newspaper 'Vote for Remain', Brexit.jpg
Photograph: EPA/HAYOUNG JEON

"God help our country!" former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown wrote on Twitter after Britain's Brexit referendum produced a slim majority for leaving the European Union.

The economic fallout of the poll was felt first in the form of the plunging pound, which is likely to lead to inflation, higher interest rates and higher mortgage debt, said Simon Hix, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. "It's going to be a rough ride!" Hix said on Twitter.

The political fallout could be even wider. Like current Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Ashdown sees the referendum as the end product of political games between members of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party.

Britain is heading into "an incredibly testing, difficult and fractious time," Farron told reporters. "The Conservatives' political manoeuvring has taken our country to the brink, and today we have toppled over the edge."

Caroline Lucas, Britain's only Green Party member of parliament, said the result was "devastating."

It reflects deep divisions and "such [high] levels of alienation and anger and frustration," Lucas told the BBC. "I think the EU is a proxy for legitimate anger," she said, pointing to a lack of government financial help for towns and cities with high numbers of recent migrants.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who was euphoric after a vote that he said he had pursued for 25 years, said the referendum was won and lost on the issue of immigration in the Midlands and the north of England.

"It was the old Labour vote," Farage told reporters, referring to the surprisingly high Leave votes in many urban, working class areas which had traditionally elected Labour lawmakers.

A map of the preferences of Britain's 382 voting areas in the referendum gives a graphic picture of the divided nation. Scotland and western Northern Ireland are completely covered by Remain votes, as is most of London, but Leave dominates the rest of the country.

Scottish and Irish nationalists are already warning that they are likely to push for votes on independence from Britain.

On the Leave side, Farage and Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson and others on the right have implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, linked EU migration to the growing number of Muslims in the country.

Johnson and Farage are likely to play major roles in British politics in the near term. Johnson is the favourite to succeed Cameron, who announced his resignation on Friday.

Labour's leaders and the Conservative centrists who rallied behind Cameron could face some bitter recriminations.

Corbyn and Cameron and their allies largely ignored the issue of EU migration, even when challenged by voters and journalists, until the last few weeks of the campaign.

As Johnson and others jockey to replace Cameron, "given the heated nature of the referendum, it is almost a certainty that this leadership contest will be dominated by the issue of Europe," political scientists Stuart Brown and Tena Prelec of the London School of Economics, said in an analysis ahead of the referendum.

The referendum had created "a highly polarized atmosphere around the issue of Europe which UKIP, as the only major party with a united front in supporting a leave vote, would be well placed to capitalize on," Brown and Prelec said.

Many of the tensions leading up to the vote were highlighted by the murder of Jo Cox, a pro-immigration, pro-Remain Labour lawmaker, who was murdered at a constituency event one week before the vote.

Police charged a 52-year-old local man with shooting and stabbing Cox to death. He had a history of mental illness and had supported racist and right-wing extremist groups, according to media reports.

Cox's murder prompted an outpouring of grief and defiance from politicians and the public. Cameron and Corbyn even appeared together at a vigil for Cox on June 17, and they led tributes to her at a special recall of parliament.

The murder had appeared to be a factor in a reported swing to Remain in opinion polls last weekend. Despite the ultimate win for Leave, Brendan Cox, the murdered lawmaker's husband, sounded a positive note on Friday.

"Today Jo would have remained optimistic and focused on what she could do to bring our country back together around our best values," he said on Twitter.

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