Friday 23 August 2019

'We're all pretending there's someone in charge of Brexit. But we all know that there isn't'

Nicola Anderson took the 650km journey from London to Edinburgh to gauge the mood of a UK split six months ago by the vote to quit Europe

Reporter Nicola Anderson in Newcastle Photo: Scott Heppell
Reporter Nicola Anderson in Newcastle Photo: Scott Heppell
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

It's name sounds like the ugly croak of a bullfrog - and upon hearing it the majority of people shrug, make hurried excuses and flee back to the warmth of the festivities.

In a journey of more than 650km by train up through the UK from London to Edinburgh, a picture emerges of a national mood of uncharacteristic recklessness and bravado - juxtaposed with real fear and barely concealed fury in the absence of a clear plan for the future.

Britain is a troubled place.

Today marks six months since the UK referendum that ushered in the era of Brexit, but getting anyone to discuss it on the streets of Britain during Christmas week is difficult.

I am surrounded by the happy bustle of last-minute shoppers, the florists busily wrapping up arrangements of festive red berries, and tiny children squawking in delight at the animated figures in department store windows. It feels mean-spirited to be invoking the shapeless, faceless, ghost of Christmas Future.

The London-based Irish PR guru Rory Godson explains it as: "We're all pretending there's someone in charge of Brexit - but we all know there isn't."

He says that as an Irish person, the things that once distinguished the UK were "the respect for the rule of law, the sovereignty of parliament and the tolerance of 'assorted views'."

"This has changed," he says. He has also noticed a "spectacular" decline in the quality of discussion and debate, telling how one of his colleagues went to the Tory party conference where there had been "almost an atmosphere of witch-hunt" against anyone suggesting a "soft Brexit" which would see the UK remain within the European single market.

"The UK is in a really tough position politically and economically," Godson warns.

While people may be lulled into security by the strong growth in tourism, with people flooding in to take advantage of the weaker sterling, the New Year will see a different situation with food inflation and less favourable rates for people travelling abroad.

Split decision: Peter and Dorothy Bain voted different ways Picture: Gilles Moulin
Split decision: Peter and Dorothy Bain voted different ways Picture: Gilles Moulin

"People will be really struck by how much less they can buy for their pound," he says. But Godson expresses hope for the future - however long it may take.

"Just because things move in one direction doesn't mean they can't move back," he reasons.

On the streets of the City, London's financial heartbeat, where tightly wound and cautious types in immaculate suits and bowler hats like Mr Banks from Mary Poppins once waxed lyrical about the potential of tuppence, even those who voted Remain have now changed their tune to "que sera sera". They have no choice.

At lunchtime in the last few days before Christmas, no frivolous decorations adorn the streets here and the only nod to the season are the toffee-nut lattes in a nearby Starbucks.

With green hair and a fluffy pink collar, Nikki Morgan cuts a dash in the City. A PA for an accountancy firm, she was a defiant Brexiteer and does not regret her decision. "We were able to make a decision and make our thoughts known," she explains.

She doesn't pay too much attention to the reports predicting doom for the UK economy and believes Prime Minister Theresa May will "do what needs to be done".

"People worry too much," she says, briskly adding: "This is what life is all about."

Rolf, a German financier who does not want his surname printed, sees it a different way.

"I don't understand it - it's the most ridiculous decision ever," he declares, adding: "I think they are lying to themselves if they think they'll be better off."

Unravel

Those in control were not prepared for this and do not have "the manpower or the intelligence" to unravel themselves from the EU and set up alternative trade deals, he claims.

He fears for the economy, pointing out that the UK does not make much by way of industry but is primarily service-oriented. "If foreign workers are no longer free to come and go from the UK, then London's not going to be London any more and it's just going to be this sad, grey place," he warns.

He also adds that they have short memories if they have forgotten they were bailed out by the International Monetary Fund in 1976. Living in London for the past 16 years, he says he has always defended the UK but now feels unable to. "It feels awkward, working here, paying taxes but not being wanted any more."

At the polar end of the scale is Ralph Lloyd Roberts from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in the City to meet a financier to get his start-up business off the ground.

He declares himself a proud Brexiteer, adding: "I don't see Armageddon happening just yet.

"In five years' time, things will look rosy for Britain with more and more multi-national companies coming here and I can see us trading around the world - while the EU goes down the toilet," he says with relish.

I get the train from King's Cross to Newcastle and settle in for the three-hour journey.

Along the way, an Italian woman living in Cambridgeshire tells me that all her neighbours voted 'Leave'. She questions the decision-making of the British people whose royal family is alone in Europe in "still acting like royals".

"Every other royal family in Europe has a job and lives a normal life," she reasons. "Why should I pay my taxes to renovate Buckingham Palace?"

Racism

In Newcastle's Chinatown, retired photography lecturer and Remain voter Neal Askew says he doesn't think the politicians can open up the trade routes they're saying they can.

He has already seen the consequences of Brexit.

Every month, he sends a sum of money to an impoverished family in Brazil - and because of the exchange rate, they now receive a fraction of what they used to.

Meanwhile, his daughter, who is in her 20s, had saved up enough to fund a year travelling abroad, but will now have to get a job in Australia to supplement it because the pound won't go as far.

He also wonders about the growth in racism since the vote, pointing out that the Polish airforce downed more German planes in the Battle of Britain than the British did.

Up in Newcastle, my taxi driver Ricky Davison voted to Leave and admits he regrets it. "They didn't tell us the truth," he says simply.

Amanda Scurr, a self-employed virtual assistant, says she's noticed firms are pulling back on marketing.

Meanwhile, the price of Microsoft products are going up - and even the price of Lego, she says.

The train journey to Edinburgh travels the somewhat bleak north-east coast, with dramatic views out to the North Sea.

Far beyond, lies the nirvana of Norway with its enviable economy and trading situation.

In Edinburgh's Castle district, a shopkeeper selling tartan rugs and shortbread thinks that attempts by the country's First Minister to press ahead with Scottish independence following Brexit and the referendum No vote in 2014 are foolhardy in the extreme.

"We're British and we should stick together," he says.

Laurie Jones, from Glasgow, feels differently. She backs Nicola Sturgeon, saying: "She's just a wee girl fighting for what's right."

Being forced out of the EU against the will of the Scottish people is wrong, she says.

"I think there's a feeling out there that that's not the Scotland I wanted. It's not the one I voted for."

Visiting the Christmas markets, retired printing compositor Peter Bain and his wife, Dorothy, say they were split on the Brexit vote - Peter voted Remain while Dorothy voted Leave.

"But only because I was worried about my pension - if I was younger I'd have voted Leave," Peter says firmly.

Couple

But a younger couple, Carly and Stuart Noakes, completely disagree.

Stuart works in education and worries whether Westminster will step up to the plate when EU funding is lost. He seriously doubts it.

"It will affect people's lives. Will they give the funding for education up to 18 or will we go back to the old ways when kids left school at 16?" he asks.

So many questions hang in the air, unanswered.

Irish Independent

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