On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess

Government, parliament and parts of the media are obsessed by Brexit, almost to the exclusion of all else. The last few weeks have produced a cascade of apocalyptic warnings about the calamity facing Britain if it fails to depart the EU, or does so with or without a deal. These forebodings may or may not be true, but does this sense of crisis reflect the feelings of the British people as a whole?

Are there identifiable signs of popular rage and division similar to those that accompanied the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, the Great Reform Bill of 1832 or even, as one cabinet minister claimed a few days ago, the English Civil War in the 17th century, in which at least 84,000 died on the battlefield? So far there is no evidence of anything like this, though that is not to say the confrontation over Brexit might not one day erupt into violence.

The media furore over a single MP being verbally abused outside parliament shows, contrary to overheated reportage, how quiet things have been on the streets up to the present moment.

A striking feature of news reporting and commentary in the final weeks before the British withdrawal from EU on 29 March is how narrowly focused it is on Westminster and on the sayings and doings of the political establishment.

Commenters have largely ignored what was supposed to be one of the lessons of the 2016 referendum, which was that London-based television, radio and newspapers were out of touch with the feelings of the country – a lack of understanding which led them to being surprised and shocked by the outcome of the vote.

To get a better understanding of what people are thinking on the eve of withdrawal or non-withdrawal, The Independent has conducted a series of in-depth interviews – for the purposes of the present article in Canterbury and Dover– in the places where voters plumped overwhelmingly for Leave and gave it its narrow majority nationally.

It is apparent from what people say that the near hysteria about Brexit in parliament, government and some news outlets is not yet widely shared by the mass of voters. Instead, there is perplexity and disengagement, though this could swiftly change.

Paula Spencer, who manages the community centre in the white working-class suburb of Thanington on the outskirts of Canterbury, says that locals are too taken up with the problems of daily living to talk much about Brexit. She says their expectations are low and they do not realistically see them improving, adding: “The worst thing for me is that you can have a father and mother both with jobs and they still can’t pay for their rent and food, though they are trying their bloody hardest.”

She says that many in Thanington only get through the month by relying on food banks, something which she imagined 10 years ago would stop once the financial crisis was over.

It was poorly educated people on low ages or benefits, living in areas like Thanington, who overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU.

Martin Rosenbaum, in a classic study of the referendum that drew on the breakdown of the vote by wards obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, confirms that it was older, poorly educated voters who were decisive in the poll. He writes that “the data confirms previous indications that local results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters – populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave”.

Broadly speaking, every study of the results shows that it was the older and less qualified voters, particularly those living in poor, largely white housing estates, who put Leave on top on the night of the referendum.

The same pattern was repeated all over the country: the highest Leave vote anywhere in England and Wales was the 82.5 per cent in Brambles and Thorntree in Middlesbrough, a ward which has the lowest proportion of people with a university degrees or similar qualifications – just 4 per cent – anywhere in the country.

Nick Eden-Green, a Liberal Democratic councillor for Wincheap in Canterbury, the ward to which Thanington belongs, argues the reason that so many people from the area voted Leave was the same as in other deprived parts of east Kent.

“It was partly voters saying a plague on both your houses [when it came to the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dem parties] and sod you shyster politicians,” he says. “Partly, it was fear of immigration: if you knock on doors people say ‘it is all these bloody illegals.’”

He says that for the present, those living in areas like Thanington are not talking much about Brexit, in sharp contrast to the better educated and the politically engaged. He asks: “Are people talking about Brexit? Among the ‘literati’ yes, but not here.”

People do not understand what is going on with Brexit other than that it is a mess; and Eden-Green finds their confusion perfectly understandable. He says: “I have spent a lot of my life in Europe and I speak French and German, but I still don’t know enough to decide what the country should be doing.”

Thanington locals say they do not know what to think, though they strongly suspect that nobody cares what they think, which was one of the main reasons they voted Leave in the first place.

Caroline Heggie, who has lived in the suburb since 1998, says that unlike most of her neighbours she voted Remain; but has stopped talking about Brexit. “The government don’t know what’s going to happen – how are we meant to know? I don’t know how it will affect me and I count myself as one of the more aware. I don’t understand the whole economic thing.”

