The vestigial remnants of Britain’s once imperial past have reared their ugly head. The United Kingdom European Union membership referendum was a non-binding referendum in the United Kingdom to gauge support for the continuing membership of the United Kingdom in the European Union. UK citizens had a simple vote, “remain” or “leave”. On June 23rd the citizens chose to “leave” by a narrow margin (51.9% to 48.1%). The result of the referendum will reverberate not only throughout the United Kingdom, but worldwide.
However, the ramifications of this referendum, popularly referred to as “Brexit”, and the choice to leave are uncertain at this point. Economically, in the short-term the value of the British pound plunged dramatically to its lowest point since 1985. The value of the Euro also fell, although not as precipitously. The shocks of this economic downturn were felt worldwide, with markets in the United States and Asia heading downward once markets opened. Fear of ripples resulting in a worldwide economic recession have been voiced.
Long-term economic consequences are less well-known. In many ways the effects counterbalance. While the movement of people both to and from the UK from the EU may no longer be as free and may thereby have negative economic consequences for the UK, this is not certain. Withdrawal from the EU does not automatically mean less free movement of people. This depends on the terms of withdrawal as negotiated by the UK and the EU as well as any resulting bilateral or multilateral agreements between the UK and other states. Similarly, while restricted movement of people may harm tourism in the UK, the devaluation of the pound may increase it. As it becomes more expensive for the UK to import goods due to the devaluation, exports may increase due to the same devaluation.
Although economic shocks have been felt in the short-term due to the unexpected Brexit result and probably will continue in the near future, most likely it will rebound. Terms of withdrawal from the EU are probably going to hurt the UK a bit as the EU is most likely in no hurry to grant a golden parachute. However, the UK is an important market for the EU and is a financial capital of the world. To not regain at least favorable economic relations seems unlikely. Much will probably depend on the new UK EU commissioner and the Prime Minister of the UK.
Politically the referendum has appeared to expose old wounds and perhaps opened some new ones in the UK. UK membership in the EU has always seemed a bit uneasy, amongst many Britons as well as numerous UK politicians. EU membership has gained favor over time but divisions remain, as evidenced by regional breakdowns in the Brexit vote. England voted to leave along with Wales while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. This has called into question the future of the UK. It has been speculated that Scotland may seek a vote on independence and Northern Ireland could poll on the possibility of Irish reunification. The Brexit vote promises to highlight existing divisions between the constituent parts of the UK as EU withdrawal makes perceived English political domination even more untenable.
While the English vote was decidedly “leave” (53.2% to 46.8%), divisions in the electorate were demonstrated. More urbanized areas surrounding London and the city proper demonstrated the highest propensity to “remain” while most other areas of England showed greater favor to “leave”. The predilection to “leave” increased by age group, with leave only gaining the majority with those above the age of 44. Similarly, the propensity to vote “leave” decreased according to education. These tendencies along with data from Google Trends showing many Britons searching for information on the consequences of EU withdrawal, or even what the EU is, exposes the disconnect of contemporary England. The campaign to leave exploited the desire of many Britons for greater independence and sovereignty, a return to a greater England. Except the decision to leave has demonstrated the impossibility of such a return.
Perhaps it is that memory of a great and independent England which spurred older Britons to vote leave. But that England no longer exists. The England of 2016 cannot be a successful, sovereign state while detached from the greater globalized society. This was shown by the economic downturn. Even prior to the perceived possibility of a successful vote to leave the value of the British pound to the dollar and the Euro had been steadily declining over the past year due to market overvaluation. The UK is powerful. It has one of the largest economies in the world, it has a powerful military and a vote in the UN Security Council. But it’s difficult to argue that England really essential anymore in world affairs in and of itself. That may be a little harsh. The UK is the most important ally the United States has in Europe. The UK served as an influential voice in the EU, especially as it concerns matters of economic liberalization, and to this point remains the financial hub of Europe. These positions of power are now weakened by the decision to leave the EU. Consequently, the ability of England to materially influence the world around it and thereby within it has diminished.
Has the UK has gained greater sovereignty via the Brexit vote? It has greater autonomy to make its own political decisions. In doing so England has lost even more control over its future, both within and without.