Friday 27 April 2018

Brexit wounds: meeting the UK sceptics

In just 40 days' time, the UK goes to the polls in a referendum on whether to quit the EU. Polls show the battle is neck and neck. Campaigners for Brexit are passionate, but will cold economic realities win out? Kim Bielenberg travels through England to gauge the public mood

Vote Leave campaigners in Manchester beside the National Football Museum. Photo: Dan Rowlands
Vote Leave campaigners in Manchester beside the National Football Museum. Photo: Dan Rowlands
Jesus Seguri from Spain inside Who's Next shop in Notting Hill. He hopes Britain will vote to stay in the EU. Photo: Rick Findler
David Wainwright (left) and Emily Sissons (right) from Notting Hill, London are supporting a "Brexit" in the referendum next month. Photo: Rick Findler
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

David Wainwright is in no doubt about how he will celebrate if he wakes up on June 24 and Britain has voted finally to leave the European Union.

"I will raise a glass of warm pale ale," says the antique dealer, who sells imperial treasures and knick-knacks on Portobello Road in London's Notting Hill.

In just 40 days' time, the UK will vote on whether to quit the EU, and put to bed an issue that has dominated British politics for generations.

For David and the vocal band of quitters, the desire to leave is part of a deep-seated cultural legacy that stretches back, not just a decade, not just a century, but 1,000 years.

"Ever since the Norman invasion, we have not liked being told what to do, how to live and where to go," says Wainwright, whose shop sells antique cricket bats and colonial curios.

For ardent Brexiteers like him, the hard, dry facts of economics are neither here nor there. It's all about freedom, as he see it.

"It's deep in our psyche to want to be independent. You can call me a 'Little Englander' if you want, but I'll call you Adolf Hitler."

His colleagues Emily Sissons and Peter Blake are equally entrenched in their view of the EU.

"The EU was supposed to be about free trade," says Blake. "But what did we get - a bunch of idiots in Brussels."

This may be seen as a battle to be free of Angela Merkel and the meddling Germans, but the Brexiteers are unlikely to have it all their own way in London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.

After all, this is the first capital in the Western world to have elected a Muslim Mayor, Labour's Sadiq Khan.

Along the market stalls and in the shops of Notting Hill, I meet workers from all over European Union, who have genuine fears for their status in post-Brexit Britain.

In a shop selling ornate runners, Spaniard Jesus Seguri worried about whether he would still be able to come and go freely back home.

Tens of thousands of Irish residents in London have similar fears, even though the Brexit side insists there would still be free movement between Ireland and Britain, as there was before both countries joined what was then the European Economic Community.

The Brussels-bashers have found their champion in Boris Johnson, who has just finished his term as Mayor of London. He will now devote his energies to campaigning up and down the country to get Britain out of the EU once and for all.

When he came out as a campaigner in favour of Brexit in February with a sub-Churchillian flourish, it was seen by detractors as an act of cynical opportunism.

If Britain votes to leave the EU, it would surely spell the end for Prime Minister David Cameron. And as the most vocal leader of the Brexiteers, Boris would be seen as the most likely successor.

The sub-plot in the Brexit story is this fight to the death between Boris Johnson and Cameron, the latest chapter in a saga of rivalry that stretches right back to their time at Eton College.

Boris has been denounced by a prominent pro-EU commentator Nick Cohen as "a braying charlatan... who uses the tactics of the coward and the tricks of the fraudster to advance his worthless career".

But Boris is also widely admired and recognised by voters of all classes, especially on his home patch in London. Caroline Drewett, an entrepreneur and Brexit supporter, tells me: "Boris is one of the few honest politicians out there. He doesn't give two hoots about what people think of him."

On the streets of metropolitan London, Milton Keynes and Manchester, it was not hard to find voters wanting to give ringing denunciations of the EU.

For supporters of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Brexit is about stopping the tide of immigration from the EU that they feel undercuts English workers on low pay.

The regular complaint of their supporters is that the white English working class has been left out in the cold.

"We are not a xenophobic party," says UKIP Vote Leave campaigner Phil Eckersley in Manchester. "But we need to be able to control of our borders. The EU supports the big corporations and does nothing to help small business."

At the moment, Britain is divided down the middle on Brexit and polls indicate the referendum is too close to call. On Monday of this week, an ICM survey showed Leave on 46pc and the less vocal Remain camp lagging behind on 44pc. A YouGov poll leant the opposite way with Remain on 42pc and Leave on 40pc.

The fear among the EU backers is that the older eurosceptic voters - the anti-immigrants and the little Englanders - will feel more strongly about the referendum.

This is their big moment and their big issue and it is feared that they are more likely to turn out to vote.

On the other hand, the bookies believe that heads will rule hearts on polling day, and the natural caution of voters will incline them to stay with a union that has brought Britain economic success. The polls may show an even contest, but there are more generous odds of 9/4 at Paddy Power that Britain will leave.

