Watching an entire night of BBC Referendum results on Pacific Daylight Time provides easy access to a fascinating, and most significant, historical event. For a political junkie like me, it was a most memorable, and unsettling, evening.
When the results started coming in, Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to “Remain” while Newcastle, expected also to return a strong Remain vote, did so with only a slight margin. Tracking the result then showed the “Leave” vote trending stronger than expected, first “storming through northeast England,” then leading in Wales. Around 2:00 a.m. UK time, with 36 of 382 voting areas having reported, the indications began that Leave was now favoured to win, although Arron Banks, Founder of the Leave EU campaign, was “not sure that it was in the bag.”
The Leave plurality mounted to 167,448 and then dropped back. Lambeth in London reported 79% to Remain and 21% to Leave, and Tooting came in 75% Remain to 25% Leave, suggesting that so high a return in the dense urban areas might turn the tide for the Remain side. By 2:35 a.m. UK time, with 73 out of 382 voting areas reporting, the Remain side was ahead by 85,000 votes. The plurality in favour of the “remain” side continued until 2:50 a.m. when the Remain lead dropped to a mere 1,438 votes. Briefly, the Leave side moved ahead. By 2:53 a.m., with 99 out of 382 precincts reporting, the results from Liverpool, Islington in London, and Scotland pushed the Remain vote to a plurality of 55,311 votes. Thereafter, the lead shifted to 76,000 for the Leave side and the plurality remained in favour of the “leaves” for the rest of the night, mounting steadily as more returns came in.
At 4:05 a.m., Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party who had earlier conceded that it was probable the Remain vote would prevail, announced that “June 23rd will go down in history as our Independence Day… that (getting rid of Brussels was) a victory for real, decent people.” With 250 precincts out of 382 having reported, other leaders said that he “had jumped the gun,” that it was “way too early to call it one way or another,” and that his response apparently demonizing those who voted Remain was not useful. By this time, the plurality was 421,666 votes for the Leave side.
The BBC then looked at their 40 “bellweather” districts in the centre of their Polling Index and announced that those results indicated a 52:48% split in favour of the Leave side. With 60% of the vote in, “the balance of advantage” gave a plurality of 564,151 to Leave. Although London and Scotland overwhelmingly favoured Remain, larger cities elsewhere did not. Where they did, the margins favouring Remain were not sufficiently large to change the result. At 4:40 a.m., with 308 districts having reported, the BBC announced that there was no way the Remain side could win, and that the 1975 decision that the UK join the European Common Market had been reversed, by a vote of 52% to 48%. At that point, the vote was 13,055,523 to Leave and 12,207,708 to Remain. The percentage in the results remained the same later when the Leave side secured the necessary 16,835,512 votes to win.
The result left the commentators visibly shaken. As the pound fell in overnight trading to the lowest point since 1985, and Asian markets dropped eight per cent, those favouring Brexit were elated. “Such a huge moment in our politics.” “The most important issue in our lifetime.” “A fantastic opportunity for the United Kingdom.” “A courageous decision of enormous historic import.” “We’ve taken back our country.” Others lamented, “This is a terrible day for Britain,” “a massive blow to the European Union,” something that “in a 1000 years, I would not have believed Britain would do,” “a devastating result,” “heart-breaking,” and “catastrophic.” There was a consensus that the result was “a seismic moment” for the country, that the government had to respect the result, decide how to get the best deal possible in disengaging from Europe, and work to bring the very fragmented British electorate together.
All sorts of questions were raised. How long would David Cameron remain as Prime Minister? Is he the best person to lead negotiations to withdraw? Should he invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty right away as he said he would, thereby triggering the two-year time period by which Britain would need to be out of the European Union? Or should there be a period of informal discussions with various European countries before the formal exit procedure is triggered? Can the negotiations be drawn out so as not to affect forthcoming elections in France and in Italy? Since both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to “remain,” what would be the effect of the vote on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland? And would overwhelming Scottish support for the EU lead to demands for another Scottish independence referendum? Does the British rejection of “the elites” and “the advice of experts” foretell similar populist results elsewhere in the months ahead? It’s a new age, full of questions. For the moment, no one has a Plan B, nor knows what the answers will be.