The View from the Ground

Both sides scramble as Brexit vote nears

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The View from the Ground

Deepan Dutta, CU News Corps

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LONDON – A huddle of volunteers surrounds Robin Phelps at his table in the Imperial Durbar, a pub located in the middle-class Tooting neighborhood. Phelps, a volunteer coordinator for the “Remain” campaign, directs his charges to neighborhood “sectors,” where they’ll make a last push by distributing stickers, fliers and other “IN” campaign material that currently litter the table and benches in a corner of this trendy British Raj-themed bar.

This is Phelps’ first time actively campaigning for a political cause, but he’s enthused about the campaign to convince his fellow United Kingdom citizens to vote for the U.K. to remain in the European Union. He said he became quite alarmed by the “dangerous” rhetoric coming out of the Leave campaign, and it motivated him to do something on the ground. He intends to stay here until 9 p.m. Thursday, an hour before polls close across the country, to help the Remain campaign get as many votes out of the Tooting area as possible.

Once his acolytes have dispersed, Phelps explains how he might convince quizzical Americans why the U.K. should stay in the E.U.

The E.U.’s economic power, he says, would be dealt a “great blow” if the U.K. left, and that would affect both parties’ ability to discourage countries like Russia from committing belligerent actions such as the covert invasion of the Ukraine.

“I think the E.U.’s soft power, economic power, goes hand in hand with NATO’s hard power in keeping the West safe,” he says.

Lead volunteer Robin Phelps briefs volunteers on referendum day at the Imperial Durbar pub in Tooting, South London.

Lead volunteer Robin Phelps briefs volunteers on referendum day at the Imperial Durbar pub in Tooting, South London. Photo by Deepan Dutta.

Phelps cites the loss of intelligence-sharing that could give rise to security lapses and possibly more terrorism concerns.

Sebastian Coventry, another supporter of the Remain movement, tries to explain what it would mean to E.U. if the U.K. left in terms of American geopolitics and economics.

“Imagine one of America’s most important states, such as California or New York, deciding it did not want to be a part of the States anymore,” Coventry says.

He presents the European Union as much like the United States, as a federation of different states coming together to form a greater union with far more influence and economic benefit than if they remained apart.

About a mile away from the Imperial Durbar, at a quaint townhome that serves as a center for the Leave campaign in Earlsfield in South London, Vicky Allitt, the homeowner and volunteer leader in this branch, says that she has been very busy this morning and afternoon.

“People have been coming and going all day, and we’re hoping for the best,” Allitt says.

While Allitt speaks, two other volunteers drink tea at her dining table while classical music plays in the background. The atmosphere feels warm, but muted, as recent coverage in local media has painted the Leave campaign as increasingly desperate as it struggles to articulate what the future holds if the U.K. leaves.

After a night of torrential downpours created flash flooding and serious disruptions across London, polls opened Thursday morning for citizens to cast their vote for U.K.’s future in Europe.

A vote to leave would create “Brexit” and change the U.K.’s relationship with the United States and the rest of the world. As a fully sovereign nation, it would be free to re-negotiate trade agreements and diplomatic alliances, but would also hit the ‘reset’ button on many such existing relationships.

President Obama has been a vocal supporter of the U.K. remaining in the E.U., with White House Press Secretary stating Josh Earnest saying Wednesday that the “United States benefits from having U.K. as a member of a strong E.U.” Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has echoed those sentiments.

However, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has come out in favor of the U.K. leaving, citing the need for nations to control their own destinies. He even drew a parallel with America’s own birth, telling U.K.’s Sky News that “America is here because of its own little Brexit.”

With polls showing a dead heat the night before the polls open, both the “remain” and “leave” campaigns have put on a full-court press to get out the vote and pull any remaining undecideds toward their side. Volunteers for both campaigns have set up camp in houses and pubs across the country, coordinating their efforts to get every last person to the polls.

Ben Cattanu, a Canadian volunteer who lives in Britain, asks Americans what they might think if Texas were to leave the U.S. in order to develop its own trade deals and exert its cultural identity.

The core of Cattanu’s concerns for leaving is economic volatility, which he says would affect everyone, not just the British and Europeans. He is also very concerned about the wave of “anti-intellectualism” that seems to be spreading across the West, using Donald Trump as an example of how vague, bombastic rhetoric draws crowds and raises emotions while providing little in the way of substance. This, he says, is what the Leave campaign has done by stoking fears and emotions over issues such as immigration. He says this is the reason Leave has drawn much closer in the polls despite calls from most political and economic leaders around the world for the U.K. to remain.

Volunteers like Cattanu continue to pop in and out of the campaign outpost into the evening hours trying to catch Londoners returning from work in subway stations and on the street, reminding them to vote.

A common mantra among those on the Remain side is that the decision to leave is permanent; there is no turning back if voters choose to exit the E.U.

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