Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.
While the term “historic” is vastly overused these days, it is hard to think of a word that better describes what has just happened in the U.K. British voters, defying the pollsters (or at least most of them) and the bookies, voted by a margin of 52% to 48% in favor of leaving the EU. It was truly a shot heard ‘round the world, to use a well-known phrase, and has already seen massive carnage in the currency and financial markets. The British pound and stock markets have plummeted, and stock markets around the world are approaching free-fall. And the mess will only continue, as European and American politics are sure to get a healthy shakeup, too.
There have been only two other such referendums in Britain’s history: in 1975, when it voted to join the then-EEC (or European Common Market, which easily passed), and in 2011, when a referendum was held to determine whether the British electoral system should be altered from its traditional winner-take-all system of voting (the argument being that the system then in existence was unfair to minor parties). That referendum failed.
Now, following a Brexit, as nationalist and anti-EU forces across the continent are exuberant over what has happened, there will almost surely be efforts by political forces in other countries to seek a similar outcome in their own countries. Even in Britain itself, the results are sure to trigger renewed calls for Scottish independence. Here in the U.S., roiling financial markets are probably not what Hillary Clinton wanted to deal with heading into a general election (although it was Donald Trump who supported Brexit), and it is surely one more major headache for President Obama, coming fresh off his devastating defeat in the Supreme Court yesterday over his immigration plan.
It doesn’t help matters that David Cameron, who had led the fight for Britain to stay in the EU, announced his resignation as prime minister this morning, which will set off a leadership contest in the Conservative Party, one that Boris Johnson, or possibly Michael Gove, will be well-placed to win. What does seem clear from much of the commentary in the British media is that the Eurosceptic Tories, who are now very much in the driver’s seat, will insist on a prime minister fully committed to Brexit. That would seem to mean a Johnson or Gove prime ministership, although it is possible the Party might turn to a figure who, while fully committed to Brexit, would be a slightly less polarizing figure. But the dust needs time to settle before it’s apparent what direction the Conservatives will take.
The days leading up to the referendum were chaotic, and in many ways, tragic. For months prior to late May, the “remain” camp seemed to be in the lead, albeit by a small margin and well within the usual statistical margin of error. Indeed, by the middle of May, Cameron and his allies seemed to be in the catbird seat, apparently beginning to dominate in the polls by fairly consistent 4 to 6-point margins. Beginning in late May, the “leave” forces seemed to have found just the right strategy, honing in on immigration and making the case that Britain needed to have a more rational immigration system similar to the Australian points system that rewards immigrants with particularly valuable skill sets. That argument seemed to be carrying the day, and indeed, by the middle of last week, all of the momentum seemed to have shifted toward “leave.”
Then, last Thursday, a young Member of Parliament (MP), Jo Cox, from a Northern England constituency, was murdered by an apparently mentally unstable individual who appeared to have ties to anti-immigrant extremist groups. The nation went into a state of near-collective shock at this violence. By the time of the referendum, most surveys were showing “remain” with a slight lead, and a few polls were showing “remain” with a fairly comfortable lead (although there is some fragmentary evidence that the “remain” camp support had peaked, and there might have been a drift, however slight, back toward those wanting to leave). It will take considerable detailed analysis of the polling results, including the private polling done over the last few weeks, to be able to ferret out what the actual dynamics of opinion really were. Clearly, some of the polls simply got it wrong. Others, like the online pollster YouGov, appeared to be very close to the mark, suggesting that the traditional telephone methodology is no longer viable.
Still, even given the vagaries of polling, the “remain” side had good reason to be confident. Nearly all of polls had shown a considerable undecided vote of 10% to 15%, and history suggests that undecided voters in these situations tend to break toward the status quo due to aversion to risk (i.e. better the devil you know as opposed to the devil you don’t know). The odds makers and betting markets have consistently signaled a successful “remain” vote, and they tend to get it right, just as they did two years ago during the Scottish independence referendum. In any event, that does not seem to have happened last night.
At this point, just hours after the Brexit vote, the next few weeks should be interesting indeed. And, while yesterday’s events are the very definition of a “black swan,” there may be other black swans out there stretching their wings.