LONDON — Supporters of a British exit from the European Union opened up a substantial lead over advocates of staying in the bloc as the nation tallied the votes early Friday on one of its most momentous decisions in generations.
With more than half of towns and cities reporting, the so-called Leave campaign was leading by more than 700,000 votes out of more than 24 million that had been counted, an advantage of 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent over the Remain campaign, according to the BBC.
“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, one of the primary forces behind the push for a referendum on leaving the European Union, told cheering supporters just after 4 a.m., denouncing the “lies, corruption and deceit” that he said elites in both major parties — Conservative and Labour — had peddled.
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The vote was still too close to call, and Remain supporters were not giving up. But as Thursday night turned to Friday morning, the results were consistently giving hope to the Leave campaign while inducing deep worry among supporters of staying in Europe, starting with Prime Minister David Cameron.
The early results startled the financial markets, which gyrated wildly after initially banking on a victory for the Remain campaign. At one point the value of the pound plummeted to $1.36 from $1.50, the sharpest one-day drop on record.
Officials were busily counting some 33.6 million ballots cast Thursday by an estimated 72 percent of eligible voters at the conclusion of a campaign that amounted to a fierce debate over sovereignty, national identity, immigration and trade.
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The Leave campaign did better than anticipated in areas it had expected to win, particularly in northeast England, and picked up Swansea, a Welsh city it had not expected to win.
The Remain campaign performed well in the inner London boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth, Hammersmith and Fulham, but it barely carried Newcastle upon Tyne, a university town it had expected to dominate.
Proponents of staying in the European Union started the night in a confident mood, especially after Mr. Farage suggested that he was not optimistic about victory.
The first indication that the outcome might be closer than some of the late polling suggested came from one of the first sizable areas to report, as the Leave campaign did even better than expected in Sunderland, a working-class community in the northeast.
Voting lasted from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., though some particularly crowded poll sites stayed open longer to accommodate voters still in line to cast their ballots.
Two other last-minute opinion surveys also gave the Remain camp an edge, but given the failure of most British pollsters to foresee the Conservative Party’s victory in last year’s general elections, many analysts were putting little trust in surveys. “Neither a comfortable Remain victory nor a comfortable Leave victory can be ruled out,” Stephen Fisher, an elections expert who teaches at Oxford, wrote on Thursday morning, after noting that polling averages gave Remain a very slight lead.
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About half of voters were thought to have walked to the polls, though many others drove and a few even rode horses. Strong rains in parts of the capital and southeast England complicated voting; floods forced the borough of Kingston upon Thames in southwest London to move two polling sites. By the Thursday evening rush, rains had caused delays on several subway lines and brought foot traffic at Waterloo, the capital’s busiest train station, to a standstill. Many Britons posted photos of themselves accompanied by their dogs and cats, prompting internet memes.
In the deprived town of Oldham, near Manchester, a traditional stronghold of the Labour Party, Lisa Kirk, 43, said she and her family had been swayed by the U.K. Independence Party, which opposes Britain’s membership in the European Union, and expressed disenchantment with British leaders. “They’re just letting all the foreigners in, and there is nothing left in the system for us,” she said.
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In the 18th-century spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, in the picturesque Kent countryside, Michael Selway, 54, expressed worry about the future of European integration. “This project was set up by people who had fantastic intentions — no more war — and now it might all come to a crashing end,” he said.
Older voters are seen as being particularly disenchanted with the European Union, and younger voters more attracted to the possibility of studying and working on the Continent. But there were many exceptions.
Helen Lickerman, 67, said there was a general tendency to move away from European integration. “Never mind the ins and outs of the economy,” she said at an interview at St. Giles Cripplegate Church in the Barbican, a residential and arts complex in the City of London, the capital’s financial district. “There’s a general feeling of being part of a community, and the history, the past wars, is something we don’t want anymore.”
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Near Paddington Station just north of Hyde Park, Yamini Mathur, a 41-year-old Londoner, said that voters had been more confused than enlightened by the blizzard of claims and counterclaims made during a series of debates. “We do not have all the answers, we do not have all the information, but I guess we will just have to go with all the information we have,” she said.
The two officially designated campaigns — Vote Leave and Stronger In — continued to fire away on Twitter, in messages that reflected the sharply negative turn the debate has taken in a country where civility and decorum have been distinctive characteristics of the political culture.
Vote Leave told its followers on Twitter: “Today’s referendum is about democracy. If you cherish it and it matters to you at all, then please #VoteLeave and #TakeBackControl.” The campaign has relentlessly attacked the European Union as an unaccountable and faceless bureaucracy that is subsidized by Britain and offers little more than onerous directives in return, while forcing high levels of migrants onto Britain through its insistence on the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services.
The Stronger In campaign has at times struggled to make a positive case for the 28-nation bloc, instead focusing on the economic hit that Britain — the bloc’s second-largest economy, after Germany — would sustain if it lost access to a common market of more than 500 million people. Even enthusiasts acknowledge that the European Union, with its cumbersome governance, is hard to love, though they say it has helped to unite a Continent that nearly destroyed itself in two world wars.
With the stumping over, politicians were left with little to do but vote. Three leaders of the Remain campaign — Mr. Cameron, whose Conservative Party is bitterly divided over the European Union, and the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and Mayor Sadiq Khan of London — all voted in the capital.
So did Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who has arguably been the most prominent face of the Leave campaign, and Michael Gove, the justice secretary. Mr. Farage cast his ballot in Kent, in southeast England.
It was only the third nationwide referendum in British history. In the first, in 1975, Britons affirmed their membership in the European Economic Community, a forerunner to the European Union, which they joined in 1973. In the second, in 2011, voters rejected a change to the system by which members of Parliament are elected.
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