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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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    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.

    Economic decisions based on xenophobia. Welcome to the Trump Presidency.

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  2. Mu says:

    @C. Clavin: Not quite. These are white immigrants that the English are concerned off. Trump likes people from Eastern Europe.

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  3. Pch101 says:

    @Mu:

    xenophobia
    noun xe·no·pho·bia \ˌze-nə-ˈfō-bē-ə, ˌzē-\

    fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners

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  4. JKB says:

    The question is whether the people who invented individual liberties and representative government will disappear in the tyranny of Brussels with it’s token, but impotent council and despotic bureaucrats.

    As Daniel Hannan pointed out in the last 30 years only two continents have seen economic stagnation or decline, Europe and Antartica, and if you count the cruise ships, it is only the EU that is in economic decline.

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  5. JohnMcC says:

    l wonder what Alex Jones makes of the fact that Mr Trump is going to be in Scotland today. Yeah, yeah, yeah….he claims it about this golf course business. Does anybody believe that?

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  6. michael reynolds says:

    The British people have a right to decide their own fate as a nation.

    Americans tossing off facile comments loaded with untested assumptions and cross-cultural comparisons should take a break from ranting and pay some attention to the actual issues in the UK.

    Yes, immigration is part of the matter, but it’s not as simple as all that. Intra-EU immigration (Poles, largely,) has been an issue for some time now. Europeans are seen as taking British jobs.

    Intra-EU immigration also puts pressure on Commonwealth immigration since Britain cannot stop the first, but can stop the latter. So part of this conflict is in effect between white European immigrants and darker Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican and Kenyan immigrants. If on top of an endless flow of Poles, Britain is required to take in large numbers of Syrians it will take in fewer brown folks from elsewhere.

    There is also a legitimate question of sovereignty. The Brits do not like unrepresentative government any more than we do. We had that discussion with them a couple centuries back, you may recall.

    And the essential question of the EU’s survivability is very much at issue. Any number of commenters here and elsewhere have said the EU is untenable. . . but Britain should stay in? Britain stayed out of monetary union – very much to their profit. So why exactly should Britain stay wedded to an institution that is increasingly just Germany and its dependencies?

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  7. Pch101 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Europeans Mexicans are seen as taking British American jobs.

    FIFY.

    There is also a legitimate question of sovereignty. The Brits do not like unrepresentative government any more than we do.

    I could have sworn that they had an elected House of Commons. Did something change during the last 15 minutes?

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Pch101:

    Let’s try this again, as we did the other day, shall we? Now, this will require you to actually think, not just regurgitate, because there is no easy reference work to tell you what you should say.

    1) Do people have the right in any country to control their borders?

    2) If no, then what is the point in having a nation?

    3) If yes, what criteria should be applied?

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  9. Mu says:

    @Pch101:
    Are you aware that the inability to detect sarcasm is linked to dementia?

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  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Mu:

    Did you know that an inability to actually discuss an issue despite expressing strong opinions is linked to stupidity?

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  11. Pch101 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    1) Do people have the right in any country to control their borders?

    I don’t recall ever claiming that they didn’t.

    Perhaps you should try that strawman on someone else, and pose your question to someone who would answer it in the negative, i.e. someone else besides me.

    3) If yes, what criteria should be applied?

    I would suggest that “bloody Poles taking r jobs” and nostalgia for the Empire (read: the typical response of an English tabloid reader) shouldn’t be on that list. Yet that’s the mentality that is driving much of this.

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  12. grumpy realist says:

    From what I’ve read, the EU reaction to a possible Brexit has been “Don’t let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya!”

    They’ve gotten awfully tired of the whining. So have I. If immigration and stuff from Brussels is that much of a problem, go ahead and leave. Just don’t then turn around and whine that you are then not in a position to influence EU regulations and policies. And don’t whine if a chunk of the financial market decides to move from London to Berlin or Paris. Or Antwerp,

    What the Brits are mad at is they aren’t the “Monarchs of the Sea” any more. Talk about nostalgia for when Britain Ruled the Waves.

    Maybe they can recoup the situation by recognizing Taiwan and arranging for taxation treaties with Taiwan. (That’s one reason Singapore has proven so useful. If you want to do a joint venture with a company in Taiwan, do it via a Singapore company.)

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  13. michael reynolds says:

    @Pch101:

    I don’t recall ever claiming that they didn’t.

    Perhaps you should try that strawman on someone else, and pose your question to someone who would answer it in the negative, i.e. someone else besides me.

    I asked you repeatedly in another thread, you refused to answer. I wasn’t making assumptions about you, I quite clearly asked you to state your position.

    I would suggest that “bloody Poles taking r jobs” and nostalgia for the Empire (read: the typical response of an English tabloid reader) shouldn’t be on that list. Yet that’s the mentality that is driving much of this.

    I note the sudden (welcome) appearance of the qualifier, “Much.” Yes, much. Which is exactly my take on it, a take you denounced angrily. But, okay.

    Here’s what’s not okay: you still can’t name any criterion. All you know is that whatever is happening in the UK is wrong. But when asked what criteria should apply, you come up empty.

    You know why you come up empty? Because the Left hasn’t settled on a position on this. So you don’t know what to say. And you evidently aren’t the sort to think independently.

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  14. Pch101 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The unemployment rate in the UK is 5.4%. Its per capita GDP on a PPP basis is similar to that of France and other western European countries.

    Perhaps the Brits should respond to that by building a wall and making Poland pay for it. Brussels is obviously bringing the place to its knees.

