In Brexit-on-Sea, the left-behind still want Out

Clodagh Kilcoyne & Sara Ledwith

On a Sunday evening in March, Evelyn Ovington and her granddaughter Dana Marie went to play bingo as usual in their local town hall near Skegness, a resort on the east coast of England. Like many of the country’s seaside towns, it is battling decline and voted heavily to quit the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Top prizes at the club that night included the ingredients for a chicken dinner. Dana Marie, who had just turned 18, marked her coming-of-age by drinking a can of beer. She and her 59-year-old gran joked with the rest of the crowd, spanning all ages, as they waited for the numbers to be called in the traditional way. When the caller said, “The street where she lives, Theresa May,” the players recognized the reference to the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street: Number 10.
But bingo calls are about as close as Evelyn Ovington expects to get to Theresa May. As the target deadline for Britain to quit the EU approached, Ovington and dozens of others whom Reuters met on a 14-day tour along England’s coastline said they felt increasingly let down by politicians. In line with recent opinion polls nationwide, few had changed their minds about backing Brexit. In these coastal areas, the majority still wanted to leave Europe.
“Get us out of there and get us our own nation back. That’s what I say,” said Ovington. “(I’m) just fed up with all the money that they give to the EU when we can spend it here. I want out.”
Britain as a whole voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. But around England’s coastline, dislike of EU was and is much more marked. A tally of the results as estimated by Chris Hanretty, a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, shows more than 100 of the 120 or so English parliamentary constituencies that have a coastline voted to leave. Reuters visited 10 of them: eight where most people voted to leave, and two where a majority chose to stay. From Skegness on the east coast to Morecambe Bay in the west, dozens of people said they were still convinced their fortunes could only improve outside the EU.
The main exception was Brighton, a southern town nicknamed “London-on-Sea,” partly for its appeal to those with jobs in the capital who have an hour-long commute to work. In this cosmopolitan, affluent university town, a clear majority voted to remain in the European community, which the UK joined in 1973.
The overall results reflect a wider trend. Across Europe, economic and industrial decline are driving anti-EU sentiment, according to a European Commission study from December 2018. The paper, “The Geography of EU Discontent,” found that areas with lower employment or a less-educated workforce are more likely to vote anti-EU.
In England’s case, Brexit also highlights a new layer in the political divide, which Prime Minister May alluded to in 2016 when she pledged to help those “left behind” by globalisation. Big cities are becoming younger, more ethnically diverse, more educated and more socially liberal, while smaller towns are ageing, are less diverse, more nostalgic and more socially conservative, studies by political geographers show.
All around the coastline, whether people voted Leave or Remain, they expressed nostalgic regret for a time when there was more opportunity – and kindness. “I think we used to take care of our communities a bit more,” said Brighton-based web designer and massage therapist Chris Baker, adding it was easy to be too romantic about the past. “I think, you know, we had more manners, we were nicer to people on the street.”
For Ovington, the problem is very real: She worries that her granddaughter’s 18th birthday brings nearer the moment when Dana Marie, like other young people in the region, will move away to university and work.
Ovington hopes Brexit means the local council can claim funds that in her view are currently being mis-directed into Europe, and invest them in a future for local young people. “At the moment there is no future for them, there’s nothing,” she said. “So out of Brexit, they’ll get more funding, help the kids more.”
Coastal regions were targeted in the run-up to the referendum by the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). While UKIP has since lost ground, the frustrations it tapped remain.
Populations on the coast are typically older, whiter, less well-educated and poorer than the average. In 2013, Skegness was designated the “most deprived seaside area in Britain” in a study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). And in 2016 the constituency returned the biggest “Leave” vote in the country, at more than 75 percent, according to Hanretty.
Skegness was the site of the first Butlin’s holiday camp for workers in the 1930s, and is still a popular seaside destination in the summer. But it sits in a poor farming region and has yet to attract year-round visitors.
The mean age of just over 44 in Skegness is older than the English average of just over 39, census data from 2011 shows. More than 93 percent of people in the area said they were white and of English or British nationalities, compared with just under 80 percent in England on average. Around 40 percent of people in the Skegness area said they had no qualifications.
“It’s been going downhill for a long time,” said Dana Marie of the town, adding she would have voted to leave the EU if she had been old enough. She is studying biology, sociology and health and social care at school, and works part time in a Burger King.
“Obviously it’s seasonal, so during the summer it’s really really good, but during the winter it’s terrible.”
