Britain has voted to leave the European Union, a historic decision sure to reshape the nation’s place in the world, rattle the Continent and rock political establishments throughout the West. With all but a handful of the country’s cities and towns reporting Friday morning, the Leave campaign held a 52 percent to 48 percent lead. The BBC called the race for the Leave campaign shortly before 4:45a.m., with 13.1 million votes having been counted in favor of leaving and 12.2 million in favor of remaining.
The value of the British pound plummeted as financial markets absorbed the news.
Despite opinion polls ahead of the referendum on Thursday that showed either side in a position to win, the outcome nonetheless stunned much of Britain, Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance, highlighting the power of anti-elite, populist and nationalist sentiment at a time of economic and cultural dislocation.
“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, one of the primary forces behind the push for a referendum on leaving the European Union, told cheering supporters just after 4 a.m.
Britain will become the first country to leave the 28-member bloc, which has been increasingly weighed down by its failures to deal fully with a succession of crises, from the financial collapse of 2008 to a resurgent Russia and the massive influx of migrants last year.
The result left Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the charge for Britain to remain a member of the European Union, badly weakened and at risk of losing his job. It was a remarkable victory for the country’s anti-European forces, which not long ago were considered to have little chance of prevailing.
Financial markets, which had been anticipating that Britain would vote to stay in, braced for a day of losses and possible turmoil. Economists had predicted that a vote to leave the bloc could do substantial damage to the British economy.
Mr. Cameron had vowed before the vote to move quickly to begin the divorce process if Britain voted to leave. But even if he follows through — some leaders of the Leave movement have counseled moving slowly — nothing will change immediately on either side of the Channel, with existing trade and immigration rules remaining in place. The withdrawal process is expected to be complex and contentious, though under the bloc’s governing treaty it is effectively limited to two years.
Mr. Cameron felt pushed into announcing the referendum in 2013 by the anti-Europe wing of his own party, amplified by concerns among other Tories that UKIP and its leader, Nigel Farage, were cutting too sharply into the Conservative vote.
Still, Mr. Cameron entered the campaign with the force of economic experts, Mr. Obama, European allies and big business behind him. But as ever, referendums are not about the question asked but the political mood at the time, and the political mood is sour.
Mr. Cameron was also, predictably, undermined by the new Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a man of the more traditional hard left who was a surprise choice to lead the party after its disastrous defeat in the May 2015 elections.
Mr. Corbyn voted against British membership in what was then the European Economic Community in the last referendum in 1975. This time, he said he and Labour would support continued membership, but he refused to campaign alongside Mr. Cameron, reluctant to save his political opponent.
And asked how he felt about the European Union, Mr. Corbyn said he was “not a huge fan,” and on a scale of 10, Mr. Corbyn said between “seven and seven and a half.” While Mr. Cameron emphasized risks to Britain’s economy and security and national influence, Mr. Corbyn talked of protecting workers’ rights.
The victory of the Leave campaign and Britain’s exit from the European Union risks making Britain a poorer place, if the pre-referendum economic forecasts prove true, and hurt many of the very people that Mr. Corbyn represents.