Monday 20 November 2017

The voice of Little Britain: Hearing from the heartland of Brexitland

The campaign to leave the EU began in Tory Middle England, but what shocked observers was how it resonated in the post-industrial ­Midlands and the North of the country. Kim Bielenberg visits Stoke-on-Trent, the city with the highest Brexit vote in the UK

Young mum Jody Knight voted Remain, but it caused a row at her daughter’s birthday party.
Young mum Jody Knight voted Remain, but it caused a row at her daughter’s birthday party.
Agnieszka Forsa and her 12-year-old daughter Wiktoria outside the Polish food shop they run in the city centre.
Richard Bagguley, owner of Terry’s café in the city’s indoor market, voted Remain while catering assistant Marie Lord opted for Leave.
Air-brush artist Mike Jones voted Leave 'just for a change'.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In the Brexit capital of Britain, the residents were in no doubt this week about why they decided to give the European Union a well-aimed two fingers.

Stoke-on-Trent in the West Midlands had the highest percentage vote in favour of leaving the EU of any city in the United Kingdom. Seven out of 10 voters wanted Britain to get out.

For many, it was all about immigrants and the strong conviction that foreigners have changed the nature of their city beyond recognition.

Others simply saw a vote against Brexit as a timely kick up the backside to the powers-that-be, regardless of the consequences.

When you amble through the run-down city centre, between pound stores, pawn shops, bookies and crumbling post-war architecture, it is not hard to see why a kick might be well deserved - even if the result could be disastrous.

For Mike Jones, an ex-miner who now makes a living air-brushing portraits of celebrities and selling them in a city-centre market, voting Leave was an act of simple rebellion.

Agnieszka Forsa and her 12-year-old daughter Wiktoria outside the Polish food shop they run in the city centre.
Agnieszka Forsa and her 12-year-old daughter Wiktoria outside the Polish food shop they run in the city centre.

Jones lost his job in a coal mine back in the 1980s, and says he went to jail fighting for his rights.

"I am not into politics now, but I voted for Brexit because I want to see change," he says, but declines to elaborate on what that change might be.

Read more: 'This might just be the push for us to move back home'

Nearby, Wayne Thorpe walks into a barber shop, decked out in the electric-blue Stoke City away shirt. He spells out his reasons for voting Leave - and is inclined to put it down to too many foreigners.

"The migrants have come here not in their tens but in their hundreds," he says. "Ten years ago, it felt more like our own city - and many of them don't speak English."

But when I ask him who his favourite player is on the Stoke City team, he replies: "Bojan Krkic".

Wayne doesn't see the irony in the fact that he himself idolises a Spanish migrant from the EU who is taking a job that could have been filled by an Englishman.

The campaign to bring the UK out of Europe began in the Little Englander wing of the Tory party - the narrow, blimpish world of stiff gins and blazers with shiny buttons, far away from Stoke - and has been fought out over many decades.

Richard Bagguley, owner of Terry’s café in the city’s indoor market, voted Remain while catering assistant Marie Lord opted for Leave.
Richard Bagguley, owner of Terry’s café in the city’s indoor market, voted Remain while catering assistant Marie Lord opted for Leave.

But what really surprised and shocked many observers was how the rallying call for Brexit resonated in the post-industrial Midlands and the North of England.

These are areas where Labour is supposed to reign supreme. Over one-third of Labour voters defied the wishes of their party and voted in the referendum to get out of the EU.

While the Vote Leave campaign would not have won without huge support in areas of the South outside London, including millions of middle-class voters, it was striking how it also hoovered up votes in poorer areas of the Midlands and North.

Among voters classed in the D and E social brackets, the vote for quitting the EU was 64pc across the UK, according to surveys conducted by Lord Ashcroft's polling organisation.

Pro-Brexit support was particularly high among older, less well-educated voters. At the same time, 72pc of graduates voted Remain.

Air-brush artist Mike Jones voted Leave 'just for a change'.
Air-brush artist Mike Jones voted Leave 'just for a change'.

Already this week, as the pound and share markets collapsed, there were signs of buyer remorse. At the beginning of the week, local woman Barbara was ringing a BBC phone-in show to say she had voted Leave, but now felt sorry.

She did not expect the Brexit side to win and was "shattered" at the result.

Barbara sounded tearful: "I never thought this would happen... It's blown up in my face."

In the market in the centre of Stoke, as she sells knitwear to passers-by, Diane Leatham has no such regrets about voting out of the EU.

"This community voted Leave because every other person you meet is now foreign. There will still be immigration when we are out of the EU but at least we will have control of who we let in."

The market stallholder complains that many of the immigrants do not spend their money in Britain, but send a large chunk of their incomes back to their home countries.

