here is a difference between measuring the height of a drop and the sensation of falling; between the sight of a wave and hearing it crash on to the shore; between the knowledge of what fire can do and feeling the heat as the flames catch.
The theoretical possibility that Britain might leave the European Union, nominally the only question under consideration on the ballot paper, turns out to prefigure nothing of the shock when the country actually votes to do it. Politics as practised for a generation is upended; traditional party allegiances are shredded; the prime minister’s authority is bust – and that is just the parochial domestic fallout. A whole continent looks on in trepidation. It was meant to be unthinkable, now the thought has become action. Europe cannot be the same again.
The signs were always there, even if the opinion polls nudged Remainers towards false optimism at the very end of the campaign. Brexit had taken the lead at times and always hovered in the margin of error. But the statistical probability of an earthquake doesn’t describe the disorienting feeling of the ground lurching violently beneath your feet.
That is what has happened, although there is no geographical epicentre of the Brexit vote. The first tremor was in the north-east, Sunderland, but it was soon clear that towns across England where remain needed to notch up a steady tally of votes were tilting the other way, sometimes dramatically. Portsmouth, Corby, Southampton, Nuneaton – areas that traditionally swing elections clocked up nearly two-thirds support for leave. A counter-revolution based largely in London and Scotland simply couldn’t muster the numbers to hold the line for EU membership.
But the practical reality of UK participation in European institutions felt almost beside the point as great cultural and geographical fault lines cracked the political landscape open. Although the vote has to be interpreted as an instruction to withdraw from the EU, it sounded in the early hours of Friday more like a howl of rage and frustration by one half of the country against the system of power, wealth and privilege perceived to be controlled by an elite residing, well, elsewhere. Westminster was the target as much as Brussels. But even that account doesn’t quite do justice to the complexity of what unfolded, or rather, what crumbled.
Wealthy southern shires backed Brexit. North-western cities opposed it. Northern Ireland was for the status quo. Wales demanded radical change. With hindsight, Swansea was a bellwether result of the night – early testimony for the prosecution against the remain campaign’s claim that it was worth nurturing the economy we have for fear of something worse. Rightly or not, it seems tens of millions of people, many in places where once was heavy industry, concluded that the gamble was worth taking; that the present was not so rosy as to militate against a punt on something, anything different.
Many clearly thought, too, that, somewhere in the process, there might be a change in the national complexion: that in the great reallocation of resource and opportunity over the Brexit rainbow, once the country has been “taken back”, there will be more to go around for what Ukip supporters, in their less guarded moments, call “indigenous” workers – the ones who were left behind in the headlong march into a globalised labour market.
And it was precisely because there was a reactionary undercurrent of racial animus to the leave prospectus that voters in metropolitan areas voted in droves for remain. Those vast majorities in central London do not express enthusiasm for the EU so much as emotional attachment to a liberal ethos of openness to the world – an ethos that is much easier to endorse by people whose pockets are swollen by its economic bounty.
They might cling on for a spell, for stability’s sake, but they will have no legacy to write beyond Brexit. There is the constitutional upheaval implicit in Scotland’s endorsement of EU membership. Can England reasonably pull its neighbour out of Europe against its will? Then there are the long arduous negotiations over what aspects of that vast edifice of UK entanglement with European law, finance, criminal justice cooperation, trade, diplomacy can reasonably be unthreaded; what compromises will be made and how quickly they will disappoint those who have just voted for total rupture.But excavating the rubble of what we thought we knew about political allegiance, what motives drove which segments of the population into which camp – often in flat refusal to take any kind of instruction from party leaders, expert opinion, celebrities – will be a project of weeks or months and years. And that will have to be done amid a great political reckoning as the prime minister and his chancellor grapple with failure of their great gamble and with it the inevitable demise of their decade-long project at the helm of the Conservative party.
There are, in reality, two results from this referendum that operate in separate dimensions – the order for withdrawal from the European Union and the demand that all of politics be conducted on different terms, for a different audience. The sheer scale of combining those tasks is breathtaking, and yet the air over Britain does not yet feel clear enough to breathe so thick is it with dust from an earthquake.