Update: Hours after this report was published, Labour MP Jo Cox, a supporter of the Remain campaign, was murdered. For more, see this report by Maria Margaronis.
London— Viewed from far enough away—from the perspective, say, of British astronaut Tim Peake, 250 miles above the earth in the International Space Station, or a Nation reader on her way to work aboard the D train—the referendum on June 23 over whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union might look deceptively obvious. On one side are continued membership in the world’s biggest single market in goods and services—importing more than the United States and exporting more than China—and the continued survival of a political project that turned the charnel house of the 20th century into a continent at peace and the destination of choice for the world’s refugees. On the other side, the right to keep Polish plumbers and Italian biologists and Slovakian waiters from coming here to work.
Not only have the overwhelming majority of British economists warned that a vote for Brexit risks sending the country back into recession, but a group of 13 Nobel Prize–winning scientists, including physicist Peter Higgs (of the eponymous boson) and geneticist Paul Nurse have signed a letter arguing that leaving would pose a “key risk” to British science. Stephen Hawking has said Brexit would be “a disaster for UK science.” The long list of artists, writers, and performers campaigning for Remain includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Hilary Mantel, Jarvis Cocker, John le Carré, Tracey Emin, Tom Stoppard, Sophie Okonedo, and Tacita Dean.
The Leave camp has Nigel Farage—leader of the far-right UK Independence Party—former London mayor Boris Johnson, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, Michael Caine, and ex-Python John Cleese.
Yet the closer you get to the actual debate, the more complicated the issues become. Partly this is due to the referendum’s origin—a panicked concession by Prime Minister David Cameron to his party’s xenophobic right wing in order to neutralize the threat posed by rising sympathy for UKIP among core Tory voters. And partly because once you get beyond the headlines, this is an issue that cuts across traditional lines of ideology or party loyalty.