Britain's future on the line: the great divide over Brexit
A 13-hour train journey from Aberdeen to Penzance reveals how Britain is grappling with whether to stay or go, report Rodney Jefferson and Ed Kiernan
Winding down with a soft drink and a smartphone as his train glides through the English Midlands, Luke Knight says all the talk on the construction site near Leeds where he works is about immigration. Colleagues plan to vote to leave the European Union when they get the chance on June 23, and he's inclined to do the same.
"Small country, too many people," the 22-year-old says to describe their views as the train trundles through Britain's former industrial heartland. "They're all 'out,' definitely."
Zach Pritchard, Knight's 18-year-old colleague, says he's undecided - partly, he says, because he wasn't taught about the EU in school and so feels "kind of clueless". Opposite, an older passenger en route to Bristol chimes in, saying he's worried about immigration too, because the country needs to be protected from terrorists. He will vote to leave.
The three were among the commuters, day-trippers and holidaymakers encountered along Britain's longest train route, 1,244km. People from across the UK's economic and social spectrum got on and off at 45 stations, from Aberdeen in Scotland through Edinburgh; the former shipbuilding hub of Newcastle; post-industrial cities in Yorkshire; the sprawl of Birmingham; the ports of Bristol and Plymouth and, finally, towns in Cornwall at the southern tip of England.
It's a montage of a nation waking up to what Prime Minister David Cameron has called a once-in-a-generation decision. During the 13-hour trip, passengers showed the kind of division that's splintered their government. At stake is a place in the world's largest economic club, one that's grown from six to 28 nations over six decades.
The Cross Country train pulls out of the grey granite architecture of Aberdeen every weekday at 8.20am, and finally passes a smattering of palm trees in the Cornish coastal town of Penzance at 9.43pm.
The diverse group of passengers had this in common: They all wanted more information. Knight said he knew more about Donald Trump and the US election, while ancient-history student Olivia White from Leeds wanted to know more about potential disruption to European travel. Many said they still don't fully understand what the EU does for the UK, or why it might make sense to leave an alliance their country joined in 1973. At least four said were relying on "gut feeling".
David Proctor, who boarded at Montrose, just south of Aberdeen, is taking time to decide. The 31-year-old accounting student and part-time bar worker was more likely to vote to stay in, he said, based on the issues he cares about: unencumbered trade, the economy and the need to keep UK power in check. His vote for Scottish independence in the September 2014 referendum came much more easily, he said. "London doesn't serve us best, but the EU is seen to look after our interests," said Proctor.
After the train passed through the Scottish National Party stronghold of Dundee, Sylvia Troon (71) got on at Leuchars. Wearing a blue lapel badge on her jacket that displayed her "yes" vote for Scottish independence, Troon said she wanted to stay in the EU.
The mood began to change as the train moved south into the early afternoon. It crossed into England at Berwick, a town that changed hands more than a dozen times between Scottish and English forces even before the 15th century. Emily Edwards was returning home from Berwick, after visiting her sister with her two children, aged eight and four. An archaeologist specialising in prehistoric pottery, she lives near Birmingham and was the first to mention how immigration dominated much of the local conversation.
"If you did a poll in our village, they'd want to leave," said Edwards (40), who said she would vote to remain in the EU, as the train passed through the cathedral city of Durham. "But people aren't aware of Europe. There's not much thinking going on."
The train meandered south through Darlington, home of the world's first steam-powered passenger railway.
Soon it was on to Medieval York, then Leeds and Sheffield, synonymous in Britain with the now-beleaguered steel industry, and then Derby, where Rolls-Royce jet engines are made. In Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city, 22pc of the population was born outside the UK.
A YouGov poll in March showed that the city's West Midlands region is one of three where support for leaving the EU, or Brexit, is strongest.
For John Charlton (40), the vote's about sovereignty. The software consultant, taking the 40-minute mid-afternoon ride home to Cheltenham Spa, wanted the EU to go back to a simple trade agreement with neighbours. What worries him most, he said, is a "European superstate," a catchphrase of the Vote Leave campaign.
"There's only one way it's traveling and it's towards a unified state," Charlton said as the train passed just west of Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare's birthplace. As for breaking from the EU after four decades, "If you don't do it now you'd have to do it 10 years down the line. The definition of a country is sovereignty and control over your borders."
On to Bristol, where sovereignty remained a common theme, one that Colin Brown said resonated in his community. The 51-year-old, who works in finance at a law firm, said he's undecided, but he is leaning toward staying in the EU.
"The debate is superficial on both sides," he said as the carriages pushed through the countryside toward Devon's cathedral city of Exeter. "'Remain' is about disruption and 'leave' is just very nationalistic." He praised the EU for unifying such things as accountancy standards and some business laws, and for negotiating trade agreements. Immigration, he said, makes the economy more competitive and ultimately boosts employment.
The recent history of referendums shows the "undecideds" usually stick with the status quo. In Scotland's independence vote in September 2014, polls suggested it was too close to call before 55pc backed staying in the UK.
Kerry Wills (31), a dental nurse, was also among the undecideds. Sitting in a now all-but-empty Carriage B, she highlighted the isolation of Cornwall, which gets more EU aid than anywhere else in England. "We just get on with life here, it's like we're cut off from the rest," she said before the train completed the last leg of its trek to ease into Penzance station right on time. "I will vote but I need to know more about it. Otherwise it's dangerous." (Bloomberg)