The United Kingdom — the country of my birth — has just voted to leave the European Union. The majority of the electorate has chosen to turn its back on the biggest political project in the world, a flawed but forward-thinking union that served as the only concrete symbol of European unity after the continent was torn apart by two World Wars. But why? According to Google, a lot of voters aren't really sure.
Google's Trends Twitter account reported an increase of 250 percent in people searching "what happens if we leave the EU," at around midnight British time, two hours after the referendum polls closed.
The simple answers to that question have already been observed — the British pound plummets to a record low in value, the economy contracts, and the country's political parties scrabble around in the wreckage of the current Conservative government to dial back on ridiculous promises they made. But the real answers, the long-term results of ditching the EU in favor of nebulous ideas of "independence" and a new-found sovereignty, are wildly complex.
Arguably too complex for the average citizen. Referendums are a brute-force political engine, a numbers game designed to spit out a yes or no answer on a simple question. Something as complicated and multi-faceted as Britain's membership of the EU, on the other hand, should not have been decided by referendum, instead weighed up by independent experts versed in the thousands of ways the UK interacts with the biggest economic power on Earth.
But as the proponents of the Leave campaign repeatedly argued, UK citizens had apparently "had enough of experts." Instead the vote became about single issues, with one — immigration — at the core. Tens of millions of "incoming migrants" from Turkey and Syria were the specter with which pro-Leavers spooked the populace, using misleading figures and maps in canvassing materials despite the fact there was no possibility either country would join the EU. The Leave campaign has also kept quiet about the fact that any favorable economic deal a Brexited UK would make with Europe would very likely see it accepting the same amount of incoming immigrants.
David Cameron didn't want to call the referendum
It would almost be impressive if British Prime Minister David Cameron had set out to tear apart the UK more effectively than any of his hundreds of predecessors, but the staggering fact is that he seems to have destabilized the country entirely accidentally, sleepwalking off a cliff like a particularly posh Mr. Magoo. While Cameron promised a referendum on the issue of Europe, he never actually expected it to go ahead, counting on a less resounding victory in the last general election to force his Conservative government into a power-sharing arrangement.
Without a majority, Cameron's referendum could have been vetoed by his party's Liberal Democrat allies, but an unexpectedly weak showing for his Labour opponents gave Cameron and friends a mandate to do what they wanted — which, ironically, ended up being not what they wanted at all. After giving latent British Euroskeptic beliefs corporeal form, Cameron then did his best to battle the beast he'd brought about, campaigning hard for a Remain vote.
A spike in search traffic occurred two hours after the polls closed
Obviously, he failed, compounding his failure by presenting the bumbling Boris Johnson — a claimant for Cameron's Prime Ministerial position — as some kind of slick political genius, rather than what he is: a man who looks like a haunted brush and who once got stuck on a zipline. Johnson was joined by Nigel Farage, the only British person to ever look uncomfortable holding a pint of beer, and a handful of a handful of British entrepreneurs. Their number included James Dyson, the inventor and vacuum cleaning magnate who long ago moved his operation out of the UK to Malaysia for cheaper labor costs, while the majority of the rest of the UK's tech leaders backed the Remain campaign.
The Leave campaign sported a smaller pool of celebrity and academic supporters — with some even calling into TV news stations to publicly distance themselves from a Brexit vote — but as the results show, that didn't seem to matter in the UK's decision to eject from Europe. As Google's search data shows, neither did an absence of facts.