On Thursday, June 23, the people of the United Kingdom voted by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin to leave the European Union (EU). To say that it shook the civilized world would be an understatement. While stock markets reacted immediately, the rest of the world is still trying to understand what happened, why, and what it means.
Unlike referenda and amendments to Georgia’s Constitution, the referendum for British voters was straightforward and said in plain words. The options read:
- Remain a member of the European Union
- Leave the European Union
Both the British Prime Minister David Cameron (Tory Party) and Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party) campaigned for Great Britain to remain in the EU to no avail. Instead, a clear majority (in some parts of the country approaching 60 percent) supported exiting the EU.
Although the shock has been immediate, the exit will not be. Instead, over the next two years British and EU officials will work through the “divorce” of Great Britain from the union of the other 27 countries in the EU.
Officially, the break-up is triggered by a notice under Article 50 of the EU Treaty. Either Prime Minister Cameron or his successor (since he has announced his resignation) will send the notice to Brussels where the EU is headquartered.
What makes the decision so stunning is the genuine disbelief among most government officials and intellectual elites that leaving the EU could even be a real possibility. Certainly, heading into the election, polls showed Britain as evenly divided with strong passion on both sides.
But, the United Kingdom had weathered similar passionate division just recently when Scotland held a referendum on whether to remain in the United Kingdom. Following close polls heading into the election, Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom. In the end, the vote was consistent with generally held perceptions about what would happen and why.
Since then, however, British voters have shown an independent streak, breaking from traditional notions of what pollsters and pundits thought should and would happen. In the last British election, Prime Minister Cameron and the Tory Party faced similar polls showing an evenly divided British electorate. But, when the votes were counted, the Tory Party had captured an outright majority of the seats in the British Parliament.
Yet, in this election, Prime Minister Cameron broke with most in his own Party and supported remaining in the EU. More significantly, the Labour Party put most of its eggs in the “remain” basket. But that was not all.
A myriad of world leaders and virtually all of the mainstream media around the world proclaimed a seemingly endless parade of horribles should the Brits decide to leave the EU. Even President Barack Obama got in on the action, suggesting that if Great Britain left the EU that it would go to the back of the line in negotiating replacement treaties with the United States.
Meanwhile, EU officials bristled at even the thought of a United Kingdom departure from the EU. The threats and intimidations of dire consequences were virtually continuous.
As a result, notwithstanding the closeness of the polls, most believed that while British voters might be angry, they would never actually be so bold as to leave. Well, the pundits, pollsters, leaders, and mainstream media all proved to be wrong – decisively wrong.
As it turns out, Great Britain had its own silent majority and they spoke loudly. They wanted their country back.
Constant threats of terror from porous borders and unassimilated immigrants and struggling economy choked by endless streams of regulations and government interference were just too much. British voters had enough.
Certainly, there are already parallels being drawn to the presidential election in the United States. Undoubtedly, there are some common threads between the sentiments of British voters and American voters.
For one thing, pollsters and pundits continue to get it wrong when predicting just how the silent majority will vote when election day rolls around. Just look at how many times the mainstream media, pollsters, and talking heads have predicted Donald Trump’s imminent demise. Yet, when voters pull the curtain closed and cast their secret ballot, something completely different happens.
Whether it is the British voters shocking the world with their Brexit vote or it’s Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump voters bucking the system to signal a different direction, something real is happening.
No pollster nor prognosticator has yet explained it. And, none predicted it months ago when looking ahead to the 2016 elections.
The EU and Great Britain will now sort through the many issues implicated by the Brexit vote. They are too many to list and too complicated to sort through easily. But, one thing is clear: June 23, 2016, was an election day that changed the world. Yet, it may not be the only one.
On Nov. 8, voters in the United States of America will get their chance to decide. Already, during both the Democratic and Republican primaries, American voters have sent some strong messages about the need for change and the refusal to just go along to get along.
On June 23, British voters said: “Can you hear me now?” Unless things change dramatically over the next five months, do not be surprised if American voters follow suit on election day with a similar refrain: “Can you hear me now?”
It is just that kind of election year.