London | With the UK’s fate in the EU on a knife-edge, millions of Britons began voting today in the historic referendum that will decide whether the country will stay in or leave the 28-nation bloc after an acrimonious campaign.
Both sides of the campaign have appealed to a record number of registered voters — more than 46 million — including 1.2 million British Indians, for a big turnout as Prime Minister David Cameron made his final appeal to get out there and vote Remain and reject the untruths of the camp in favour of ‘Brexit’ or Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU).
The Prime Minister voted with wife Samantha at a polling booth in Westminster, just yards from his Downing Street office from where he will keep a keen eye on the results. It is a fact that our economy will be weaker if we leave and stronger if we stay, Cameron told supporters in Birmingham yesterday as he travelled up and down the country to make a final push for votes.
As part of his closing speech, he invoked Britain’s popular war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, saying, The greatest privilege of my life is to stand in my office two yards away from where Winston Churchill made that decision to fight on against Hitler in 1940. He didn’t want to be alone, he wanted to be with the Poles and the French and the others fighting for European freedom and democracy.
On the opposing side, former London mayor Boris Johnson, heading the final drive for the Vote Leave campaign, insisted his side was on the verge of victory and that today could mark the UK’s independence day. The last poll tracker of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ and and a YouGov poll for’The Times’ both showed Remain at 51 per cent and Leave at 49 per cent, reflecting the neck-and-neck nature of the campaign throughout the four-month period since Cameron announced the date of the referendum in February.
A victory for Remain therefore is within the margin of error, as two further polls from Opinium and TNS also forecast Leave on 51 per cent and Remain on 49. Last night another poll, by ComRes, gave Remain an eight-point lead with 54 per cent compared to 46 per cent for Leave.
The referendum ballot paper asks the question, Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? Voters have the option to mark a cross next to either Remain a member of the European Union or Leave the European Union and whichever side gets more than half of all votes cast will win.
Edinburgh Council in Scotland reported that nearly a fifth of the city’s 345,000 voters have already submitted postal votes in the EU referendum, with more than 82 per cent of the city’s postal voters returning their ballot paper by last evening.
Polling stations across Scotland reported a steady flow of voters, encouraged by the bright sunshine in the region. The flow has been more sluggish in other parts as the weather forecast for polling day remains mixed, with thunderstorms causing flooding in some parts of the country.
One voter from Chessington tweeted that she had to be carried into a flooded polling booth to cast her remain vote. A low turnout is likely to benefit the Leave side, however, the general expectation is of a bigger turnout than the 2015 general election which was around 66 per cent.
After the referendum with polls closing at 10 pm local time, sealed ballot boxes will be collected and transported to the count venue for each of the 382 local counting areas. These represent all 380 local government areas in England, Scotland and Wales, plus one each for Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.
Individual areas’ results will then be declared throughout the night, along with results from 11 regional counts. The UK’s Electoral Commission estimates a final result around breakfast time tomorrow. In a departure from the norm, no major broadcasters have commissioned any exit polls over concerns about accuracy following the fiasco of the last general elections, when a hung Parliament had been predicted wrongly instead of a big Conservative party majority.
The result will be declared by Jenny Watson, the chair of the UK’s Electoral Commission and thereferendum’s chief counting officer, at Manchester Town Hall tomorrow morning. The European Union is made up of 28 countries who have come together for trade and security.
It was originally set up as the European Economic Community in 1958 with six members — Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The EEC changed its name to the European Union (EU) in 1993. The UK had joined the EEC back in 1973. There has only been one other UK-wide referendum on the issue of EU membership, in 1975 when the country voted to stay in the European Community.
Eligible voters in today’s referendum include anyone over the age of 18 who is a British citizen resident in the UK and UK nationals who have lived abroad for less than 15 years. Citizens of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus resident in the UK can vote as can Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK and Gibraltar, including Indians.