If you're like a lot of the world, you're hearing the word "Brexit" for the first time this week. For those of us in the UK, Brexit is what we've been living for the past year -- and our foreseeable future.
So how did we get here? What stands before us? And what happens next?
What is a "Brexit" anyway?
Brexit, linguistically, is a portmanteau of the words "Britain" and "exit". Practically, it was the campaign for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (note: NOT Britain alone...) to leave the European Union. The UK joined the European Union (then the European Economic Community) in 1973 by referendum vote.
Why is Brexit a thing?
The majority of it comes down to voter disaffection and the global crises as felt in northern and rural England. Nigel Farage is the Machiavelli behind this mess, but he certainly didn't do this single-handedly.
Farage and his UKIP party (a fringe group until relatively recently) have been wanting out of the EU for ages -- it's interesting to note that Farage is an elected Member of European Parliament, which means a vote to leave the EU puts him out of a job. He saw the disaffected voters feeling like the two main parties left them behind (sound familiar, Americans?) and preyed upon their fears that immigrants were to blame for most of it.
Oh, he's also married to an immigrant. Still sounding familiar?
During the general election last year, according to polls, UKIP began pulling votes from both parties. The Tories (Conservative Party -- "conservative" with a capital C) assumed that they could gain back enough votes to form another coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party if they started making more "conservative" ("conservative" with a little C [ie: in this case, far right]) promises -- knowing that the Lib Dems would not support these measures in government and stop their implementation. Since Farage guaranteed UKIP would have the UK leave the EU, David Cameron promised a referendum under the Tories.
In the end, UKIP did pull a lot of votes -- but more from Labour than the Tories. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party was pretty ineffectual, so he didn't instill much confidence in the electorate. Labour also lost a huge number of seats in Scotland to the Scottish National Party (still smarting from Labour leading the country into Iraq and losing their September 2014 referendum for independence from the UK), giving the Tories a lone majority in Parliament.
Unfortunately for Cameron, this left him in the unenviable position of having to implement campaign promises he never thought he'd have to. He said he had no intention of leaving the European Union, and he has had to stick by this statement. Cameron spent early 2016 negotiating with every EU member state to try to get a satisfactory agreement for staying in, but he came back with little -- and certainly not enough to convince people who think EU migrants are stealing their jobs (instead of global crisis and Tory zero-hour contract law) to stay.
How did the whole campaign go down?
Brexit was definitely argued on a campaign of fear, but so was the Remain campaign. The Leavers told us that we could stop EU migration (and "only let the right ones in") if we voted out. They didn't feel the onus of responsibility to show how anything would work after an out vote, but they were saying the right things to incite fear in these people. (Think of the "taking away all our guns" and "gonna build a wall" arguments there -- is any amount of fact-checking going to do any good?)
The vote came down to 51.9% for Leave to 48.1% for Remain. As the constituency results were announced throughout the night, the lead jumped back and forth between the two campaigns. The pound sterling (our currency) began to drop almost immediately in response to the uncertainty. After hitting a high of $1.50 earlier in the day, the exchange rate plummeted to $1.33 after the results were confirmed.
Cameron's EU negotiations and agreements were never going to help because no one trusted him to negotiate for a side he didn't really take. Scotland didn't take the bait and voted 100% by constituency to Remain; Northern Ireland also had many questions unanswered and voted by majority to Remain. London and a few other major English cities (plus Cardiff, Wales) voted in, but the majority of England and Wales voted out.
So now what?
Northern Ireland, where I live, is under a cloud of uncertainty larger than the rest of the UK. We have an open border with the Republic of Ireland; the border did exist before the EU, but it has been allowed to continue thanks to the EU and strengthened by the Good Friday Agreement (1998). We will now be a non-EU nation with a land border with an EU nation, which the Leave campaign swears will operate openly but likely can't. The Good Friday Agreement also guarantees (under the EU) the right for NI citizens to be Irish citizens if they so identify. I can't see how that can continue. I have to think long and hard about what passport(s) to get my son, as he will have to live with the consequences of my decision long after the dust settles on this referendum. Without EU cross-border and cross-community peace initiatives in Northern Ireland, I can easily see us descending into Troubles-era tensions and, possibly, the violence that went along with it.
Scotland will have another independence referendum, and they will likely vote to leave the UK and try to join the EU. The EU will be more forgiving to their application than they would have been after the last failed referendum (2014) because the country voted for the strength of the EU. If Scotland leaves, we will have a one party (Tory) government for the foreseeable future, as they will take the traditionally-Labour-now-SNP voters with them. The only good thing about those of us who are left is that people will be forced to acknowledge that it was never the EU that got us into this mess.
The other referendum call to come out of this vote is here in NI. Sinn Fein (a nationalist party) has called for a reunification referendum to join the Republic of Ireland. It is unlikely to pass in either the north or the south, honestly, and it will fuel identity politics to an even greater extent here. Neither Ireland nor the UK will want Northern Ireland without EU initiatives and EU jobs, and we really have no business governing ourselves.
David Cameron announced his resignation from the leadership of the Conservative party following the referendum results. The new leader will almost certainly come from the Brexit campaign, and it will also almost certainly be Boris Johnson. Johnson played the referendum to his advantage from the start, waiting to see the major players on both sides before publicly declaring his loyalty, and survived the campaign relatively unscathed by doing nearly no work toward it until the final week or so. Johnson is the former Mayor of London, and it was suspected that he ran for his Parliamentary seat specifically to become leader of the party and move into the Prime Minister position.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party elected with an unprecedented majority in the first round of counting, is also facing a petition of no confidence from his own party. Corbyn, never the biggest fan of the European Union, did little to inspire his party members to care about the referendum. He failed to effectively campaign, allowing the traditional Labour voters to feel largely ignored. The campaign was often described as "Blue on Blue" -- the Conservative party's colour is blue -- as it simply appeared to be a squabble within their party.
And what about Farage?
Slippery as an eel to the end, Nigel Farage said that we should celebrate 23 June as the UK's independence day. One of the central figures used in the Leave campaign was that the EU charges the UK £350 million every week; this number was proven to be false. Many campaigners announced that claiming back that sum would allow it to be spent on our National Health Service (NHS) instead. Early this morning, Farage already distanced himself from this concept, admitting that the money wouldn't be used to fund the NHS and, instead, calling it a "mistake". Plastering it on the side of a bus is kind of a big mistake.
The UK faced just one question yesterday, and it's up to you to decide whether the answer was the right one.