Britons from the far Scottish isles to the tip of Gibraltar had their say Thursday in a historic referendum that could reshape Britain’s place in Europe and radiate economic, political and security implications across the globe.
After months of bitter campaigning that sharply divided the country over questions of immigration and identity, election day dawned with a cliffhanger on whether Britain will remain in the European Union.
Among five polls released on the eve of the vote, two showed a lead for “in,” two gave the edge to “out” and one forecast a tie. The final average of all polls on the day before the vote was 50-50, reflecting the too-close-to-call drama on one of the biggest questions to face Britain in decades.
After voting began, however, two new surveys appeared to show a late-breaking shift toward the “remain” camp. The polling firms Ipsos Mori and Populus found a clear lead for those seeking to keep Britain from an EU break.
The U.S.-based firm SurveyMonkey, one of the few forecasters to correctly call last year’s British election, also reported a potentially decisive shift toward “in” over the final days of the campaign.
Although “leave” had been leading the polls as of last week, “remain” drew even after pro-EU member of Parliament Jo Cox was fatally shot and stabbed a week ago, jolting the country and prompting calls for an end to some of the campaign’s more hateful rhetoric.
Financial markets nudged higher in Asia and were sharply up in Europe in an apparent sign that traders and investors were betting that Britain would stay within the 28-nation bloc. On Wall Street, stocks also opened sharply higher Thursday. A possible British exit – popularly known as Brexit – would inject huge uncertainties into global financial networks.
Voting takes place throughout the day Thursday, and the results are expected early Friday (Thursday evening Eastern time). There appeared to be heavy turnout, with voters lining up at polling stations and both sides working frantically to rally their supporters.
Speaking to reporters before he cast his ballot, anti-EU firebrand Nigel Farage said there was a “very strong chance” of a victory for the “leave” side, but he acknowledged it would hinge on “those soft ‘remainers’ staying at home.”
The referendum marks an existential decision that could dramatically alter Britain’s global role in a way not seen since London shed its empire after World War II. It could also lead to another push on Scottish secession, the further unraveling of the European Union and the fall of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
As the first votes were cast – with the often-variable British weather running the gamut from a torrential downpour in London to sunny, clear skies in Scotland – anxiety was the prevailing mood.
Hilary Clarke, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom, was the first to vote at a southwest London polling station. She said she would use her stubby pencil to check “remain” on her ballot.
“If I had been confident, I wouldn’t be standing in the rain at 7 in the morning,” she said as she sheltered beneath a colorful umbrella. “The reason I’m first in the queue is I’m going straight to the airport to go to Barcelona, and I may not return if vote goes the wrong way.”
Clarke, who had endured a sleepless night tuned to the cracks of thunder and the cries of woken children, said she could not understand the logic of those pushing for “leave.”
“I can see that sometimes it seems we are hemorrhaging money to the E.U.,” she said. “But at the same time, we seem to get so much more back than we give. Even if you’re disagreeing with what’s said at the table, it’s better to have a place at it.”
But for “leave” voters, Britain’s four decades of membership in the European Union and its precursors have only dragged the country down.
Andreas Hajialexandrou, a 48-year-old businessman of Greek Cypriot heritage, said the country could simply not withstand the impact of record numbers of immigrants from elsewhere in Europe.
“There are pressures on local services. I speak to our local [doctors] and they are just swamped,” he said. “The question is, how long can you support that level of immigration?”
Other voters still had not made their minds up as they prepared to enter the polling station.
At Methodist Central Hall, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, Steve Devereux was still weighing his options Thursday morning. He said that while he would likely vote “remain” because he worried about the concussive impact of an exit, he felt the pull to leave.
“Giving the government a kick in the backside and really telling them actually they can’t take people for granted,” he said. “I think that’s the big thing I really want to say.”
Cameron, the prime minister and a leading voice for EU ties, voted in central London Thursday morning alongside his wife, Samantha Cameron, giving a quick wave to photographers before entering the polling station.
Leading Brexit campaigner Michael Gove cast his ballot later with a red and white “Vote Leave” umbrella in hand. The justice secretary was accompanied by his wife. In a reflection of the complex web of personal friendships that are being tested by a highly vitriolic political campaign, she is godmother to one of Cameron’s children.
Advocates for a British exit argue that tossing off the shackles of EU bureaucracy will restore Britain’s sovereignty. A powerful selling point for many voters is the claim that a farewell to EU ties could give the country the latitude to dramatically reduce immigration, which has hit record highs as Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and others from across Europe have flocked to the relative prosperity of the British economy.
Pro-Brexit leaders used the Twitter hashtag #IndependenceDay on Thursday morning to exhort their followers to get out and vote for what they promise will be a liberation from Brussels.
But opponents say a vote to leave could be a grievous self-inflicted wound from which it would take years, if not decades, for Britain to recover.
Economic forecasters have said a British break could push the country back into recession, with the rest of the globe vulnerable to the ripples. Many geopolitical strategists also warn that a vote to leave could divide the Western alliance and be a boon to others such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But many of the 46 million Britons eligible to vote have paid little heed, with surveys showing that anxiety over immigration is trumping all other voter concerns.
The “leave” campaign has played on those fears, arguing – with little supporting evidence – that Turkey will soon join the European Union and intensify the flood of migrant workers arriving on British shores under the bloc’s free-movement rules.
It has also dismissed warnings from independent experts as part of an elitist plot, what it terms “Project Fear.”
The “remain” side has returned fire in recent days.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan castigated the anti-E.U. camp’s anti-immigrant message as “Project Hate.”
Whichever side wins Thursday will have to reckon with the profound and emotional schisms in British society that have come to the surface during the campaign.
When Cameron promised a referendum in January 2013, he had hoped the vote would put to rest a debate over Europe that has bedeviled Britain for decades and that has generated particularly deep fault lines in his Conservative Party.
Instead, the campaign appears only to have made those divisions worse, while also layering the debate with the added complexity of personal ambition. Several prominent campaigners – especially former London mayor Boris Johnson – are thought to be jockeying for Cameron’s job if the country defies the prime minister and votes for an exit.
Even if “remain” wins, Britain’s angst is unlikely to be resolved. Some “leave” campaigners have said they will press for another referendum if they come up short in a close vote.
Thursday’s vote also has the potential to reawaken another fundamental question of British identity. Scottish leaders say that if Britain votes to leave the European Union against the will of the pro-European Scots, they will renew their push for independence just two years after losing a referendum vote.
Cay Schroder, 72, a painter, was in Trafalgar Square on Wednesday along with thousands of others for an emotional memorial to the slain lawmaker Cox on what would have been her 42nd birthday. The event featured a speech from Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, a video message from Irish rock star Bono and a school choir featuring the classmates of Cox’s young son.
Young voters, he said, were “in” but may not vote. The “out” voters were older, and determined to recover a bygone time for Britain that cannot be re-created.
“They long for something,” he said, “that doesn’t exist anymore.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Griff Witte, Karla Adam, Dan Balz