‘Brexit’ Opens Uncertain Chapter in Britain’s Storied History

By Steven Erlanger New York Times

LONDON — Asked to vote in or out, Britain has chosen decisively to cast off its 43-year-old membership in the European Union, leaving it to face a more complex question: What kind of nation will it be now?

Will Britain be the outward-looking, entrepreneurial, confident country that makes its independent way in the world, as the leaders of the Leave campaign insisted it could be?
Or will it retreat to become a Little England, nationalist and a touch xenophobic, responding to the voters that drove it to quit the European Union?

Even more important: Will it even hold together? With Scotland deeply pro-European, pressure will increase for another independence referendum that could bring an end to the United Kingdom.

Britain, a nation whose storied history has encompassed the birth of constitutional government, global empire, royal pageantry and heroic defense against fascism, is entering unknown territory.

The questions about its new path could remain unresolved for years. On Friday morning, at least, Britain remained a member of the European Union in full standing, just as it was 24 hours earlier.

But the impact of this plebiscite is likely to be profound and long-lasting, well beyond the immediate tumult in the financial markets, and the questions about Britain’s future will be answered against the backdrop of potential political, legal and economic upheaval.

A Conservative government with its first majority since 1992 has ripped itself apart on a global stage and is badly damaged. The main question on that front seems to be whether Prime Minister David Cameron and his top aide, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, leave slowly or speedily. An early general election is not out of the question.

Once Britain begins the formal process of withdrawing from the European Union by exercising Article 50 of the treaty that governs membership in the bloc, it will trigger a two-year clock on negotiations, a period in which Britain — including millions of European citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the European Union — will be in limbo.

And if the British Treasury, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are to be believed, the British economy is in for a severe shock. The Treasury estimates that the British gross domestic product, representing the size of the economy, will fall by 3.5 percent, clobbering tax receipts; that half a million people will lose their jobs; and that housing prices (and thus personal wealth of homeowners) will fall by 10 percent.

Those estimates were criticized by the Leave campaign, including senior members of government, as unfounded fear mongering. Now Britain will find out how accurate they are.
This vote was a severe shock to Britain’s political class from voters who are angry, confused and deeply distrustful of elites.

The Labour Party joined Mr. Cameron in campaigning to stay in Europe, as did nearly all the other parties represented in Parliament, with the exception of the Democratic Unionists and the U.K. Independence Party, which was founded on a platform of leaving the European Union. Yet despite that solid wall of establishment voices — or perhaps because of them — Britain voted for a fundamental change in direction.

“The British political class should pay attention,” said Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics.

“There is a lot of disaffection with both main parties,” he said. In 1955, the Conservatives and Labour won 97.5 percent of the vote, but in last two elections, the two won only about 66 percent of the vote, he said.

Graphic | Repercussions of Britain’s Exit From the E.U. Investors, policy makers and countries face a messy breakup with vast financial, economic and political implications.

“Into that vacuum something else has to move, but what?” Mr. Travers asked. “The political class has to wonder how to appeal to those who increasingly feel left out of the system, how to stop large numbers of voters feeling cut out of economic change and success.”

The Conservative Party is already split between traditional establishment figures like Mr. Cameron and others who embraced the anti-elite, anti-immigration posture of the Leave campaign, most prominently the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and one of Mr. Cameron’s senior cabinet members, Michael Gove.

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