She says that the main impression she gets is that there is an internal crisis in the government, which she says is “why we’re in this mess now”. She adds: “There’s a disconnect between what the government are doing and what the hell we’re going to do when it happens. I think most people here are in the ‘I don’t know’ category. As it happens, I haven’t found anyone who voted to Leave that has given me a good reason or argument or discussion on why they think it will benefit us. I believe the Leavers who voted have got less discussion than people who voted to Remain.”

Thanington is among the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Britain, though it does not look it. Residents and outsiders agree that it is fairly typical of other housing estates in East Kent. They praise its strong sense of community, saying that if a child is lost, everybody comes out to look for them. Nevertheless, words and phrases such as “deprivation” and “lack of qualifications” do not quite prepare one for the fact that this means hungry children and illiterate parents.

It is a shock to find that in Canterbury, where St Augustine came to convert the Anglo-Saxons and founded a school 1500 years ago, part of the population cannot read or write. Paula Spencer says she has “had people asking me to spell BBC for them so they can put it into Google because they can’t spell it themselves”.

A disconnect between Westminster and voters in places like Thanington stems from the fact that the former see the withdrawal from the EU in terms of national economic advantages and disadvantages. But the referendum and the anti-EU campaign was a vehicle for a multitude of grievances and discontents, many of them to do with the ravages of globalisation and privatisation, which have little to with the EUThe slogan “Take Back Control” was notoriously effective because it scapegoated Brussels as responsible for failings that it had nothing to do with.

The views born out of this systematic demonisation are vividly illustrated by a widely circulated anti-EU online image entitled “40YRS EU RULE” under which is written “Ship building FINISHED, Coal mining FINISHED, Steel work FINISHED.”

Below that is a picture of a Union Jack with the words “Fishing DESTROYED” above it and “TRUTH” in large white letters on the face of the flag and, in smaller letters, “Currpt mps”. Below, railways, electricity, gas, BT, Royal Mail and water are listed as “SOLD!” and NHS as “BEING SOLD!” and a sidebar reads “Sovereignty going!”

The graphic shows the degree to which opposition to the EU is about much more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It is, among many other things, an incoherent opposition to the status quo – in contrast to the Remainers, whose core supporters want things to stay roughly as they are. The symbolic nature of the Brexit vote makes it impossible to predict how people will react if Brexit is rejected or neutered beyond recognition.

But what if Brexit does falter or fall in the course of the next few weeks or months? Any Brexit deal will ultimately reflect the balance of political and economic power between Britain and the EU, in which British negotiators will invariably be overmatched. If there is an agreement, it will always be far from what the pro-Brexit camp had told their followers that they could get.

Theresa May’s deal already reflects this balance of power, which is not going to change. And whatever happens, the Brexit saga will go on for years and probably decades. Brexit will certainly hurt the UK – weakening links with your largest market is never a good idea for a commercial country – but the damage may well take the form of slow erosion rather than sudden collapse.

In the meantime, prophesies of the Wrath to Come if Brexit either falters or goes full steam ahead sound exaggerated, the grossest being that by the transport secretary Chris Grayling – not a man whose record in office encourages confidence in his judgement – who told Conservative MPs at the weekend that if they fail to produce some form of Brexit “we risk a break with the British tradition of moderate, mainstream politics that goes back to the Restoration in 1660”. Grayling apparently has not heard of the Popish plot or the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

On the other hand, Grayling may turn out to be like the little boy who called “Wolf!” to frighten his fellow villagers and was gobbled up when a real one came on the scene.

One reason Leave supporters do not want a second referendum is that they privately fear they would lose it. In 2016 they benefited from the chance coincidence of events favourable to their campaign; they may not be so lucky again. An accidental boost to their fortunes then came from enhanced fear of immigration, fuelled by nightly television pictures of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees making their way to Europe.

The pathetic casualties of the Syrian war could be portrayed as all the more menacing because Isis was at the peak of its power in 2015-16, with its gunmen and suicide bombers massacring people in the heart of Paris and other European cities. Proponents of a second referendum may hope that polls showing hostility to migrants is ebbing are correct and immigration will have a less poisonous impact on a second poll.

