Cycling Across Britain in Search of Answers to Brexit
J.D. Taylor cycles across post-Brexit Britain to find out why people voted to leave the European Union.
Back in June, the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote leveled whole swathes of the political landscape, toppling party leaders and shaking the country’s political and economic foundations. Yet since that initial shock there has been something of a lull into inertia, with a residual sense of incoherence and unmet promises.
A new government under Theresa May has only just announced that Article 50 will be triggered by March 2017, some nine months after the vote, yet there is still no clear indication about what kind of relationship the UK will have with Europe. And while consumer spending reports suggest business as usual, many major banks and companies have begun planning a move of operations overseas.
As I recently cycled around the North of England to find out why people voted for Brexit, I was struck by a profound and growing chasm between deindustrialized communities and a remote, unpopular political establishment. Questions of political constitutionalism or economic restructuring are still too theoretical to account for the pungent and contradictory forces that erupted out of a vote that, for many, became a plebiscite on uncontrolled immigration.
What has become of those feelings since the vote?
On the road
Two years ago I cycled the breadth and perimeter of Britain. My purpose was simple: to find out what life was like across the island. I was in the middle of a PhD project on democracy and desire, with a recent left-wing polemic not long out (Negative Capitalism), making bold predictions about a new political movement challenging the government’s austerity agenda. But that optimism seemed increasingly tenuous, if not naïve, as cuts continued and unrest fizzled out.
I also wondered who was I to even think about an alternative politics for a country I had hardly seen? My London-centred outlook seemed to mirror that of a media and government that many accused of having little interest in the world beyond the Home Counties and the swing-voters of Nuneaton. I decided instead to reground my understanding of British politics on new foundations, those of people’s experiences and ideas.
So, with a rusty old bike, a tent and a laptop, I set out, cycling from one place to the next, staying in the homes of strangers I met along the way. I went without a map, and asked people about their lives. I encountered generosity, friendship and intriguing stories wherever I went.
The resulting account of my journey, Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain, happened to be launched the same week as the Brexit vote. Stunned but not surprised by the decision, I decided to cycle back through some of those towns and cities I had travelled through, to attempt to understand why people had voted thus, and what had happened to them since my tour.
That the UK voted clearly, though less than decisively, for Brexit has been sufficiently autopsied, less so the underlying motivations behind the vote, or frustrations since. The result was not unanimous: As Danny Dorling observes, over 13 million registered voters chose not to vote, whilst a further 7 million eligible adults were not registered. Whilst initial press coverage focused on the trend of northern towns and cities voting Leave, a result that apparently contradicted their traditional Labour-voting politics—a more significant and decisive number of votes came from the middle classes of southern England.
Yet a deceptive media narrative of the sources of Brexit was already in construction the day after the shock decision, indicated when Channel 4 News sent its reporters to Barnsley, a Yorkshire town once heavily associated with coal mining. Like other de-industrialized towns marked by relatively high levels of poverty, unemployment and deprivation, Barnsley had voted to leave. Channel 4’s report featured one older man complaining that “it’s not about trade or Europe or anything like that, it’s all about immigration. It’s to stop the Muslims coming into the country, simple as that.”
When I chose to return to some of the towns of the Midlands and the North to understand the reasons behind Brexit, through struggling ex-industrial towns like Barnsley and Wakefield, the slowly recovering cities of Nottingham, Sheffield and Liverpool, increasingly dependent on higher education, or the more bustling metropolis of Manchester, Brexit was the first topic of conversation.
Whether the person I spoke with was either for or against—and it was rare that I encountered anyone who had since changed their minds, mirrored by an Opinium survey still polling 52/48 support in mid-August—there was an underlying premise that the vote had indicated rather than initiated an underlying chasm between London, where economic and political power remains concentrated, and the rest of the country. In the Midlands and the North some felt their communities had been left behind.
“We used to make things,” said Steve in Derby, as he discussed the city’s industrial history. Employed in plastics manufacture since leaving school, he had grown up with an abundance of work, rising wages, and affordable housing and could enjoy relative prosperity as he approached retirement. But for his children things are more precarious, at times relying on their parents for support with rent.