    In any case, you should probably wake up and smell the tea. This is a non-binding referendum that would be opposed in Parliament. And even if Brexit does happen, it would probably result in a change in status, not a complete separation, which would mean no representation in the European Parliament but plenty of Polish bus drivers in Britain. (That whole free trade/ movement of labor and capital thing has its benefits.) So all of the punters would find that nothing that they wanted has changed even if they get Brexit, because the alternative to EU membership is not what you think that it is.

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  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Pch101:

    Again. I’m not sure which is more fascinating: your refusal to address simple questions, or your belief that I’ll be easily distracted by blather.

    I don’t have a position on Brexit. I’m not quite arrogant enough to believe that I know what’s best for the UK. I have many British business acquaintances, they seem a reasonably clever bunch, and I think it should be left to them, what with it being their country, and what with them being far better-informed on the specifics than I am.

    You refuse to get near the question of realistic criteria that should be applied to immigration. You run around and throw scat, but you refuse to deal with this simple question because guess what? It’s not as simple as yelling, “Xenophobe!” Every choice has an up and a down side. Every choice could be debated or attacked.

    It’s a complicated philosophical and political issue. There are big and important and (to me, at least) interesting areas for discussion. I’m actually interested in informed discussion on this because I’m far from sure that I have it right.

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  16. Andre Kenji says:

    Nigel Farage likes to argue that the EU forces Britain to take White Immigrants from Eastern Europe instead of well Qualified non-White immigrants from India and other Commonwealth Former colonies. That´s more complicated than just being against immigrants, but there is lot of fear mongering against refugees in the Brexit Campaign.

    I´m as pro-immigration as one can get, and I don´t know how I would vote If I lived in Britain.

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  17. Pch101 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You refuse to get near the question of realistic criteria that should be applied to immigration.

    The criteria are realistic right now. Hence, my references to economic data that are indicative of a place that isn’t sinking like a leaky boat, as you and the other Chicken Littles like to claim.

    Just because you are in a panic doesn’t mean that there is anything to panic about.

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  18. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pch101: I think that the point is that the xenophobia in the US is more focused and targeted (or at least differently so–I can remember the days of “anti-Paki” sentiment in the UK clearly) than that of the UK.

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  19. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: I disagree. I have a friend who for as long as I have known him tries to respond to any comment that is made by anyone with some sort of sarcastic quip or old joke. I think these responses sometimes, maybe even frequently, represent a deep seated insecurity about the riposteur’s own intelligence.

    But forgive me for intruding on your quip duel with Mu; carry on.

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  20. Mu says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:
    I frequently doubt my own intelligence, so typically in discussions involving quantum mechanics, advanced mathematics and German philosophers of the early 20th century. Less so in internet speculations on an election before the polls close.

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  21. Pch101 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    The specifics of xenophobia, such as which groups are the targets du jour, don’t matter much. It’s the thought that counts.

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  22. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “Americans tossing off facile comments loaded with untested assumptions and cross-cultural comparisons should take a break from ranting and pay some attention to the actual issues in the UK.”

    Does that apply to Americans who agree with you, or only ones who are “wrong”?

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  23. grumpy realist says:

    What would be interesting is if the EU decided to use the whole “Brexit scare” as a prod towards changing the whole EU set-up. I don’t see how you get the trade liberation aspects of the EU (and the lack of currency controls without also allowing the free movement of people.

    The EU at present is somewhat like the US when it was being held together by the Articles of Confederation, methinks. And there’s enough nationalistic pride still that you’re not going to get people think of themselves as being “from Europe” as opposed to “from France”, or Germany, or whatever.

    Maybe if they had had to fight a war against an outsider (Russia?) in order to grab their foundation, it would have worked–but you can’t really create a national spirit out of a trade union and freedom of movement. (And I doubt that anyone wants to pledge loyalty to the European Patent Office, which is the only other quasi-nationalistic entity they’re all intersecting with.)

    National spirit is more than economics, obviously…

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  24. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t have a position on Brexit. I’m not quite arrogant

    I’m calling BS, but just to try and pin you down. You’re being awfully coy about your position on this issue.

    In my mind, Brexit would be a disaster, just because Scotland and Wales would then leave England and join the EU, leaving the English in a pickle of their own making and dragging their economy into the doldrums just to satisfy cranky old white people who believe in Schrodinger’s immigrant (the one that lazes about all day soaking benefits while simultaneously stealing jobs).

    As far as I can tell, border control in the UK isn’t a real issue, and their sovereignty is unquestioned. Maybe there’s too many Indians/Pakistanis/Orientals/Poles in the UK. But the burden of proof is on the xenophobes on how excluding migrants makes their country stronger. I mean, look at Japan. They have some of the tightest border controls in the world, and they’re economically/demographically screwed with no clear way out. But hey! At least they get to laugh at all the gaijin while their population ages into senility and their kids refuse to have children due to the exorbitant cost.

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  25. Pch101 says:

    The vote is favoring Leave, and the pound is diving harder than a Stuka over Poland.

    These public opinion polls are best left to Gallup. The government shouldn’t be providing cliffs for the lemmings.

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  26. Gustopher says:

    52-48 on a referendum is just a staggeringly stupid way to make decisions of this magnitude.

    60% should be the magic number to change the status quo via a referendum — doable, but difficult, and requiring a pretty significant consensus. Or the legislature could maybe legislate.

    But, I also just think referendums are a staggeringly stupid way to make decisions — here in Washington State, we have a professional troll who runs a business out of organizing referendi and paid signature gatherers, and taking a cut out of the donations. Every election, you have to fill in a dozen little boxes for “no” on “common sense solutions” for complicated problems.

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