Cheers, jeers and fears as Britain votes to exit EU
Posted June 24, 2016
LONDON — On its face Britain looked the same on Friday: The White Cliffs of Dover gleamed, the clamor of construction rumbled across London and bathers in the Hampstead Heath park took a dip in a murky pond while the rare sun lasted.
Yet, Britons woke up to a different country, after a historic referendum which is set to upend the island's relationship with Europe. The question raised for this kingdom of 65 million with a long and proud history: Who are we, and who do we want to become now?
Slightly over half of voters backed a call to leave the European Union, and their delight spilled onto the streets in a display of emotion usually reserved for football victories. Some waved Union Jack flags, while others sported more discreet badges and stickers signaling their pleasure.
At Billingsgate market, Allen Laurence said the result was "absolutely wonderful. Best news ever."
"We want England – or Great Britain – to come back how it was years ago," the 65-year-old vendor said, between boxes of freshly caught seafood.
But many Londoners, usually accustomed to ignoring each other, stood huddled in earnest discussion or stared anxiously at their smartphones for news of what would come. Commuters at the main train station in the well-heeled southwest London borough of Richmond, which voted overwhelmingly to remain, expressed their anger and frustration.
Olivia Sangster-Bullers, 24, called the result "absolutely disgusting."
"I've just seen that the pound's crashed, so good luck to all of us, I say, especially those trying to build a future with our children," she said, before heading to catch a train to work.
In the Triangle, British expatriates were stunned by the vote, saying they hoped the country would remain part of the EU. But the split will be more of a setback for Europe than their homeland, they said, because the country has been an economic powerhouse for the continent.
Steve Cain, president of the local chapter of the British-American Business Council, said the council polled all 22 chapters – 2,000 member companies – and almost all favored staying in the EU.
"They were overwhelmingly – 95 percent – in favor of staying in because every single economic forecast, bar none I think, said it was much better for the U.K. economy, much better for jobs, if we stayed in, and leaving creates an awful lot of uncertainty," Cain said.
While the momentous change seemed to happen overnight, in reality it has been creeping up on Britain for years. Issues of identity have bubbled under the surface even as Britain reveled in its image as a modern, multicultural society fizzing with aspiration and cool.
Years of austerity coupled with mass immigration have kindled resentment, particularly among the white working class, against elites in London – and by extension the EU's headquarters in Brussels, seen as responsible for an influx of Europeans to Britain. Despite a growing income gap, a Credit Suisse report found that the number of million-dollar-wealth households rose 30 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone.
"I think it's basically a class thing in England," said Timothy Batchelar, 63, a violin maker.
"I can see there's a lot of fear over immigration. We've had very, very lax immigration policies in the U.K. for years, and it's a very, very multicultural society. But it's almost reached the breaking point of how much more it can take," said Sally Webb, an expatriate in the Triangle.
The outcome was also a somber reminder that the capital, where votes were strongly skewed toward remain, is at odds with much of the rest of the country. The city's economy, strongly linked to international trade and banking, is now expected to take a hit as markets face years of uncertainty over Britain's ties with Europe.
But that possibility wasn't enough to deter English voters outside the capital from backing what has become known as "Brexit."
"Make no mistake: this is an English nationalist revolution," columnist Fintan O'Toole wrote in the Irish Times. "At its heart are all of the things the English used to see as the province of other, less rational, nations: identity, difference, the deep passions of belonging and resentment."
"What's interesting is all the northern cities, where it used to be milling, steel industries, shipbuilding – really the backbone of the Industrial Revolution – they feel they've been left out and that all the big revenue is in London," said Grant Berrry, an expatriate living in the Triangle.
In what is perhaps an irony, the vote raises the same issues of identity for other nations within the United Kingdom, such as Scotland, where a majority wanted to remain in the EU. Nationalist leaders in both Scotland and North Ireland have suggested holding plebiscites that could unravel the U.K.
The campaign was bitterly fought, with both sides accusing the other of lying about the consequences of quitting the EU.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on social media, where Britain's lively tradition of political debate frequently descended into vitriol. Commentators have blamed last week's killing of Labour lawmaker Jo Cox, who had backed Britain to remain in the EU, in part on the angry mood whipped up by the rhetoric of some in the "leave" camp.
On Friday, some "leave" voters urged their opponents to consider emigrating if they didn't like the result. Others reveled in the promise that billions of pounds sent to Brussels each year would now be spent on bolstering Britain's ailing health and education systems.
Time will tell whether the joy expressed by those who backed Britain's exit was justified and what its new role in the world will be.
"I feel we've left a failed European Union project. We have the change now to be a real global player," said Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party that has long campaigned to leave the 28-nation bloc.
In the meantime, those despairing about the vote tweeted their frustration using the hashtag #WhatHaveWeDone. That mood was also summed up by two women embracing at Richmond train station on Friday morning.
As one fought back tears, the other opined: "It's all gone a bit wrong today, hasn't it?"