Brexit could unravel the prime minister, the party — and the EU: Nahlah Ayed

Polls have opened in Britain on Thursday for a referendum on their country's membership in the European Union, following campaigns focusing on issues of the economy and immigration.

But no matter the result, get used to an even more divided Britain

'Leave' supporters pose in Clacton-on-Sea on Monday as U.K. Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage visits. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

You just know a British prime minister is in a tight spot when he calls on James Bond for help.

Tweeting a picture of Daniel Craig, the actor who plays 007, wearing a "Remain" T-shirt might have seemed like a good idea on the eve of a referendum on the European Union that's too close to call.

But it also seemed to hint at David Cameron's quiet panic going into a contest that hasn't gone as smoothly as he might have expected.

Britain at the moment, like its prime minister, looks uncharacteristically insecure.

It is well-versed in the process, but the question is unfamiliar. The answer is either leave or remain, but the immediate consequences are murky. The polls suggest the two sides are neck and neck, splitting the country in half.

Some of the fault lines are also new — and worrisome.

"It's very unusual for us to have a national referendum in this country," says Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at the pollster YouGov.

"We've seen families divided in a way that they probably wouldn't be if this were a general election.… And so wherever we fall, whether we choose to leave or remain, the ramifications of this could last for years."

Away from the bombastic confidence on the campaign trail, many people on both sides are far less certain of the consequences of the choice they make today, and are highly critical of opponents who seem certain about how it's all going to shake out.

Still, while there is no precedent to go on, many believe it's reasonable to assume a Brexit vote would precipitate a great unravelling: of a prime minister, his Conservative Party and in the long term, possibly the EU itself.

It would take time, maybe years, for Britain to extricate itself from the union it bought into in the early 1970s; and leaving would likely be made difficult to discourage others from following suit. But EU experts predict others would still likely begin heading for the exit if Britain walks away from the union, eventually dissolving it into irrelevance.

Long before then, Cameron, the prime minister, would probably succumb to the side of his party that effectively strong-armed him into holding the vote in the first place.

The open internecine warfare we've watched in recent weeks would also leave its mark on the establishment party itself, bringing as much change to its front benches, as it would to its now cleaved rank and file.

Some question whether it even remains as a single party.

And with the ruling Conservatives as divided as the nation itself, the referendum may not be the only vote the British cast this year.

The political fallout is also possible even if Britain opts to remain — because of what's transpired even before the votes were cast.

"We've had for weeks now people just attacking, accusing [each other,]" says Twyman, "where a minister will be accused of lying by [their] junior minister."

How do you heal those rifts? You probably don't.

"If one thing's for certain," says Twyman, "politics has definitely changed in this country. In many ways this will not be the end, it will only be the beginning."

Friends, families divided

The vote has also sharpened existing divisions among ordinary people and highlighted new ones: on the leave and remain sides respectively, it's old vs. young, university vs. high school educated, the elite vs. the working class.

In a poll conducted last week, YouGov discovered that about a tenth of respondents said they believed the debate had caused discord among their group of friends. Some 26 per cent said immediate family was split by a difference of opinion on choice.

Former London mayor Boris Johnson has been campaigning to get Britain out of the European Union. (Scott Heppell/AFP/Getty Images)

The sharpened regional differences also raise disquieting scenarios. Would a vote for Brexit automatically mean another Scotland independence referendum?

"A vote to leave the European Union changes the terms that the Scottish independence referendum came to a close on, so that's a real game-changer, I would think, for Scotland," said Edinburgh resident Andrew MacDougall. "And so a repeat of the independence referendum might actually have a completely different result this time around."

Lingering resentments

The resentment over perceived or actual fearmongering, lies, or at best, speculation deployed on both sides during the campaign is likely to linger.

Remain politicians are "scaremongering," said a pro-Brexit patron at London's Metropolitan bar. "'We're going to lose all these jobs, and we're going to lose all this trade' … they've got no proof of that," he says.

"Before we [were] in the EU we got along well, so why try and frighten people into something that possibly isn't going to happen?"

Not long into our conversation, the man and a friend acknowledge that being older, they may just be more susceptible to nostalgia. Perhaps immigration, a major issue for them, could just "slow down a little bit."

'If we leave there's no going back,' says this tabloid front page, the day before the vote. It also reminds people that polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. (Russell Boyce/Reuters )

The uncertainty also seems to pervade both sides and many levels of the debate.

Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon, which owns the Metropolitan, has just come off a tour of some 100 pubs his company owns to persuade patrons to vote for Brexit.

Along with the pints, his pubs have been serving up a manifesto he wrote — and even coasters — that lay out the case for leaving the EU's myriad rules behind.

But even he admits that when push comes to shove — and despite his considerable effort — people still may opt for a remain vote out of fear of what the Daily Mirror described on its front page as a "leap into the dark."

"It is deeply emotive, the issue of where the rules come from. Human beings don't like it if they feel that people they can't elect make rules which affect them," he said in an interview.

But, "Fear might work when people get into the polling booth … they might vote to remain. I hope they don't."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.