Britain’s day of decision has finally arrived. After a long, wearying referendum campaign, the British people will on Thursday resolve whether or not their country is to leave the EU. More than 46m citizens are eligible to vote in a plebiscite whose outcome will have immense significance for them as well as for Europe. Rarely have the eyes of the world been trained on the UK as they are at this moment.

In the past four months, the debate between the Remain and Leave camps has polarised the nation to a degree that has dismayed many. But now that the people are to have their say, the first duty of this newspaper is to urge its British readers — and the wider public — to go out and vote.

Participation at UK elections has declined precipitously in recent years but the imperative to turn up at the ballot box on Thursday is overwhelming. A decision to leave the EU would not only have profound consequences for Britain, it would also be irrevocable. Out means out. In a referendum whose result appears as uncertain as this one, every vote counts.

The Financial Times remains resolute in its belief that leaving the EU would be a grievous act of self harm that would damage not only the UK but Europe and the west. Nothing in the closing exchanges of the campaign has altered our view.

Remain has been slow to make the positive case for EU membership but its validity is not in doubt. The UK’s decency, liberalism and democratic traditions have made a huge contribution to Europe and the UK should continue making it. Constructive British engagement is vital when the continent faces threats from Islamist extremism, Russian belligerence and climate change. A vote to remain is not a vote to belittle Britain; it is a vote to keep the UK’s voice strong in the world.

Even in the final debates, Leave has been unable to dent the consensus of expert opinion that the economic consequences of Brexit range from bad to disastrous. It has failed to offer a coherent plan for what Britain’s trade relations would look like after departure from the bloc. The champions of Leave have proved to be skilled television debaters but they are not credible future leaders of the UK.

Whatever the result on Friday morning, this referendum campaign will leave an enduring mark. The public has revealed a deep distrust of elites and institutions that needs to be addressed. Many voters have expressed genuine concerns about migrant flows that cannot be ignored. Nothing can justify the ugly xenophobia of the pro-Brexit campaign and its back-seat driver Nigel Farage; but if Remain wins, Britain needs to hold a bigger conversation about migration.

The uplifting notes in this campaign should not be ignored. One of the brightest has come from the younger generation, a majority of whom favour staying in Europe. In a digital age, the young recognise that their future is one of connectedness and participation, not separation and isolation. While older Brexit voters seem to look backwards to an imperial past, the young look forward to a global future. It is their future that is ultimately at stake.

On Thursday Britons have a chance to resolve the Europe question once and for all. As they enter the polling booths, they should spare a last thought for what this exercise in democracy says about their country. The Brexiters say the UK must “take back control” from a European superstate that is more a figment of their imagination than political reality. This referendum is in fact proof that Britain remains a sovereign nation. Let the votes be counted and the British decide their destiny.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article