Good journalists respond to drama and the Economist was at its finest when Britain voted to leave the European Union. Even while the votes were being counted, the Economist was correctly interpreting the straws in the wind in a vivid narrative.
This is what it wrote before the result was announced:
Though the result remained too close to call four hours after polls closed, it is already clear that a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union has triggered an angry revolt by millions of British voters against their government, the leaders of the main political parties, big business and experts of all stripes. First returns and television interviews with voters and (slightly shell-shocked) political grandees painted a picture of a United Kingdom divided sharply along lines of region, class, age and even—in the case of Northern Ireland, where such Roman Catholic areas as Foyle voted Remain while Protestant areas like North Antrim went for Leave amid much higher turnout—by religious denomination…
“As the night began it appeared that “Leave” camp had done better than expected in rain-lashed, post-industrial northeastern towns with names from a George Orwell story, like Sunderland and Hartlepool, or gritty corners of Essex. Remain had its early strongholds, such as Orkney and Clackmannanshire in Scotland, but turnout in such places underperformed…
Turnout was reported to be lower than Remain campaigners had hoped in London, a city expected to provide deep reservoirs of the sort of higher-income, better-educated and non-white voters who have consistently told pollsters they want to stay in Europe. The capital suffered heavy rain and transport chaos on referendum day, which probably did not help. Against that, some of the first London boroughs to declare, such as Wandsworth, showed a stronger-than-expected 75% vote for Remain. At least going by first results, Wales seemed to have parted company with its Celtic brother, Scotland. Labour-voting former mining valleys and blighted post-industrial towns seemed to be swinging towards Leave.
This is how good journalists write, smoothly, vividly. The country was in upheaval, two trillion dollars wiped off stock markets worldwide, David Cameron was about to announce his resignation, but nothing could throw the Economist off balance: it reported the events like a master storyteller.
The Economist was unhappy the people voted for Brexit, or British exit from the European Union. It called Brexit a “tragic split”.
Still, one of its articles hit a humorous note. “(T)he English were not averse to flipping a middle finger at the Establishment,” it said in an affectionate look at the people. The Economist recalled:
“The English are not intellectual,” wrote George Orwell. “They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic ‘worldview’.” England’s finest chronicler had a point. The country is rightly known for its pragmatism and suspicion of wide-eyed ideas. This was the nation that turned its nose up at republicanism, fascism and communism; that has typically advanced not through revolutions but by tweaks and fiddles; and that tolerates the ensuing tensions and contradictions like wrinkles on an old face…
To this day the national character appears, to outsiders, rather like the weather: mild, homely, rarely extreme. Violent tempers and upheavals (at least, excepting the country’s drinking culture) are as uncommon on these damp, green islands as tornadoes, tsunamis and droughts.
Thus England’s shock vote for Brexit on June 23rd—Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, Wales to leave—looks like a stark departure from the country’s usual sanguine demeanour. Faced with a choice between an imperfect status quo and a leap into the dark, this usually practical, cautious people has flung itself into the unknown and left its leaders, and the rest of the world, aghast…
But just as the placid English weather can, on occasion, act in an uncharacteristically volatile manner, so can the country’s denizens. Buried beneath all the “mustn’t grumble” and “I’m terribly sorry, but…” is a streak of rebellion. Think again about the country’s history: from the Luddites and Chartists to Johnny Rotten and Margaret Thatcher, the English are not averse to flipping a middle finger at the establishment, when the fancy takes them. Its newspapers are much ruder to its political leaders than those of most other European countries. Satire has a special role in English life. Inside every tea-sipper there is an anarchist waiting to be stirred. In this context the Brexit vote looks less odd.
Some of the other British websites also rose to the occasion, recording the drama and the emotions at play.
The Guardian had the best quote on Brexit. “If you’ve got money, you vote in,” a woman told a Guardian columnist in Collyhurst, a poor inner-city area of Manchester. “If you haven’t got money, you vote out.”
But money was not the only divider. The majority of young voters wanted to remain in the European Union but they were outvoted by older people.
In the end, Brexit won by more than a million votes. More than 17 million Britons voted to leave the European Union compared to over 16 million who wanted to stay on. The votes split 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent.
Britain joined the European Union, or the Common Market as it was called, in 1973 when the Conservative Edward Heath was the prime minister. After the Labour Party came to power under Harold Wilson in 1974, Britain held a referendum in 1975 on whether to remain in the Common Market. Labour was divided on the issue, but the Conservative opposition leader Margaret Thatcher supported the Common Market. Sixty-seven per cent of the voters cast their ballots in favour of the Common Market in that referendum.
So why did the majority vote to leave the European Union now? Immigration and globalization alienated poorer Britons, who felt left out and were unhappy about the free movement of people within the European Union, it is said. But immigration was a sore subject earlier as well when politicians like Enoch Powell wanted to keep Britain white and Asian and Caribbean immigrants out. Globalization, however, was not the issue then. It became a buzzword only in the 1980s.