Stepping into the unknown

The scale of unknowable consequences that the United Kingdom has brought upon itself — and the rest of the world — with the vote in Thursday’s referendum to leave the European Union was best gauged by the relative sobriety with which one of the “Leave” camp’s most voluble campaigners reacted. Boris Johnson, considered to be a leading claimant to Tory leadership, welcomed the result by saying that nothing would change right away. But in the coming days, London will have to manage the panic in the financial markets, the anxiety in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the question of the international ramifications of the British isles moving away from the continent. Three years ago when Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the EU, it was seen as a quick-fix to deal with the far-right bloc in his Conservative Party. Right to the end, few expected that Britons would actually decide to leave the EU. That the vote has come as a surprise shows the distance between London and the rest, as well as the geographical divide in the U.K. The chaos emanating from the vote also holds a lesson for democracies elsewhere. It underlines both the recklessness of populist politics — and a referendum is nothing more than an evasive measure in a Westminster-style democracy — as well as the groundswell of support anti-establishment campaigns can today call upon.

Why did Britons choose the unknown future despite stark warnings from their own government, world leaders and economists that a Brexit would be extremely risky? Euroscepticism has been a strong sentiment among Britons. But over the past few years, nationalist sentiment has grown stronger in the U.K. A number of factors may have contributed to this shift. One is the public anger in Britain towards the status quo. Ordinary Britons, hit hard by the economic crisis, feel betrayed by their political leadership. The Conservative government’s austerity policies have further alienated these sections. The main opposition Labour Party, organisationally divided and ideologically distraught, has been too weak to tap this resentment. It’s the far-right, ultra-nationalist sections that stepped into this space and gave free play to fear-mongering on immigration. The exact implications of the Brexit vote are hard to predict. But the resignation of Prime Minister Cameron, the jubilation of the anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists and the tumbling of the pound to a 30-year low offer a taste of what’s to come. The vote puts in doubt the unity of the country as Scotland has overwhelmingly voted Remain. Brexit also poses a challenge to the European project itself. June 23 is a day Britain, Europe and the international community may well struggle to understand for some time to come.

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