She utters a refrain that is heard time and time again - that the money spent on the EU could be spent on the National Health Service, and she believes immigrants are clogging up hospitals and surgeries.

In fact, a study by the London School of Economics showed that in the decade after 2001, when millions of newcomers arrived from Eastern Europe, immigrants were net beneficiaries to the British Exchequer to the tune of £5bn.

That is after the bills for their healthcare needs, the education of their children and other government services had been paid.

On the streets of Stoke, next to the statue of the local football hero Stanley Matthews, and across great swathes of urban and rural England, one hears the complaints about immigrants repeated. But is the ill feeling towards migrants, coupled with the desire to damn the European Union and all its works, the full story, or a symptom of a wider malaise in regions where there is long-term economic decline?

As the local paper The Stoke Sentinel put it this week: "This is a city that has clearly seen better days, and for many people, it's no coincidence that those better days came before the country joined what was then the EEC in 1973."

For generations, two great industries dominated the area and offered thousands of well-paid jobs to the working class - the potteries, for which Stoke is known the world over, and the coal mines.

Many voters hark back to the days when tens of thousands were still employed in the pits and pots.

"Coal mining has completely disappeared from this area, while most of the jobs in the potteries also went - and many of them were outsourced to Asia," says local historian Fred Hughes.

"That is the cause of a the disenchantment in Stoke, and it is same story in many other towns and cities in the Midlands and the North of England."

Read more: 'It's out of tune with what the majority of young people want'

Jenny Philimore, Professor of Migration at Birmingham University, says there was a hankering among voters to turn the clock back to a time before Britain changed.

"There is a belief that things changed because of Europe, but the changes were caused by globalisation, and it is happening everywhere.

"This is not just a British phenomenon - there is huge shift in capital and labour.

"The way it was portrayed during the referendum campaign was that everyone wanted to come to Britain," says Professor Philimore. "We blame migration for a lot of the inequalities in our economy, but you cannot turn the clock back."

At Terry's café in the city centre, manager Richard Bagguley voted Remain, while his co-worker Marie Lord voted Leave.

"People says it's all about immigration, but I am not sure that is the case," says Bagguley. "The problem is, Stoke has never really recovered from the closure of its industries."

Although he voted Remain, Bagguley is not surprised that voters blamed the EU.

"People don't really understand what goes on in Brussels. They feel disconnected from it."

Of course, it is easy to sentimentalise the disintegrated way of life of coal mining and other tough industrial jobs that once dominated this region and much of the North of England. Many lives were destroyed by ill health down the pits.

But this industrial way of life at least brought social cohesion, a strong sense of community and working-class solidarity, according to Stoke historian Hughes.

It was from this tight milieu in the Hanley area of Stoke that England's footballing genius Stanley Matthews sprang.

"He lived in a terraced house. His football ground was on his doorstep, and he went to matches by bus. After the games he went for a pint with his mates," says Hughes.

"We all know that those days have gone. The community cohesion that we once had in Stoke has broken down. Of course, Stoke is not unique in that. It is the same in many other areas of England."

The old industries of the West Midlands and Northern regions brought an economic security that has never returned for many who are now living in their shadow, even if they did eventually find jobs.

"The old industries paid about double the wage in real terms of what you would get for doing the crappy work that may be available in those areas now," says Professor Danny Dorling, lecturer in social geography at Oxford University.

"If you work in a shopping centre, you are getting the minimum wage. On the old industrial wages, people were able to start a family in their twenties and get a home. You can't start a family in your twenties now, and that gives rise to anger.

"People haven't been told that this has happened because of decisions by government after government. Instead, they have been told that it has been caused by the immigrants and they believed it."

David Cameron and the powers-that-be in London may have received their kick, but already the consequences are being felt.

There were troubling reports this week of an upsurge in attacks against immigrants across Britain in the wake of the Brexit vote.

This has been one of the rare historic occasions when politics has impinged on everyday life, prompting sudden rows and arguments.

At Stoke bus station, as she waits for a bus with her daughter, Jody Knight tells me about the rifts it has caused for her. "I voted Remain, but I've had terrible arguments. On Saturday, I had a row with some people about it and it marred my daughter's birthday. I believe a lot of people who voted Leave are racists."

In a Polish shop in Stoke city centre, Agnieszka Forsa and her daughter Wiktoria worry about their family back home and whether they would be able to come and go freely. "I was very surprised by the results and so are the Polish customers in the shop," says Agnieszka. "They don't know what is going to happen."

Ironically, many of the poorest areas of England that voted to Leave are those that are most dependent on EU grants to sustain them. This week there were fears that Stoke and its surrounding area could lose out on €157m in EU funding as a result of the Brexit vote.

And who knows? If immigration rules are tightened on Premier League footballers, Stoke City could lose star players such as Bojan Krkic. It is at this point that many voters may live to regret their decision.

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