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Historian: Surprise ‘Brexit’ vote is perfect storm

UK voters’ discontent echoes unusual election year in the US, he says

WIBC-FM report interview (audio)

A specialist in modern British history, Dr. Chad Martin knew the so-called “Brexit” referendum would be close, and he understood why.


Still, he was surprised late Thursday night when the tally determined the U.K. was leaving the European Union.

“I was going back and forth as I was watching the coverage,” said Martin, associate professor in UIndy’s Department of History & Political Science. “There were some early results coming in that were closer than they should have been.”

The current political dynamic in Britain bears similarities to the U.S. presidential race, he said, with frustrated voters abandoning traditional sympathies for any promise of change. Concerned about immigration and economic uncertainty, stirred by talk of national greatness, Brexit supporters share something with the disaffected Americans who have brought Donald Trump to the brink of the Republican nomination.

“The parallels between the Leave vote and the Trump phenomenon are striking,” Martin said.

Like many observers, he expected the Remain supporters to win by a slight margin, but two developments suggested the vote might go the other way: In London, assumed to be a Remain stronghold, unusually heavy rains and flooding kept many from the polls. In Birmingham and around the industrial north, typically left-leaning workers weighed in on the Leave side.

“A lot of people are going to make it out to be just about immigration or just about nationalism, but there are many people who are not right-wing nationalists who voted to leave,” said Martin, who holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

Two top officeholders who wanted to stay in the EU may have aided the other side because of their unpopularity, he said. Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced his resignation today, has been blamed for a weak economic recovery. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – akin to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury – is disliked for his austerity policies.

As a result, global financial markets have been thrown for a loop, and the Western world’s political balance is shaken.

“Britain has always been our closest European ally and our closest ally in the European Union,” Martin said, noting that the U.K. financial industry is a crucial gateway to continental Europe for U.S. companies.

Is there a bright spot? Well, today the pound was trading against the dollar at its lowest point since the 1980s.

“If you’re thinking about taking a vacation to Britain, now’s the time to do it,” Martin said.