The results in Britain’s referendum on its membership of the European Union are in. And what a result. Britain has voted to leave, by a margin of 52 percent in favor, or over 1.2 million votes. Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation Friday morning.
No pollster saw this coming. Nor did almost any of the Brexit campaigners. The evening opened with Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, announcing that he thought he’d lost. Everyone else thought the same way. And everyone was wrong.
In the end, it was northern England, a traditional working class heartland of Labour, that won it for Brexit. This wasn’t simply a victory for the majority of the Conservative Party who wanted to leave. On their own, they would have lost. They won because the workers agreed with them.
It’s far too soon to know how the polls turned around. But they didn’t have to be very wrong on the numbers to get the outcome totally incorrect. Whether it was shy Brexit support, a sample that didn’t quite get enough northern workers in it, or simply the unknowns deciding they wanted to leave, it was enough to turn the tide.
There were lots of reasons to vote for Brexit. And there were reasons to vote against it. But the decision was taken in a democratic referendum, in which over 72 percent of eligible voters participated. And that kind of democracy was the best argument for Brexit.
Ultimately, the British people made up their own minds. They were told throughout by President Obama, by Cameron, and by a whole range of international organizations that they had to remain in the EU. And yet they decided to leave.
That decision was taken in an impeccably democratic way. In the future, Britain will govern itself as it has governed itself today: by decisions taken in Britain, not Brussels. There is no guarantee those decisions will be the right ones. But they will be British ones.
This vote does not mean that Britain is immediately out of the EU. It is the start of a process for a negotiated exit from the EU, under a new prime minister. As Cameron said, in his statesmanlike speech Friday morning, there are no changes today in Britain’s trading or travel relations.
But there is one change of overwhelming importance. The British people have voted to leave. From that will flow many other changes, and many other challenges.
Brexit is no silver bullet, and anyone who thinks it is will be gravely disappointed. In many ways, it increases the burden on Britain to pick the right policies: soon, it will no longer have Brussels to blame.
But what a result. It was unlocked for, unexpected, and yet, in the end, clear. We can only hope that the EU, and President Obama, decide to follow their enlightened self interests, and work to facilitate the U.K.’s departure from the EU as rapidly and smoothly as possible.
And we can hope that we in the U.S. will work together with the UK in its new freedom to negotiate its own trade agreements. A US-UK free trade area is now not just a possibility: it is the right thing to do, and to do soon.
The UK’s transition away from the EU will inevitably have bumps. Some are obvious in the markets today. Others will appear in time. But the decision has been made, and those bumps must be faced and overcome: it is in no one’s interest to make them worse.
And we can hope that the EU learns a lesson from this. At the close of voting on Thursday night, they thought they’d won. If they’d gone down a different road, the vote wouldn’t have happened. If they’d conducted a real renegotiation with Britain, Cameron might have won.
But they didn’t, and they didn’t. It’s now too late for them in Britain. If they don’t change course, they will find other nations following Britain out the door. I confess that I doubt the EU has the desire or the ability to change.
We will find out about that soon enough. On Friday, though, we know one thing for certain: Britain has voted, and Britain has voted for change.