Dispatch from London: Anxiety following Brexit

Starting at around 1:00pm Greenwich Mean Time, ministers and senior management officials began fanning out across Whitehall with a simple, time-tested British message: Stay calm and carry on. So far, it isn’t working. The mood in London—which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, unlike the U.K. overall—this morning was one of shock and profound uncertainty. The precipitous drop in the British pound was being widely reported, but by mid-morning that story was overtaken by market losses both in the U.K. and globally. For people in the City of London, the real story was the bloodbath in U.K. financial institutions, with stalwarts like Barclays down 37 percent by lunch time. I asked a normally-staid friend to sum up the city’s reaction: “The U.K. is stuffed,” he said. (Actually, “stuffed” is a polite version of what he said.) One of the Leave campaign’s arguments was that the U.K. could save in the order of 300 million pounds a year by leaving the EU. If their math has merit, then by 10:45 this morning the U.K. markets had lost enough to cover that for roughly 300 years.

What follows is political uncertainty followed by constitutional and legal uncertainty. Scottish and Northern Irish politicians took the airwaves calling for new referenda on their relationship with the U.K. By late morning, David Cameron had also announced that he would resign by the time of the Conservative Party conference in October. It’s hard to see how he could have made any other decision, having been principally responsible for the bizarre spectacle of launching a referendum the public wasn’t demanding on a proposition with which he did not agree. But it adds to the uncertainty, as now the U.K. will have to wait several weeks to know who will be prime minister, and what his or her approach will be to navigating the exit. 

Notwithstanding the mood, London isn’t burning. Some of the financial losses will be recovered. Boris Johnson, a Conservative leader of the Leave movement, publicly reiterated his argument that there’s no need to rush to the exit. Still, a dramatic day in Britain, a momentous day in Europe and, one fears, a portent in the broader debate about the West’s relationship to a globalized and open world.