The Brexit referendum result has divided a nation, stunned the world and left the UK with a leadership vacuum
It was a gamble he never thought he’d lose. But British prime minister David Cameron did lose – and less than 24 hours later he was out of a job, his country was in turmoil and the course of history had been altered. And all the while the world looked on in dismay: what had Britain done?
Seems Brits don’t even know the answer to that. Many of those who voted for Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) – or Brexit – now say they regret their decision. It looks as if supporters of the leave camp didn’t really believe they’d win – and now they’ve won the future is looking rather bleak.
“I didn’t think my vote was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to remain:’ one man told the BBC.
Student Mandy Suthi said if given a second chance she’d vote remain. “I’d go back to the polling station and vote to stay simply because this morning reality is kicking in:’
And reality kicked in hard. Within moments of the result the pound had sunk to a 31-year low against the dollar and £100 million had been wiped off the stock exchange. “Poundimonium!” shouted a headline in The Sun newspaper.
Within two days a petition calling for a second referendum had been signed by more than three million people. But it might be a case of crying over spilt milk – and for Cameron, crying over a rash decision to send his people to the polls. So confident was he they’d vote to remain he had no choice but to step down when they went the other way.
The prime minister’s voice cracked with emotion when he announced he’d be resigning, his tearful wife, Samantha, joining him outside the famous black door of No 10 Downing Street.
Later, as he addressed staff inside the house, “everyone was crying – men and women, even the civil servants”, one witness said. “And then David started crying: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was accused of not doing enough to mobilise his supporters to vote to remain, was also not a happy man as he faced a challenge to his leadership and saw 44 members of his top team quitting by the time of going to print.
Why the referendum?
It goes back to an election pledge Cameron made in an attempt to stem the flow of voters away from his Conservative Party to the right-wing United Kingdom Independent Part (Ukip).
The last time Britain went to the polls on the issue was in 1975, when the country voted resoundingly to stay in what was then the European Economic Community (EEC).
Since then the EEC has become the EU, has grown from nine to 28 states and, with the birth of a single market, is a very different beast.
In 2013 Cameron told voters he’d hold a referendum on the issue within a year to two years if he won the general election in 2015.
Immigration lay at the heart of the campaign, with many wanting Britain to take back control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming to live and work there.
Some estimate the number of immigrants in the UK as high as eight million, or one in eight people. In London one in three people is thought to be foreign-born.
Many Brexit voters also felt Britain was being held back by the EU and being charged billions of pounds in upfront membership fees for little in return.
Remain campaigners feel the flow of immigrants is good for British business and that the country was safer as part of the 28-nation community than on its own.
The shock success of the leave campaign has been attributed to seething resentment that for too long the ruling elite in London have ignored the suffering of the working class. In the end this was more of a protest vote.
As the general secretary of Britain’s Trade Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, said, “It’s all very well for us smug Londoners with our high wages, high employment and high property prices to congratulate ourselves on our openness and our cosmopolitanism, jumping on the Eurostar [transcontinental train] at the slightest opportunity and feeling so progressive and European and pleased with ourselves. This was a protest vote and we’ll now pay the price for not addressing the problems of our deeply divided and unequal society”.
The Brexit referendum was a bitterly fought affair characterised by fear-mongering and mudslinging.
Ukip was reported to the police for an openly racist poster featuring a seemingly endless tide of refugees with the slogan, “Breaking point; the EU has failed us all:’ The poster was withdrawn after the shocking murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed to death in her Yorkshire constituency just days before the poll by a man yelling, “Britain first!” Ukip leader Nigel Farage – probably the UK’s most divisive figure – elicited outrage when he celebrated the Brexit victory by saying not a single bullet had been fired.
During his campaign Cameron insisted Britain would be “stronger, safer and better” in the EU, citing safety in numbers. “Keeping our people safe means we simply have to develop much closer means of security cooperation between countries within Europe:’ he said in one campaign speech.
What happens now?
Separating from the EU is likely to be a lengthy process. It’s up to the prime minister to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty within two years. Article 50 states any member state may decide to withdraw from the EU in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
But many officials in the EU headquarters in Brussels are eager to stabilise the union and are calling on Britain to start the process sooner rather than later.
Until Article 50 is invoked, Britain will continue to abide by EU treaties but not have any part in decision-making.
It’s still to be decided whether the UK can stay in the EU’s single market, which facilitates trade between its member countries. Boris Johnson – leader of the leave campaign – believes Britain will have access to the single market, but many fuming Brussels officials don’t want this. It’s one of many issues that need to be thrashed out at the negotiating table.
For now there will be no changes to the status of foreigners living in the UK or Brits living abroad, but this will be discussed when the hard talks begin.
Right-wingers in Europe are rejoicing. There are fears the EU may fall apart as other countries follow Brexit. France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, said Britain had set in motion a move-ment that can’t be stopped. “Victory for freedom! As I’ve been ask-ing for years, we must now have the same referendum in France and EU countries:’ she tweeted. In the Netherlands far-right and anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders called for a Dutch referendum. “Now it’s our turn:’ he said. Tweets started doing the rounds of what other referendums could be dubbed, including Departugal, Italeave, Frackoff, Czechout and Oustria.
Does Brexit mean the end of the UK?
Whoever takes over in Downing Street will have their work cut out keeping the UK together. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the EU and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, who supports independence from Britain, wasted no time calling for immediate discussions with Europe to stay in the EU. Northern Ireland will now become the only UK country to share a border with an EU country, Ireland, leading to fears of renewed border hostilities, controls and military checks.
Who might be the next prime minister?
Boris Johnson: Former London mayor and Brexiter-in-chief. Known as much for his buffoonery – his nickname is BoJo – as his politics, he’s the most popular choice among grassroots voters.
Theresa May: The home secretary is seen as a safe pair of hands and the only candidate who can stop Johnson getting into No 10.
George Osborne: The chancellor of the exchequer was tipped to be Cameron’s successor but many believe he committed career suicide with his fearmongering tactics over Brexit – he predicted economic catastrophe should Britain leave.
What Brexit means for South Africa
Immediately after the Brexit announcement the rand weakened by around seven percent. Thabi Leoka, economist with Argon Asset Management, said investors were not expecting the result, so they started pulling their money out of emerging economies. The price of commodities has dropped in the wake of the referendum, while the gold price has risen. At the same time, the weakened rand has led to higher inflation, which in turn will lead to an increase in the petrol price next month. Neil Roets, CEO of debt-management firm Debt Rescue, told Fin24 South Africa is on the verge of a “perfect storm”. The United Kingdom is a major investor in the South African economy. “With the uncertainty about the impact of the UK leaving the EU, we can expect severe volatility in the markets and quite possibly a further slowdown in the economy:’ South Africans with overseas investments will also take a knock if the London Stock Exchange doesn’t recover to the same levels as before the referendum.
But ultimately South Africa will know the full impact of Brexit only after the UK and the EU have negotiated and agreed on new trade regulations. Until then South Africans can expect slightly more affordable imported whiskey and trips to England. South Africa has many trade agreements with Britain which will now have to be renegotiated. A weaker UK and EU is bad for South Africa because many large South African companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange. The UK and EU are some of South Africa’s strongest trade allies so weaker UK and EU economies could have a negative impact on South African exporters as well as investment in South Africa.
SOURCES: BUSINESS INSIDER, THE GUARDIAN, SKY NEWS, DAILY MAIL, TIME, NEW STATESMAN, BBC, INDEPENDENT, MIRROR, EVENING STANDARD, FIN24, YOUGOV.CO.UK