The quiet harbour of Ramsgate hardly feels like the hub of a revolution. But it's in the inactivity of the fishing fleet here near the southeastern tip of England – and industrial towns gone quiet around the country – that the United Kingdom's Brexit uprising was born.
The slow ascent of Nigel Farage and the U.K. Independence Party began in 1999 when Ramsgate and surrounding Kent county elected Mr. Farage as a member of European parliament for southeast England. His message blaming diktats from Brussels – particularly the free movement of labour within the European Union's 28 member states, as well as the hated Common Fisheries Policy – for the economic struggles of places like Ramsgate struck a nerve. Mr. Farage was sent to be a stick in the EU's spokes.
At the time, it was regarded as a protest vote. But 17 years later, Mr. Farage's ideas – long derided as fringe politics – have taken over the mainstream. Britain is hurtling out of the EU after last week's referendum. Free movement and the annual quotas set under the Common Fisheries Policy look likely to disappear. And no one knows what will take their place.
Ramsgate's 40,000 residents are largely proud of their role in Brexit, which included sending a flotilla of 40 fishing boats that sailed up the Thames River a week before the vote, flying banners like "The only way is Brexit" as they sailed past the Tower of London and the House of Commons. The town's animosity toward Europe is rooted partly in proximity – France and hated Brussels are just across the English Channel – though relatively few EU migrants have settled here.
On Thursday, 12 of Kent's 13 districts voted to leave the EU, helping tip the balance in a country deeply split between its pro-European big cities and the fed-up ports and factory towns beyond. Thanet, the coastal district that includes Ramsgate, turned in one of the highest figures nationwide, with 64 per cent voting Leave.
The mood was celebratory in Ramsgate on Sunday, three days after the vote on June 23, which Mr. Farage hopes will come to be known Britain's "independence day." The Racing Greyhound pub – where the UKIP leader has often been photographed drinking a pint of bitter with the locals – was packed with locals chattering about leaving Europe even as they watched the European soccer championships on television.
"People here still believe the Germans are coming to our shores. They think the Germans couldn't beat us in a war, so they did it economically with the EU," said Ian Flower, a 63-year-old retired civil servant. Mr. Flower dropped his voice to confess he was the rare Racing Greyhound patron who had voted Remain. "I'm in the minority here."
A feeling of dazed shock hung over London, the cosmopolitan capital, throughout the weekend. Newspapers and politicians scrambled for explanations, with many suggesting that those who voted for Leave had somehow been misled into rejecting continued membership in the 28-country club that is also the world's largest free-trading area.
Pro-Brexit campaigners seemed almost as dazed by what they had accomplished. "In Thanet, we always knew that we would win. But nationally, it was a surprise," said Charlie Leys, a 19-year-old politics student who campaigned for Vote Leave in Ramsgate.
But he recoiled against the suggestion that electorate didn't know what it were doing in deciding to quit the EU. "It's insulting," he said. "Everyone is peddling [the idea] that we're xenophobic idiots. That's not what this was about. It was 'Why should people in Brussels who maybe have never been to Britain have a say in writing our laws?'"
The warning signs of the impending revolt in England and Wales (majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain) were there to seen by anyone paying close attention to local politics. Not only did Kent voters send Mr. Farage to Brussels in four straight European elections, the share of the UKIP vote jumped each time. UKIP seized control of Thanet's local council last year, its first majority in any region of the country.
While Mr. Farage repeatedly failed to win a seat in the House of Commons, he set the agenda to such an extent that the ruling Conservative Party opted to run Craig Mackinlay – a founding UKIP member – against Mr. Farage as its candidate for South Thanet during the 2015 general election. Labour Party candidate Will Scobie termed it a choice between "UKIP and UKIP-lite." He came a distant third.
The Euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party gained such clout that Prime Minister David Cameron, himself pro-European, included a promise to hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership in his 2015 re-election manifesto. Insiders say Mr. Cameron was confident the Remain would handily win the referendum.
It was a bet that ended Mr. Cameron's political career. He said Friday that he would resign this fall to make way for a new Conservative leader and prime minister.
Mr. Mackinlay said in an interview on Sunday that the next leader would have to hail from the pro-Brexit wing of the party. "We need someone who understands the issue and is prepared to follow through on the message the public has given to us. It has to be [a pro-Brexit] PM, there's no doubt."
Mr. Mackinlay said the referendum – which saw London vote 60 per cent in favour of Remain while the rest of England was heavily pro-Leave – showed how much the capital city had lost touch with the rest of the country. London, he said, was "only 80 miles from Thanet, but it may as well be 800 miles."
In London, the EU – and more broadly globalization – have meant cheap labour and rising home prices. For Thanet's 135,000 residents, the same phenomena have resulted in an influx of migrant workers willing to work in factories and farms for wages below what English workers seek (although immigration rates here are lower than the national average). The region's tourism industry has also suffered as cheap and visa-free travel to Europe made the chilly beaches of Ramsgate and nearby Margate seem third-rate by comparison.
Still, Remain campaigners said the region's anger at the capital may have led voters here to overlook their own best interests in voting for a Brexit. The region's economy, they argue, struggled because of factors that had nothing to do with the EU, such as declining fisheries stocks and the collapse of the region's coal mining industry.
Meanwhile, recent improvements – including a high-speed rail link to London and the upgrading of tourist infrastructure in Ramsgate and Margate – were aided by EU funding.
"A lot of EU funding here went toward dealing with unemployment issues – but nobody knows about it," said Jenny Matterface, a local Labour Party councillor who campaigned for the Remain side.
"This hotel got EU funding, a lot of the hotels and pubs around here got EU funding," Ms. Matterface said, waving her arm around the restaurant of the Royal Albion Hotel, a refurbished 18th-century structure just outside Ramsgate. Frustration rose in her voice as she spoke. "A lot of places will have to close down now because we won't have the EU money coming in any more."
But emotion has trumped such logic in Kent and across England. Pro-EU campaigners like Ms. Matterface struggled to even convince their friends and fellow Labour Party members.
"The EU is not a charity," Keith Veness, a local Labour Party stalwart who campaigned for the Leave side, interrupted, as he waved away Ms. Matterface's arguments. "I don't want to be ruled by people who are fundamentally undemocratic. It's about freedom."