When Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington following the decisive American victory at Yorktown, the British military band retreating from the scene played an old drinking song The World Turned Upside Down. That may be a myth; the story was originally told by someone who hadn't been at Yorktown. But it's a myth that has lasted right down to the present (being referenced most recently in the Broadway hit musical Hamilton) because it captures the widespread and serious consequences of Cornwallis's defeat.
Well, it's a bigger world today, but Brexit looks to be turning pretty much all of it upside down. Just consider some of the leading players and institutions hit by it:
David Cameron: He had been walking a tightrope as the Europhile leader of a Eurosceptic party who hoped to finesse the issue of Europe indefinitely. In order to fend off UKIP and a Tory rebellion, he promised a referendum, hoping that his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would nix it in the next coalition. But he won an outright majority and had to keep the promise. Then, wanting the referendum out of the way, he held quick talks with the EU, asked for little, got less, and returned to London boasting of trivial concessions. Finally, he fought a tough campaign against half of his own party and lost it. It turned out that his Eurosceptic Tory opponents had a better sense of the Tory faithful (and U.K. voters generally) than he did. He fell off the tightrope with dignity, however, and will resign to allow a Eurosceptic to be elected Tory leader and prime minister who can conduct Brexit negotiations more plausibly than a Europhile.
Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European Commission: If the European leaders negotiating with Prime Minister David Cameron over his package of concessions had been only slightly more generous, he might well have won yesterday's referendum. A reformed Europe or a Europe à la carte was acceptable to many Brits who disliked an over-centralized and undemocratic one. Such a looser Europe would also have solved or ameliorated their other problems such as the euro. But the Eurocrats calculated either that Mr. Cameron was bluffing or that the Brits would always halt at the brink of withdrawal. As a result Britain will soon be out of the EU, other euro-problems are growing worse, and the "contagion" of Euroscepticism has been given a boost throughout Europe.
Chancellor George Osborne, (Canadian) Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, the Lords of H.M. Treasury, the IMF, OECD, etc., etc.: Both men and institutions (and Christine Lagarde for the IMF) made extravagant predictions of the economic and financial disasters that would descend upon Britain following Brexit. One Tory commentator described Mr. Osborne as the first Chancellor to try to spook the markets. The financial markets were duly spooked – as always happens in response to a major uncertainty – but they seem now to be stabilizing. The reputations of institutions and their leaders are now on the line, however. If their long-term predictions (which were widely derided as simply made up) prove false, exaggerated, or misleading, they may need to follow Mr. Cameron into other professions.
President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department: Pressure on the U.K. to participate in an integrated European political entity has been a sustained theme in U.S. foreign policy since the early 1950s. Much of the time the Brits were reluctant or even hostile; Washington kept pressing. This time Mr. Obama made it personal. But the implied deal – you surrender your independence in order to advance our interests within the EU – is obviously a tad one-sided. And the referendum result is now an insuperable obstacle to Washington taking it up in future. Mr. Obama will simply have to learn several European telephone numbers – if only to ring more than one of the EU's five presidents.
Almost all commentators inside and outside Britain: Opinion polls kept showing that large majorities of British voters were worried about loss of sovereignty, loss of democracy inside the EU, and their consequences in loss of U.K. control over immigration levels. Most commentators, including those who were otherwise acute in their observations, failed to take these concerns (especially democratic sovereignty) at all seriously. They repeatedly discussed immigration in terms of racism, xenophobia, and fear of globalization, never seeing that many decent people were worried about loss of community. As journalist David Goodhart (not incidentally a social democrat) theorized, it was a case of "nowhere" people simply not grasping the outlook of "somewhere people." They were still making the same mistake in their explanations of the result on Friday morning.
Almost every foreign leader: Everyone knew that Brexit was bound to fail. So they happily agreed to give Mr. Cameron a helping hand by saying what a bad thing it would be. The exception was Australia's former prime minister, John Howard, who endorsed it. Moral: experience counts.
Now, everyone will have to adjust to a different Europe, a different Britain, and a different structure of international relations. This 52-48 victory for Brexit on a turnout of 72 per cent has more democratic authority than any election in Britain since 1945. The political reality is that it can't be reversed. And if it works reasonably well – i.e., without the string of disasters predicted – then almost all its opponents will themselves have to adjust to it as the new dominant consensus of British politics.