“It’s the young ones I feel sorry for,” says Jan, a school dinner-lady in Middlesbrough, whose two children have left the city for work down South. “There’s nothing for them.” Local work in ship-building, chemicals and steel has long gone, leaving behind communities where food banks and generational unemployment are no abstract concepts. There has been little exit strategy to rebuild these areas, beyond what Will Davies calls a “shadow welfare state” of low-paid service work subsided by tax credits, and the shift of some government services to struggling cities beyond the capital.
Southwick’s residents live and die around 20 years younger than their counterparts in Kensington and Chelsea. They get ill younger and more often, physical and mental health problems intersecting, often amplified by strains in social care or poor preventative health provision. It is one of many ex-industrial areas that returned a high Brexit vote.
“It was a way of life,” echoes Rhonda in Pendeen, Cornwall, describing how work in mining and fishing had plummeted in recent times, outcompeted overseas—another victim of globalization. “A generational thing, father and son.” Cornwall has poverty levels similar to the Northeast, and would also return a high vote for Brexit. In all cases, generations of communities feel displaced and abandoned. They sought to make their voice heard using the one means presented to them. Though disappointed by the scale of the support for Brexit, I was not surprised by it. Reading through Island Story, I see many of the causes behind the vote.
In a recent damning assessment of the impact of welfare benefits changes on the poorest, Jeremy Seabrook writes that communities were “not allowed to grieve” for the loss of industries and ways of life attached to them: skilled and stable trades that afforded a consistent income and dignity of labor, as well as a collective identification by which a community or town was associated with a particular commodity.
I found it common to hear of towns spoken of in the past tense, through what they once made: Bradford was textiles, Barnsley coal, Sheffield steel, Nottingham bicycles, Boots the chemist, and cigarettes, and so on. Though interviewing people in the West Midlands, Seabrook’s linkage of the psychological and the economic reflects journalist Mary O’Hara’s own findings that “austerity was generating social and economic schisms faster than they could be tracked, never mind adequately countered.”
Poor People Cost More
As Theresa May’s government distances itself from the austerity policies of its predecessor, the question becomes how will it deal with the increasing numbers of the working poor. A narrative of strivers versus shirkers is increasingly tenuous and unpalatable. Poverty now costs the UK £78 billion a year, according to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The figure includes £29 billion in treating health conditions associated with poverty, with the remainder divided among education, policing, social care and housing.
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Only £9 billion of the figure involves lost tax revenues and additional benefits. As one public health manager, Paul, told me in Southwick, a low-income suburb of Sunderland, “poor people cost more.” Southwick’s residents live and die around 20 years younger than their counterparts in Kensington and Chelsea. They get ill younger and more often, physical and mental health problems intersecting, often amplified by strains in social care or poor preventative health provision. It is one of many ex-industrial areas that returned a high Brexit vote.
Around 13 million (20% of the population) live in poverty, according to Oxfam, who have also determined that this figure possesses a mere one-twentieth of the wealth of the top 1%. In the last 10 years, this same poorest 20% have become 57% poorer, while the wealthiest 20% have become 64% richer.
Wealth inequalities are real and growing. According to a recent Trades Union Congress (TUC) report, around 25% of households are in “extreme debt,” paying over 40% of their incomes in unsecured monthly debt repayments. The promises of globalization have failed to hold true in large parts of the country, in a way that even the data can blind oneself to.
In Muirhouse, a deprived suburb of Edinburgh, local librarians like Josep help children with reading and homework but often find themselves on the frontline of social care, as libraries become centres where the unemployed and disabled find refuge and look online for jobs, and children open up about difficulties in their lives. Josep believes that people have the power to step out of their circumstances and prevent cycles of poverty repeating, in spite of what odds are stacked against them.
But in households where adults are either cyclically or long-term unemployed, or working on insecure zero-hour contracts in low-paid work in social care or the service sector, subsidized by tax credits, escaping such narratives is not easy. “People want to blame the poor for the situation they find themselves in,” Eden, a farmer in Darlington, told me.
But this narrative of strivers and shirkers is coming undone. Whole towns and communities in ex-industrial areas feel locked out of political representation, their concerns about low wages and access to housing, at times interlinked with anger about immigration.
They are socially and politically displaced, like similar communities in the US and Europe. On the left and right, parties and populists pitching themselves against the “establishment” are absorbing support from the center-ground, transforming in turn the political terrain.
