There 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.