On Thursday, Britain’s voters will go to the polls to make what may be their most momentous decision in decades.
It may determine whether, in future, they can justifiably put the prefix ‘Great’ in front of their country’s name.
The referendum on Britain’s continued stay in the EU will have profound implications for its economy, international influence, social cohesion and political culture.
Driven by a fear of being overwhelmed by immigrants and a jingoistic perception that the once-formidable colonising empire has ceded too much power to the EU, the matter has divided the country down the middle, with strong emotions cutting across party lines and social classes.
Current polls show the exit camp ahead by an average of 10 percentage points and it is now feasible that Britons will decide to go it alone on June 23. The latest one, by Ipsos MORI, says those favouring a British exit (Brexit) stand at 53% and the Remain camp have 47%.
Here are the possible winners and losers if it happens:
The British prime minister has staked his reputation and legacy on this week’s vote. Cameron took a political gamble ahead of last year’s general election when he promised the Conservatives and the people that they would have a direct say on the issue if they gave him a second term.
Cameron, an ardent Remain advocate in a party packed with Brexit-leaning MPs and activists, has now spent the bulk of his political energy this year selling the benefits of staying in the EU and warning of the dire consequences of an exit.
Reeling out hard numbers at every turn, Cameron has told Brits that delinking would hurt the tax base badly and necessitate spending cuts in key areas such as infrastructure, health, education and defence.
Should he lose the argument at the polls, his position in his party will be hugely weakened and archrival Boris Johnson will have his tail up.
The leader of the Labour Party was once a Eurosceptic, but for very different reasons from the xenophobes and Tory conservatives.
According to those who knew him closely before he became the party leader, he belonged to a section of the left that was suspicious of the EU.
These left sceptics hold that EU institutions are unaccountable and favour big corporations.
They also argue that the EU is more heavily influenced by big powers such as Germany and France, and disadvantage weaker nations such as Portugal and Greece.
But in his position, he has been compelled to lead the pro-Europe party line. Critics have accused him of being tepid on the campaign trail because he doesn’t really believe in the message.
A pro-exit vote will weaken his tenuous hold on the party even more and strengthen those who want him out before the next general election.
Economists estimate Britain could shed between 2% and 3% of GDP over the next decade if the country leaves the EU.
This would result from a removal of automatic and barrier-free access to the EU common market, the anticipated exit of manufacturing companies that would seek domains with the incentives and benefits of EU membership, and the loss of entrepreneural energy of new immigrants.
The automative, financial services and innovation industries are likely to be the biggest losers.
When EU member states adopted the euro in 1995, Britain opted to retain its own currency. This was for economic, emotional and nationalistic reasons, as staying out would allow the country to control its own monetary policy and because the currency was important for the feeling of sovereignty.
This has helped to maintain Britain’s dominance, as the pound has remained stronger than the euro. It also helped the UK escape the Greek contagion of a few years ago.
But the currency has taken a pounding as fears of an exit spooked the markets. This week, as polls indicated a pro-exit decision, the pound fell sharply. Experts now expect a 10% to 20% immediate plunge.
Because Britain is Europe’s strongest and fastest-growing economy, immigrants of classes have been flocking there from weaker economies on the continent. Withdrawal from the easy-movement regime will disadvantage migrants from Europe and those from other non-EU regions.
South Africa and the rest of the continent
The most direct effect of the exit of one of the EU’s main trade partners will be the need to renegotiate treaties and trade deals that have been signed with the EU bloc. Agreements will then have to be handled directly with Britain while those with the EU will have to be restructured.
Perhaps the biggest loser will be the City of London. Britain’s membership of the EU has greatly helped the city cement its place as the world’s financial and services capital, and attracted the best minds from EU countries and beyond. Its retreat to become an isolated island nation will hit this status hard. Hence new mayor Sad Khan’s energetic campaigning since coming into office in May.
The ambitious past mayor of London is using the Brexit campaign to pave his path to leadership of the Tories and ultimately 10 Downing Street.
A victory for the Leave camp will be a personal victory for him over Cameron. Some of his supporters might use such a scenario to cut short Cameron’s term.
The most distasteful character in British politics owes his national and international profile to his incendiary hatred towards immigrants and passionate campaign for Britain to turn its back on Europe.
His overtly racist UK Independence Party has made significant gains in recent elections, but not enough to be a force in Parliament.
A Leave vote will be a feather in the cap for this single-issue party that has kept the matter alive for years.
Right wing advocates everywhere
Right wing anti-immigration advocates such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Holland’s Geert Wilders will pop the Champagne should nationalistic myopia win on Thursday.
They will use it as fuel for their campaigns to pull their own countries out of the EU, expedite the disintegration of the union and hasten a return to national enclaves with tighter border controls.