At a debate in the Guildhall in the disconcertingly square town of Milton Keynes, Brexiteers passionately urged voters to retake command of their own destiny - and kick out the EU. They were urged to do it for the sake of the next generation. The EU was likened to an evil Soviet empire by the UKIPpers.

But quietly at the back of the hall, James Pendleton told me that voters will ultimately vote cautiously with their pockets, as they did in the Scottish referendum north of the border in 2014.

Pendleton, a world-weary pensioner who remembers the last referendum on EU membership in 1975, jokingly suggests to me that the Remain campaign should emphasise how Brexit would destroy Premier League football.

"That would swing it. They should put it about that England would lose all their Italian football managers," he says, referring in particular to Claudio Ranieri, the popular Italian who managed Leicester City to top the league.

The Remain side has raised the football issue as a genuine concern, claiming that 332 players in the top two leagues of English football would be affected if the UK quits the EU.

If the campaign to remain in the EU succeeds, it will largely be down to the tactic dubbed 'Project Fear' by opponents.

Cameron has warned that a pro-Brexit would be nothing short of a calamity.

On Monday morning, he summoned up the ghosts of the past at the British Museum to warn that Brexit could lead to war on the continent.

He warned that if Britain turned its back on Europe, sooner or later it would regret it and have to get involved again

As Cameron put it: "The serried rows of white headstones in lovingly-tended Commonwealth war cemeteries stand as silent testament to the price that this country has paid to help restore peace and order in Europe."

Boris Johnson quickly ridiculed Cameron's camp for pushing "scare stories about World War Three, or bubonic plague".

On the ground in Milton Keynes and Manchester, it was the economic arguments that seemed to be hitting home among voters. Mark Cawdrey, a young Remain campaigner and councillor in the Trafford area of Manchester, tells me: "My main reason for supporting the Remain side is economic stability.

"If we were to leave the EU, I could see a lot of big companies leaving this area."

Massive companies in the region such as carmakers Vauxhall (employing over 2,000) and Airbus rely on trade within the EU, and there are fears that this could be jeopardised.

Britain is already suffering a form of economic paralysis caused by the uncertainty over Brexit, even before the poll has happened.

"One of our volunteers who joined up is a director of an architectural company and they had to lay off staff because of fears over Brexit," says Cawdrey. "Their work dried up because investors from America won't invest in anything until there has been a result in the referendum."

The Financial Times reported this week that in the pre-poll period, growth in the UK economy has ground to a halt. Lawyers, consultants, recruitment and property firms all report a slump in activity.

That is before the poll has even happened. The non-partisan UK National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned that Brexit would lead to plummeting exports, a collapse in the value of the pound, and higher taxes to make up for a decline in the number of taxpaying migrants.

Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Manchester University, says: "The economic arguments have gained a certain amount of traction early in the campaign, but even I have been surprised at how for many people it is an emotional decision rather than something cold and hard.

"It's down to whether you are more comfortable with Britain as a solitary state or part of a European future."

According to Prof Russell, the cricketer Ian Botham seemed to sum up this emotional spirit when he declared for Brexit with the ringing words: "England is an island."

"That perhaps shows that his grasp of geography is less good than his grasp of a cricket bat."

While the Remain side has been accused of scaremongering, the Out supporters have come up with some bizarre reasons for voting for Brexit. They warned that Britain needed to get out of the EU to avoid cruelty to lambs, and to avoid a Brussels ban on toasters, kettles and hairdryers.

At the moment the bookies are disregarding the polls and predicting that Cameron's side in the Conservative schism will cling on for victory.

But Professor Andrew Russell is not quite so sure.

"There is no doubt that those who want to leave are much more vehement in their views. If there is a low turn-out and this vehemence of the Brexit supporters translates into votes, then all bets are off."

On the Brexit campaign trail, the issue of Ireland is barely mentioned; and nobody considers the security implications of a hard border between the South and North.

The implications of the June 23 poll are profound for Britain, and almost equally so for the island of Ireland. As David Cameron puts it, if Britain leaves, "the only certainty is uncertainty."


David Cameron, Prime Minister

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister

Richard Branson, Businessman

Karren Brady, Businesswoman and  TV personality

Jeremy Clarkson, TV presenter

Stephen Hawking, Scientist

Emma Thompson, Actor

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair boss

Theresa May, Home Secretary


Boris Johnson, MP and former Mayor  of London

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

Iain Duncan Smith, Former Conservative leader

Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland Secretary

Joan Collins, Actor

Irvine Welsh, Novelist

Michael Caine, Actor

Roger Daltrey, Singer

Ian Botham, former cricketer

Katie Hopkins,  TV personality

Arthur Scargill, Former union leader

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