At 4 am, following the UK referendum on EU membership, Nigel Farage, the leader of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, gave a tentative victory speech. Bullish and beaming, but couching his cheer in caveats that not all areas had declared results, flanked by young men in suits jeering and pogoing, Farage announced that if the Leave campaign had won, “We will have done so without a single bullet being fired.”
This isn’t quite true. One week earlier, the pro-EU Labour Party MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in her constituency, by Thomas Mair, a local man with links to far-right groups including the English Defence League and the pro-Apartheid Springbok Society. Several days after her murder, her husband, Brendan Cox told reporters, “She was a politician and she had very strong political views and I believe she was killed because of those views.”
The EU referendum became a conduit for anger on many issues: immigration, economic inequalities, London’s disproportionate economic boom, and disenfranchisement by an aloof political elite, an elite that after the vote appears shaken. At 8:30 am, David Cameron announced his resignation. The speed of his resignation threw prominent Leave campaigners into disarray: Former London mayor Boris Johnson was busy arguing that Article 50, which triggers the mechanism for a country to leave the EU, didn’t have to be invoked immediately. The swift resignation of the prime minister signaled that Conservatives were happy for the Leave campaigners to be forced to confront the consequences of their wishes as soon as possible.
For the left, the outcome will prompt much soul-searching. The Labour party could use this opportunity to shore up support and lead a progressive fight for the best possible trade and migration terms. Instead, several Labour MPs have put forward a motion to condemn Jeremy Corbyn, dredging up longstanding disgruntlement that has split the party since Corbyn’s surprising victory last year.
Throughout the campaign, polls showed a close battle, with both sides expecting a paper-thin victory at various points. Politicians and commentators spoke of a divided Britain: one of young “metropolitan elites” in cities voting to remain, in contrast to older ordinary voters in smaller towns still weathered by the recession and angered by the free movement EU membership allowed. The reality, as it has an irritating tendency to be, is more complex: Voters were more divided more by educational level, social class, and income than by age. But the votes were also geographically divided: Some large cities such as Sheffield and Birmingham voted to Leave, while London had some of the highest rates of Remain voters. More interesting is the fact that Scotland voted unanimously to Remain and Northern Ireland was overwhelmingly pro-EU, while Wales predominantly backed the Brexit option.