The U.K., along with many other parts of the world, woke up Friday morning to the news that it had voted to leave the European Union in a historic referendum by a margin of 52% to 48%.
But the now official ‘Brexit,’ as it was dubbed in the media, has been a long time in the making. Here’s how and why the question of whether to remain within the E.U. or not was put to the British people in the first place.
1. The last time a similar referendum was held was 40 years ago
In 1975, the ruling Labour government held a referendum on whether Britain should leave what was then known as the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union. The U.K. had not been a signatory to the Treaty of Rome that created the EEC in 1957, and had seen two attempts to join — in 1963 and 1967 — rebuffed by then French President Charles de Gaulle before it was finally being accepted in 1973, after de Gaulle’s tenure ended.
The referendum two years later, asking the question “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community?” saw an overwhelming vote in favor of staying. Every British county except two voted “Yes” for a victory margin of about 67% to 33% with a 64.5% turnout.
2. Many have tried and failed since then to hold another
The Labour Party’s attempt to win the country’s 1983 election on a platform of withdrawing from the EEC resulted in failure, with the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher being re-elected by a considerable margin.
Fourteen years later, four years after the EEC became the E.U. through the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, the newly formed Referendum Party of Sir James Goldsmith contested the 1997 general elections with a promise to hold a referendum on U.K. membership to the union. However, it only managed to win about 2.6% of the vote and did not capture a single seat in parliament.
3. Cameron made a promise, and kept it
The current U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, rejected calls for a referendum on his country’s continued membership of the E.U. in 2012, but announced less than a year later that his Conservative government would hold one if re-elected in 2015.
Soon after he was voted in for a second term, the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was introduced in the British Parliament to kickstart the process that culminated on Friday.
Subsequently, in a speech to the Parliament’s House of Commons in February 2016, Cameron announced that the referendum would be held on June 23. A staunch advocate of remaining within the E.U., Cameron announced his resignation soon after the results of the vote were declared on Friday.
There is still a long road ahead, with the process of officially seceding from the E.U. set to take at least two years and with many factors to be considered, but the people of the U.K. have made their voice heard. Unlike 1975, this time they want to leave.