The United Kingdom opted for a momentous change of course by voting to leave the European Union in a closely-fought referendum held on Thursday. The ‘Leave’ side won decisively with 52 per cent of the vote in the high-turnout vote, which overturned opinion polls that predicted a slender margin for ‘Remain’.
This is the second referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European project. In 1975, in a referendum on whether the U.K. should stay or leave the European Community (Common Market) Area, the country voted for staying in with a resounding 67.2 per cent vote.
Prime Minister David Cameron, the architect of the referendum and a passionate supporter of Britain within the European Union, announced on Friday that as a measure of respect for the “will of the people” he would be stepping down as Prime Minister in October.
“The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” Mr. Cameron said in a brief but emotional address in front of 10 Downing Street.
The referendum saw a turnout of 72 per cent, the highest in any election since 1992, ‘Leave’ won 17,410,742 votes and ‘Remain’ 16,141,241, with all but the regions of London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to leave.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said he “would not hesitate to take any additional measures” to ensure the stability of the monetary and financial markets.
A leading investment analyst told The Hindu that in the short term there would be considerable caution and lower confidence on spending and investment. “British Airways has just put out an announcement saying they expect lower profits this year because of Brexit-related slowdown in traffic. In the longer term, we could see some degree of movement of operations of certain companies to Europe, but it also depends on what the market believes will be the ultimate outcome of the negotiations with Brussels,” he said.
The country has received the news of the referendum with both jubilation and deep disappointment. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told television channels that all efforts must be made to protect jobs and working condition in Britain. He said negotiations with Brussels must start immediately for “the best deal possible" to protect British industries.
Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence party that fought the referendum by invoking fears of unchecked immigration, called for the celebration of the day as “Independence day.”
The results have thrown mainstream British politics into turmoil. Mr. Cameron’s resignation announcement is predicted to spark a leadership contest in the deeply divided Conservative Party with the former London Mayor, and lead campaigner for the Leave campaign as a possible successor.
In the Labour Party the leadership of Mr. Corbyn is under question by his critics who blame him for the wholesale shift of Labour supporters to the Leave side.
The results show that but for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK, and Wales, a region that has seen de-industrialisation and the consequent loss of jobs, voted for Leave.