Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has plunged the country into its greatest crisis since 1945. It prompted the immediate resignation of the prime minister and a revolt against the leader of the opposition, leaving both main parties headless. It plunged the economy into a nosedive, as the pound crashed to its lowest level in thirty years and $2 trillion was wiped off global stocks in a single day. And it brought a warning from the first minister of Scotland that, since Scottish voters had bucked the trend and overwhelmingly opted to remain in the EU rather than leave, a repeat of the 2014 attempt to make Scotland independent of the UK was “highly likely,” if that’s what it took to remain inside the European club. The deputy first minister of Northern Ireland suggested that that province might also break from the UK and seek unification with the Republic of Ireland, since a majority of its voters had also wanted to remain in the EU. In a matter of hours, the United Kingdom—its leadership, its economy, its very shape—seemed to be coming apart.
On the Continent, the Brexit vote was immediately understood as a mortal threat. The twenty-seven remaining members vowed to stay together, moving fast to prevent the spread of any secessionist contagion. At a post-referendum leaders’ summit in Brussels, some of them embraced Britain’s outgoing prime minister, David Cameron; others spoke of their sadness at seeing Britain go. But then they met without him—a hard, concrete sign that Britain had become the first nation in the organization’s history to break away.
The financier and philanthropist George Soros spoke for many when he warned that the UK’s decision imperiled “the very survival of the European project.” In this view, the departure of Britain—which, along with France and Germany, has stood as one of the “big three” pillars on which the EU rests—threatens to bring the entire structure down, thereby ending a sixty-year experiment that has brought peace and prosperity to a continent that had known only conflict for a thousand years.
How did it happen? How did the once-esoteric cause of a British exit from the EU win a national vote by 52–48 percent? A decade ago the issue was so marginal as to be a national joke. It was dismissed as the obsession of cranks, pursued by two dozen inexhaustible Tory members of Parliament, tolerated with eye-rolling disdain by their colleagues, who would rise to their feet to bore the chamber about the latest directive from Brussels that, they claimed, threatened British sovereignty. They were seen as eccentrics, cousins to those Americans convinced that the United States is secretly governed by the United Nations.
Since 1993 true believers had their own political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, whose sole purpose was the liberation of Britain from the grasp of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.