Brexit Outcome Is a Vote Against the World

The victory of the 'leave' campaign to exit the EU reflected millions of Britons’ resentment, estrangement, jealousy and anger with the existing order.

A "leave" supporter holds a Union flag following the result of the EU referendum, outside Downing Street in London, June 24, 2016.
Neil Hall/Reuters

LONDON – The atmosphere in the British capital throughout voting on Thursday’s EU referendum was optimistic. On the streets, outside Tube stations, in windows and doorways, it was almost exclusively signs and activists with the slogans “IN” and “remain.” Members of rival parties – the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats – all cooperated in bringing out “their” voters to the polls. The heavy rain caused delays on rail lines and slightly decreased turnout, but it was merely a slight worry, no more.

But London was never so detached from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The victory of the “leave” campaign in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was greeted with complete shock in the early hours of Friday morning. Only a few hours earlier, when the polling stations closed at 10 P.M., the pollsters, journalists and even politicians in both camps were pretty certain that a small majority would vote to stay in the EU.

Two polls carried out throughout the day had the “remain” campaign leading by between 4 and 7 percent. No exit polls had been carried out due to the difficulty of sampling voters in an unprecedented national referendum, with the highest voter turnout in elections in over 25 years. But instead, the prevailing trends had been correctly assessed.

All the divergences had been predicted. It was clear in advance that London and Scotland would overwhelmingly vote to remain, while the rest of England and Wales would prefer to leave (overall, 51.9 percent voted to “leave,” while 48.1 percent voted to “remain”). They knew that the older voters, those who had passed the barrier of 40, wanted to return to the old, closed-off Britain of the past.

Those with better education and higher incomes were correctly predicted to be more pro-“remain.” But the depth of feeling of the “leave” supporters could not be predicted.

Above all, the referendum decision was made by those who can’t see themselves gaining from a Britain that is part of a global society – those who see themselves as disconnected from cosmopolitan London and who don’t feel comfortable in a new multicultural Britain. They were mainly older, white voters, but also young people and the children of immigrants who felt estranged from the “State of London.” There is a clear comparison here to the bitter feelings of many Israelis toward the “Tel Aviv bubble.”

What motivated millions of Britons to the polling booths – many of them non-voters at parliamentary elections – was a combination of resentment, estrangement, jealousy and anger with the existing order and those perpetuating it.

This was the result of a massive protest vote and protest voters who may not have intended to go all the way. Most of the Britons who voted to leave the EU just wanted to “stick it” to the bureaucrats in Brussels, to the politicians in Westminster, to the bosses who make much more money and run the big companies.

They didn’t mean to make common cause with the leaders of racist and populist parties on the continent, who are celebrating this morning. They didn’t want to give the nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland a reason to demand their own independence referendums. They certainly didn’t want to topple the pound and stock exchange, jeopardizing their own life savings.

They just wanted, for once, to feel masters of their own destiny, to win an “independence day” from the frightening new global order.