The port of Dover, 17 miles south of Canterbury and 22 miles across the Channel from France, is a good place to see how far hostility to immigrants is really on the wane. Famed since medieval times as the “Gateway to England” and overlooked by Henry II’s magnificent castle, it is today a desolate place with job shortages, stagnant wages, low levels of education and a high street deserted by shopping chains.

Trucks carrying imports and exports worth £122bn a year rumble in and out of the port, but very little money rubs off on the local inhabitants.

Dover has been in the news recently with lurid accounts of the town being submerged by 10,000 HGVs unable to cross the Channel because of a no-deal Brexit. The only bright spot is that the possible return of a regime of permits and clearances at the port would require many more office workers to cope with the upsurge in paper work.

Less attention is given to the population of Dover itself, which voted Leave by a huge margin (40,410 to 24,606 Remain in the Dover local authority area). Immigration is a bigger issue there than in Thanington because of the presence of a substantial community of Slovakian Roma.

It is also along this part of the southeast coast of Kent that Iranian and Kurdish immigrants have being crossing the Channel in small dinghies. Their numbers are not large, but the dramatic nature of the dangerous voyage through the rough winter seas makes for good television.

It is well-publicised incidents like this that could reinvigorate immigration as an issue in much the same way as in 2016. One resident has a picture in his window of the White Cliffs, on which is written “CLOSED”.

Sam Hall, who has taught at a primary school in Dover for five years, says people she meets in the town “have bought into the rhetoric that there is a crisis [over the recent immigrant arrivals]. There is very little compassion. You may believe that the people coming here are desperate, but then you are desperate yourself.”

There is another aspect to the immigration issue in Dover revolving around the Slovakian Roma, who often do not speak English. Even those most sympathetic to them say they are peculiarly hard to communicate with. White parents express anger that scarce school resources are spent on teaching Slovakian Roma children to speak English.

Hall says: “The lies that were told on the Leave side during the referendum make it very easy for people to feel – when they see their town being left to rot – that we need to spend the money on ourselves.” She believes lack of education makes it easy for newspapers or politicians to persuade people that immigrants come to UK solely to live on benefits, take the jobs of local people, and get free treatment from the NHS.

“It is a real Project Fear,” she says, “it encourages the belief that if these immigrants are going to get more, then you are going to get less.”

Charlotte Cornell, the Labour candidate for Dover and Deal, says that people in the town feel not so much “left behind” as “left out”, excluded from “the political system that they feel can’t do them any worse.”

Though she voted Remain, she has an optimistic take on Brexit, arguing against a second poll, and seeing the referendum as “a vote for change”. She adds: “It’s a hope vote. This is two fingers up to the establishment – it’s a ‘this can’t be any worse for me’ vote.”

Appetite for change there may well be, but it is diffuse and its future direction is unpredictable. Dover may have a glorious past based on its strategic position: the headquarters for the Dunkirk evacuation were in tunnels in the White Cliffs that rise above the town. But its recent history has been one of decline.

Hall says parents and children are unable to break the grim cycle of poor jobs and poor prospects that consumes each generation and which is combined with a dispiriting conviction that education will not do much to improve the lives of their children.

“I think people who live in Dover feel cross and unheard,” she says. “There is this sort of anger and apathy going together and even if I try to have more fact-based conversations [about immigration and Brexit] I don’t connect with them because they are so cross.”

At this stage, the crisis in Britain is primarily at the level of the political class. It is bizarre that senior officials in the government say in private, as a matter of fact, that Britain is inevitably going to be weaker and poorer if the government achieves its aim of leaving the EU. They are aghast at seeing old alliances being thoughtlessly thrown away and the “Irish Question”, which convulsed British politics for centuries, being fecklessly reopened.

The educated classes are deeply worried and demoralised, but don’t know what to do to avert the inevitable shipwreck. As for the millions who voted for Brexit in order to change the status quo, their hopes and expectations are likely to end in frustration because so much of what they were promised will prove to be snake oil pledges that can never be delivered.

It is only when this becomes clear that we will begin to learn if the proponents of Leave are going to respond to disappointment with apathy or with rage.


Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).