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United Kingdom Voters Go To The Polls In Brexit Vote

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: I'm Robert Siegel in London for today's Brexit referendum. British voters went to the polls to answer the big question of the past few decades today. Is it in or out? Will the U.K. stay in the European Union or leave it? Will there be a British exit, a Brexit. On this day of decision, we're going to hear from a couple whose marital discord may also be settled in this vote.

But first, to political editor George Parker of the Financial Times. If there is a vote to leave, what has to be done and who gets to do it? Well, Parker says, not Prime Minister David Cameron. A loss today means he's out.

GEORGE PARKER: It's hard to imagine a more serious defeat for any national leader. You know, he voluntarily put Britain's future in the European Union on the table. He didn't have to call this referendum. He spent the last few months telling us it would be a catastrophe economically and for national security if Britain was to leave the European Union.

So if the public don't heed his warnings and they vote for Britain to leave, I think the idea of him staying around to implement the will of the people and negotiate this exit is inconceivable.

SIEGEL: And for Americans unfamiliar with the British government, would that require a new election or no?

PARKER: No, it would be for the Conservative Party, David Cameron's party, to select a new leader who would become prime minister. So there wouldn't have to be a new general election. But we could be into a situation where we don't really have an effective prime minister for a month or two while the Conservative Party chooses its new leader.

SIEGEL: Again, assuming that the leave side wins in the referendum. Would you expect an abrupt, angry divorce with Europe or a more deliberate, possibly amicable separation?

PARKER: Well, I think if we do vote to leave, that the people who have been responsible for that vote, mainly the right wing of the Conservative Party, will in practice try to negotiate as gentle a departure from the EU as they possibly can to try and avoid the economic disruption that would follow from a nasty divorce. But we know for a fact that they want to start to unravel many of Britain's connections with Europe before a formal exit takes place.

And you can be sure that people in the European Union will wish to punish the U.K. as a result because the idea that the U.K. will leave the European Union and then carry on as normal with normal relations with the EU, I think, is fanciful, to be honest, because apart from anything else, the European Union will want to show to other countries thinking about doing the same kind of thing that life's quite cold on the outside.

SIEGEL: That Spain, Portugal or Greece shouldn't get any ideas from good treatment that Britain might receive.

PARKER: Indeed, and not just those countries but other countries in Scandinavia, some in Eastern Europe. There are a lot of countries watching what's happening in Britain and thinking, well, hang on a sec, why don't we have our own referendum, get a better deal out of the EU? And the problem is once you get on that path, then the whole fabric of the Union starts to unravel.

SIEGEL: Well, let's turn to the perhaps less dramatic but, at the moment, it seems just about equally likely option that Britain's vote to remain in the EU. Does that mean that Euroscepticism dies a quiet death? Does Britain go all in, or do you assume there'll be another referendum sometime mid-century in that case?

PARKER: (Laughter) Well, the idea of this referendum, David Cameron thought, was to settle this issue for a generation. And essentially, it's a question of - this is really happening because there's a question of party management. David Cameron's Conservative Party has been split on the question of Europe for the best part of 30 years.

And over the last 10 years, a growing number of them have actually wanted to leave the European Union altogether. And in the end, he had to cede this referendum. Now, David Cameron, I think, thought that he could win this relatively easily. And I think he thought that anything more than a 10 point margin of victory would put the Euro skeptics back in their box and keep this issue off the agenda for a generation.

In practice, I think it's very unlikely if Britain does vote to stay in the European Union that this issue will die a death. There'll be people in his party who will keep fighting the good fight. There'll be many people in David Cameron's party who will claim that he won unfairly because he told lies about Britain's membership and the costs of exit and he misused taxpayers' money to send out propaganda and all the rest of it.

They'll say he didn't fight a clean fight. It's been quite an ugly campaign, to be honest.

SIEGEL: George Packer of the Financial Times. Thank you for talking with us.

PARKER: It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Even less predictable than the effect of today's vote in the House of Commons is the effect it'll have in the house of Salinger in north London.

Could the two of you please introduce yourselves to us?

KATE SALINGER: Hello, I'm Kate Salinger, and I'm married to an idiot who wants to remain in.

BRIAN SALINGER: I'm Brian Salinger, and I'm married to an idiot who wants to leave.

SIEGEL: I met the Salingers at the East Finchley Summer Festival on Sunday. They're in their late 60s. Kate's a retired teacher. Brian runs a property management company. And they both vote Conservative. But on the subject of the European Union, as you can hear, they disagree.

K. SALINGER: We're both offering help to the campaigns but not in the house.

SIEGEL: There's a truce in your house over this?

K. SALINGER: It's a truce. I still feed him. And he still pays for the shopping. So that's all that matters.

SIEGEL: So no campaign posters in the house. But once they're out of the house, the truce is over. Brian says this is all about the economy.

B. SALINGER: My firm belief is that we are much better off, a much better place to have a strong economy if we stay in Europe as part of the biggest trading bloc in the world.

K. SALINGER: I'd just like to say that Switzerland manages to export more than England to countries outside the European community, which proves that you can go it alone and you can go it alone successfully.

SIEGEL: The Swiss argument. What do you say to that?

B. SALINGER: It's the same as the Norwegian argument. They have built relationships with Europe. They have to pay into the European coffers. They have to accept the free movement of labor. And they have no place at the table to make their arguments.

K. SALINGER: Here we go into world war three. That's not exactly what I said. I said that Switzerland have succeeded in making relationships, economic relationships with countries outside the EU, which bring them in a vast profit. And there's nothing to stop our country doing the same once we weren't shackled to the union.

B. SALINGER: Canadians have been trying to do that for the last 10 years and haven't yet succeeded.

K. SALINGER: But maybe they're not as good as us. But apart from that, I'm firmly of the opinion that neither side actually knows the truth of what the answer is. I think Brexit will win. And then we'll have to find out what it's like standing on our own two feet again, which we managed for thousands and thousands of years.

B. SALINGER: We're infinitely better off, and I'm not prepared to take that chance.

SIEGEL: While they disagree about the Brexit referendum, the Salingers told me they strongly agree about the virtues of Pimm's Cup, the English liqueur, which may have helped lubricate this airing of their differences over Britain's future in the European Union. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
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