Boris Johnson and his wife Maria Wheeler outside a polling station
Boris Johnson and his wife Maria Wheeler outside a polling station

The United Kingdom looks to be on the point of voting to leave the European Union, as Crikey goes to press at 1pm on Friday. The “leave” vote is narrowly ahead of the “remain” vote, around 6,062,258 votes to 6,378,177, and the leave vote has been in the lead since counting began at 10pm, UK time (9am AEST), with around a 53%-47% lead over the last couple of hours.

Turnout (65%) appears to have been lower than expected but higher than recent general elections. There were no exit polls to take an initial result from, and only a “day” poll taken, which had forecast a “remain” victory, 52%-48%. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, the party whose rise made the referendum possible, gave a press conference that was a near-concession speech, saying that Remain might have “edged them out”.

The first indicative result came in from the north-eastern city of Sunderland, traditionally the first to report, and was a strong vote to leave at 61.3%. That such an old Labour town would vote to leave was never in much doubt, but the strength of the result surprised everyone and shocked the Remain camp. The pound fell 6% against the US dollar almost immediately. Further results from the 382 municipalities in the UK had more bad news for Remain. While Newcastle voted to remain, as did Clackmannanshire in the Scottish Highlands, the middle-England town of Kettering voted to leave.

Minutes later came the really worrying vote for Remain, when it became clear that Swindon had voted to leave. Swindon, a former railway town halfway between London and the west coast, now about as average a small English city as you could get, is an indication of how far the Leave campaign has reached. The first Welsh result in, Merthyr Tydfil, voted to leave. Further Scottish results were to remain. But over three hours of counting, Remain is yet to nudge into the lead.

The Remain camp is yet to panic, as London results have not yet started to come in and tend to be far more pro-EU (UKIP has its lowest vote in London, which has the highest migrant population). The same may be true of big cities such as Manchester. But at the same time, the result is a reverse of recent polling. The exit of the UK from the EU is now looking like a real possibility.

Should the Leave campaign triumph, a complex process begins. The PM David Cameron, who made himself the puffy pink face of the Remain camp, may feel that he has no alternative but to resign. Should he do so, he will almost certainly be replaced by Boris Johnston, who “led” the Leave campaign. Parliament, a pro-Remain body, will have to ratify the result with a bill.

Were they not to do so, God knows, there would be uproar, occupations, the works. Once the intent to leave had been ratified, a years-long process of Britain extracting itself from the EU would begin. It would be made easier by the fact that the UK is not in the euro. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of agreements that would have to be extracted from, payments and repatriations to be worked out, a possible transfer of the UK to the European Free Trade Area (a once-large group of non-EU or EEC nations, which now includes only Norway, Iceland and a couple of others).

But even while negotiations were underway, there would be immense pressure on the government to unilaterally enact a withdrawal from the Maastricht principles, above all the “freedom of movement”. For millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens on the continent, years of limbo would be in the offing. The same would be true of companies that have operations spread across the UK and EU nations.

For Conservatives, this transition may be easier than for Labor. Withdrawal would change free-trade commitments via other means, and even those Tories who see the need for cheap labour via immigration would knuckle under.

For Labour, it’s more difficult. The left has been entirely and utterly split on the issue — although there has been none of the rancour that was seen on the Tory side. But the split on the left was between liberals and socialist nationalists, internationalists and communitarians — two entirely different ways of thinking about how to take the fight into the future. It’s indicative of the fact that the left (and the right) are mega-alliances of two camps that work on entirely different principles about the nature of the world.

Ultimately of course, this may not be the last departure. For Remain has been strong in one place — Scotland, where there hasn’t been a Leave victory so far. If the UK does leave, then the SNP has a trigger for a second referendum, which it would most likely win. And that would be the end of the UK, an extraordinary result, of global consequence. The next few hours will be extraordinary, the sound of ancient arches falling on each other one by one, bringing down a whole city.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey