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Fear, mistrust – and hope: Britain’s long walk away from the EU

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As a previous Tory prime minister trying to find his way through difficult times once said: this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

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Brexit is hardly complete. The last-minute nature of the UK’s trade deal with the EU and the fact that it barely covers whole swaths of the economy – financial services are a good example – means some negotiations will have to grind on. The new bodies set up to arbitrate between the two sides will soon have work to do. Northern Ireland remains part of the single market for goods and will be enforcing EU customs rules, the most vivid example of the deal’s contorted provisions, which may have no end of political consequences. Certainly, given that public opinion in Scotland now suggests unprecedented levels of support for independence and that elections to the Scottish parliament will take place in May, what Brexit means for the increasingly fragile union between the UK’s four countries will now start to become clearer.

Over the past week, the British government and its cheerleaders have implied that in averting a no-deal exit, we have avoided all the chaos and disruption that would have come with it. But this is not exactly the view of people at the sharp end. After the deal was announced, I spoke to Rob Hollyman, the director of a haulage firm based in Purfleet in Essex, which in normal times would be doing 25 runs a week to the continent, transporting prepackaged “non-essential foodstuffs” back to the UK via the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel.

“Deal or no-deal makes very little difference to where we’ll be on 1 January,” he said. He and his drivers still do not know how long new export and customs clearances for loads from Britain will take in EU countries, and what that will mean for queues of lorries on the UK side of the English channel. The worst-case scenario of the government’s border and protocol delivery group, let us not forget, involves queues of 7,000 lorries in Kent; to put that in perspective, the recent chaos when France closed its border to hauliers coming in from the UK involved half that number.

Parked lorries
Lorries queued at Manston airbase in Kent after France closed its border to hauliers.
Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

“Is it going to take minutes, or hours, or days?” Hollyman said. “The general sense is that it’s going to be chaotic for … a period. But we don’t know how long that will last.”

The practicalities of Britain’s exit from the EU, then, remain full of uncertainty. Besides, proclaiming the first day of 2021 as some shining new dawn hardly suits our current reality. With the Covid pandemic reaching new peaks, hospitals reaching breaking point and most of the UK adjusting to life under increasingly stifling restrictions, this is hardly an occasion for union jack bunting and tributes to the bulldog spirit.

But we should not underestimate today’s bracing significance. Our step away from the EU confirms that any idea of Britain as a country with an essentially European destiny is over, for a generation at least. The UK’s institutional arrangements are now in line with the vision of Britain that narrowly won the 2016 referendum – what Brexiters see as a proudly sovereign country, and their adversaries malign as an inward-looking, crabby place, eternally fixated on its past. If you ever had a hopeful vision of a UK that might be liberated from its history, culturally vibrant, and at last fully European (you can find it in some early Tony Blair speeches – he believed we could somehow be “a young country”), this is a moment of undeniable sadness.

And there is another, even more profound reason to mourn, lost amid all that recent talk about fish species and lorry parks. What became the EU was, at heart, a response to centuries of conflict, and two wars in the 20th century whose aftershocks have still to die down. In eventually joining, the UK served notice that, whatever its innate scepticism, its people and politicians just about understood that close mutual ties were the best means of maintaining peace and stability. But after 47 years of membership and an often surreal period of politics, we are walking away.

What is perhaps most mind-boggling is how unlikely this would once have seemed. Twenty or so years ago, I can recall driving around the country to interview an assortment of people who wanted Britain to leave the EU: maverick Tory backbenchers, pamphleteers, eccentric academics. At a social event in Blackpool organised by the UK Independence party’s north-west branch, I listened to long soliloquies about secret plots to end parliamentary democracy, before being asked to draw the raffle, and handing the winner a banana plant. This was a reference to the briefly famous “metric martyr” Steve Thoburn, a market trader from Sunderland who had refused to sell fruit and veg in the metric units as required by an EU directive, and been taken to court by his local council.

Steve Thoburn
Steve Thoburn (centre), accompanied by supporters, arrives at Sunderland magistrates court in 2001. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Back then, it was still de rigueur to write about stories like these in a tone of gentle mockery. But what people like me didn’t realise was how much hostility to Britain’s membership of the EU had already permeated the culture. As the writer and Guardian columnist Hugo Young had pointed out, British discourse about Europe “seldom moved beyond the narrow modes of complaint, lecture and demand”. Tory Euroscepticism was edging towards support for a clean break. The rightwing press was now a monolithic source of hostility to the imagined monsters collapsed into the word “Brussels”, amplifying the voices of people who – to quote a 1988 article in the Sun – had “no desire whatsoever to become politically involved with foreigners with whom we have nothing in common”. Even Blair, hailed as the first truly European British prime minister, would sometimes play to the Eurosceptic gallery (“I will have no truck with a European superstate – if there are moves to create that dragon, I will slay it,” he once told Sun readers), and was fond of expressing British exceptionalism: “Not for us the malaise of France or the angst of Germany,” he said in 2005.

Anti-EU prejudices had long since gripped the kind of voters who leaned Tory, and expressed their antipathy towards the EU from a position of relative affluence. But in 2016, that alone would not have been enough bring the leave side victory and set off the fitful chain of events that led to today. What made the difference was the mistrust and resentment sown by 35 years of rising insecurity and inequality, the effects of austerity, and the way that many people’s anger and dismay was focused on immigration. In 1998, Young said it was doubtful whether Euroscepticism had “any special connection with some embittered, unrepresented, forcibly silent majority”. But as the decade that began in 2010 rolled on, this was roughly what the forces behind Brexit pulled off.

For six years, as I worked with my colleague John Domokos on the Guardian’s video series Anywhere But Westminster, I heard endless voices following much the same script, all over England and Wales (in Scotland they were noticeably thinner on the ground). Just before the referendum, I was in Southway, a somewhat pinched housing development on the northern edge of Plymouth. A man in a red hatchback saw we had a camera, rolled down his window and let rip. “This country’s dying on its knees, right?” he said. “I’d come out of the common market. I’d come out of the European court of human rights. I’d cut overseas aid. I’d abolish the licence fee. I’d kick out all the illegal immigrants. I’d sort out health, education, transport, defence, law and order.”

Man in red hatchback in Southway
‘This country’s dying on its knees.’ Photograph: John Domokos/The Guardian

A month or so later, I visited Kidsgrove, near Stoke-on-Trent. I was with the local Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, and 20 or so Labour activists who were knocking on doors and trying to persuade people to back remain. The fact that I had been invited along proved that they had no idea what was about to hit them. When it did, it was sometimes shrill, and ugly – but in retrospect, this was the sound of the country’s subsequent course being set. Of 24 households they canvassed in 30 short minutes, 23 were voting leave; in 2019, all three of Stoke’s parliamentary seats were won by the Tories. “We want to be British,” said one woman. “We want our government to run our country, not someone we’ve not elected in another bloody country. And that’s it. I want my country back. I’m scared for my country. Scared.”

Canvassing for remain in Kidsgrove.
Canvassing for remain in Kidsgrove. Photograph: John Domokos/The Guardian

Some people were indeed scared. If they expressed fears about immigration, it was often impossible to separate their anxieties from worries about housing, work and the effects on their immediate environment of the cuts. But equally, time spent in any town or city would usually uncover a smattering of obvious racists and bigots. And whether their opinions were expressed hesitantly or with full force, some people’s readiness to make sweeping judgments about people from other cultures and countries seemed to be plumbing new depths – not least when it came to new arrivals from the key countries that had joined the EU in 2004: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

In 2013, I spent time in Peterborough, a growing city in the east of England whose large Polish population and Eurosceptic Tory MP seemed to make it a perfect place to explore where the country might be heading. “There’s too many people in the country [for us] to cope, to be honest,” one man told me. “Turf ’em out. Turf as many out as they can. Not in a bad way; I’m not a racist of any sort. But if they turf ’em out, we’ll all be better off.” He was mixed race.

Occasionally, it started to feel as if a certain unease about immigration had become a strange token of integration: no longer the sole preserve of the irate white men who would soon be known as “gammon”, but beyond the progressive middle class, something that felt discomfitingly universal.

Yet who were the people so many had decided should not have come here? The story of people from the so-called accession countries was the same essential story of newcomers to Britain down the ages. In Peterborough and the parts of eastern England that extended from Norfolk to Lincolnshire, thousands had arrived from eastern and central Europe and stoically taken jobs as shelf-stackers, crop-pickers and warehouse workers, often working impossible hours for woefully poor wages, and ensuring that large swathes of the consumer economy ticked over. Even if such towns as Wisbech and Boston often felt divided and uneasy, the children of Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians had enrolled at local schools, and begin to develop new hybrid identities. Among the people I met who had progressed to being managers, supervisors and homeowners, there seemed to be more faith in this country’s openings for the upwardly mobile than you would find among most British people.

The fact that so many voters then opted to slam the door still seems grim, not least in the age of warm tributes to “key workers”. But the anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment that cohered around Brexit are now embodied in even more legislation. The new Immigration Act comes into force on 1 January , and replaces free movement with a points-based system that looks like it may drastically affect care work, warehousing, agriculture, food processing, and more: another likely source of problems that will soon start to reveal themselves.

Ian, an Amazon driver in Wigan.
Ian, an Amazon driver in Wigan, said he thought voting leave would provide a chance ‘to repair the country’. Photograph: John Domokos/The Guardian

All this may suggest that Brexit was almost entirely reducible to a great spasm of nastiness and loathing, something that suits an age of political polarisation. But we should not forget that, whatever else swirled around the referendum, votes for leaving the EU were also founded in optimism and hope – something brought home to me by a visit in March 2019 to Wigan in Greater Manchester, where 64% of local voters had backed Brexit and the intervening three years hardly seemed to have changed anyone’s opinion.

On a cold Wednesday morning, I had a long conversation with Ian, an Amazon driver, who was beginning to wonder if Brexit would ever happen. “We voted out,” he said. “To get out and repair the country … They’ve done a lot of damage in the last few years, our government. They always do. They need to pay a bit more attention to what we need. Provide the money for policing, the NHS … Let’s bring it back, [and] build this country up again.” To all intents and purposes, this is the same vision of post-Brexit “levelling up” that will be at the heart of the immediate political future.

John Harris, left, talks to Charlie Dale in Wigan in 2019.
John Harris, left, talks to Charlie Dale in Wigan in 2019. Photograph: John Domokos

While I was there, I also met Charlie Dale, who was doing voluntary work at a local food project, having recently lost his job as a team leader with Asda. He was on universal credit, and regularly down to his last pennies. He told me he had voted leave, and would do so again. “Hopefully, we can get some jobs back in,” he said. When I said that Brexit was surely likely to make the country poorer, he replied without missing a beat: “How can I be poorer?”

We met again six months later, when taking a job on zero-hours contract that delivered precious little work had worsened his predicament. He was living on soup and powdered milk and facing eviction, and had taken to staying in his house all day to preserve calories. On the TV in his ground-floor flat, Sky News was showing increasingly ugly demonstrations outside parliament as Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement once again hit the skids. In some inarticulable way, the noise and discord on the TV seemed to be of a piece with the impossibility of his day-to-day existence. “I think somebody’s going to get killed,” he said. “I wanted to leave, but the leave I wanted has been twisted.” Gesturing at the TV, he said that if he was asked again, he would vote remain, “just for all this to stop”.

Four days after Christmas, I spoke to Charlie again. Since we last met, his lot had improved; he had a job with a local firm making ready meals, and had recently gone back to work after months of being furloughed. The government’s record on the pandemic and Boris Johnson’s leadership style, he said, had sustained his sense of regret about voting for Brexit, and the trade deal had not changed his mind. “I think Boris has been stitched up, with everything being decided at the last minute,” he said. “I don’t think the EU’s going to make it any easier for us. We’re in for a tricky year, aren’t we?”

 

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