An unwritten social contract between states, markets and citizens correlating to the “third way” center-ground politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair collapsed after the 2008 credit crisis and has since failed to recover. The effects of what Larry Summers called “secular stagnation”—terminally declining economic growth and productivity levels in Western economies—are mirrored by a collapse in provision in health and social care.
As we watched the boat traffic from a jetty on the Hebridean isle of Eigg, Ewan from Glasgow felt that something has been lost. “There was a move, after the war [World War Two], towards egalitarianism, towards collective rights. Somewhere that changed.” With politicians all “going to the same schools,” he thinks, sharing a common political outlook and social milieu, there has been very little political insight, let alone interest, in tackling the problems of poverty, work and housing. Whilst explanations around Britain would differ as to why, Annie in Southampton repeated a common perspective: “Thatcher realized that the poor don’t vote.”
Though much of the more obvious poverty appeared in Labour-voting areas, there was little enthusiasm for the party or any other social democratic movement. Instead I found a prevailing cynicism about politicians of all stripes—except, on my recent tour, about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, considered by many to be outside the establishment, if unlikely to reach power.
As Jen in Manchester put it though, Corbyn is only as important as the new people now behind him, re-entering politics again. Whilst the horizon of the political imaginary remains hemmed in by economic hardship, as I talked to people this summer in Nottingham, Sheffield, Barnsley, Wakefield, Manchester and Liverpool, I began to discern what might amount to a sea-change in feeling beyond Brexit’s divides.
I am walking with Glen Stoker and Anna Chrystal Stephens across an expanse of concrete wasteland near Sheffield’s city centre. Both are artists interested in questions of place and belonging, and have invited me to lead a tour of the site. There is very little here, and it has been “awaiting development” for some years. In the meantime it has been repurposed as a skate park nicknamed Doghouse, as well as a household waste dump location. Buddleia bursts through broken bricks, the air humming with cannabis.
“Hard Brexit” will damage but not disorientate these communities around the island whose problems around low wages, housing and unemployment were revealed rather than caused by Brexit.
There are many places like this—derelict or bulldozed, or closed up for some time, awaiting development of some kind. The North is no special case: I found them in Kent and North Devon, South Wales and Ayrshire. It might once have been a furniture shop or car showroom, or a site for manufacturing steel or sweets. Our eyes are trained to overlook them.
Of course, household consumption, the stereotypical widescreen TV with every available channel, offers a sanctuary and escape from everyday uncertainties, or what sociologist Lisa McKenzie calls “getting by.” It reflects what David in Manchester called a “privatization” of individual desires and hopes that paralleled that privatization of great swathes of public industries and local government.
It is both a stumbling block and source of strength to so many I met, their pessimism about their communities or the wider political scene contrasting with the resilient hopes for themselves or their families. Its politics were not obvious, but all the same profound.
Within the displaced or overlooked is the possibility of rebuilding. Glen and Anna are interested in how Doghouse could be a park or a place for growing food. As we walked together, I wondered what the retail parks and supermarket barns that define so much of the modern British built environment might be repurposed for, were Western (if not global) economies to one day shift from the ecologically-catastrophic pursuit of economic growth and circulation to a post-consumption society founded on self-sufficiency and sharing rather than disposability. Gadgets barns could become indoor farms. Luxury apartment blocks sold as secure financial investments overseas might instead be affordable housing for local families and asylum seekers.
In Nottingham, local researcher David pinballed ideas about how people might organize together into collectives to re-common abandoned or cordoned-off areas into new places of possibility. “How do you build a new way of thinking out of what people know? That begins with the imagination, with a political plan of thought?”
In Wakefield’s Red Shed labor club, Sandra too was wary of nationalism or anything that might exclude others. “Divide and rule” has been the story too long, she felt. Against the apparent ubiquity of xenophobia like that of Channel 4’s Barnsley interviewee, communities post-Brexit and left behind discuss and clamor for another kind of political settlement. The possibility of a constitutional combustion of the UK into smaller independent entities provides an opportunity to creatively and constructively begin these discussions.
There is no going back to the industrial past, nor would anything good come from a secession of the UK from international trade and cooperation. “Hard Brexit” will damage but not disorientate these communities around the island whose problems around low wages, housing and unemployment were revealed rather than caused by Brexit.
The challenge for any post-Brexit politics is one facing other advanced yet faltering Western economies in the 21st century, and one of social, infrastructural and political redevelopment. What could life be like here?
*[Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain is out now.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Danilo