In 2010, average hourly pay for people living in the Skegness area was about three-quarters of the British average. By 2018, it had fallen further behind: The national average was 14.36 pounds an hour, according to the ONS. But people living in and around Skegness were making just over 10 pounds an hour.
On a Sunday night in a pub in Wainfleet near Skegness, father and son John and Andrew Eldin were almost the only customers. John, 77, said that to stay in Europe would be to be “ruled by a load of boneheads. I voted out. Because I remembered how good it was before we went in.”
Eldin and his son, a heavy goods driver and mechanic, spoke heatedly about how there has been diminishing care for old farm hands in the region who have been afflicted by arthritis after years harvesting cabbages. Now, they said, locals are undermined in the jobs market by immigrants from eastern Europe who have freedom of access, and also compete for schools and healthcare.
A militant mood is mounting in Redcar, a small town devastated in 2015 by the closure of its steelworks with the loss of around 3,000 jobs. In January, local media reported, demonstrators marched in yellow vests with the slogan “leave means leave” to urge their member of parliament, who backed the Remain campaign, to quit. The politician did not step down and tensions still run high.
“Life’s gonna change after this because of the politicians” who run the country, said Kevin Calvey, an unemployed 64-year-old. “Everything’s gonna be contested from now on.”
He thinks London is absorbing investment that the rest of the country needs. A new rail link across the capital is costing some $22 billion. The government’s refusal to grant a loan to the Redcar steelworks forced the plant to close. Redcar is a relatively young town, but more than a quarter of residents have no qualifications. Relative pay has declined since 2010.
“London just needs feeding all the time, to the detriment of the rest of the country,” said Calvey. He said he voted to leave the EU “because I didn’t want the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels telling us what to do.”
Fish-and-chip shop owner and Leave voter Mark Scorer works in Redcar because businesses in his home town of Sunderland were too expensive to take on, he said. “I just think Britain’s been on the decline since the 80s,” he said. “There’s not much out there for people, sometimes people have got to move away to get jobs. They go to university to get these degrees and then they move to London … which is a shame.”
Further up the coast, a postcard on sale in the former fishing town of Whitby depicted the shuttered hulk of Redcar’s steelworks above a banner, “dystopia-on-sea.”
In Whitby harbor, kipper smoker Derek Brown said his family has been in the business for 146 years. For the past 30 or so, he says, the fish he has been smoking has had to be imported from Norway and Iceland because herring can no longer be found off the coast. The reasons for this include overfishing and climate change, but he felt London and Brussels have not helped.
When Britain joined the then European Economic Community, the country opened its fishing waters to other states, which today catch more in UK waters than do UK boats. “I want change,” Brown said. “Hopefully we’ll get our fishing grounds back.”
Pay in the Whitby area has picked up since 2010, but still lags the British average. A higher-than-average share of people say they have no qualifications, and in the 2011 census, 97 percent gave their nationalities as white English or British variants.
Guest house and tea shop owner Alice Raven, 27, said she didn’t vote in the referendum but she sees more opportunities for England outside the EU. Her gothic-themed cafe plays on Whitby’s appeal as the site where the 19th-century novelist Bram Stoker brought his villain, Count Dracula, into England.
“I think leaving would be the best option,” she said, sitting next to a skeleton outside her tea rooms. “I don’t think you can trust any of the government at the moment.”
On the northwest coast, fisherwoman Margaret Owen, just back from delivering a batch of sprats to feed the seals in Blackpool Zoo, was boiling over at the politicians’ ignorance. She said it was preventing her from earning a living.
In the summer months Owen, 66, uses a haaf net, an ancient technique dating back to the Vikings to catch salmon and sea trout as they head upriver. The job is dangerous: Users manipulate a device like a cutdown soccer goal post while standing in deep, fast-running water. Owen has until recently been licensed to fish in this traditional way. But now salmon are an endangered species, and from this year she has been told that EU regulations mean she must discard any salmon she catches.
This, she says, is unrealistic, not least because she sometimes fishes at night.
“I stand in the water up to my chest,” she said. “It can be pitch black, turbulent, raining, sand’s going from under your feet. You get it (the fish) in the net, it goes right to the back of the net. You’ve got to catch it, kill it, and put it on your belt and let me tell you, I haven’t got time to say, ‘Are you a sea trout or a salmon?'”
Owen said she originally wanted out of the EU: “We were hoping for a change for everybody.” But now, she says she has changed her mind, because talks so far don’t look like delivering what the fishing industry hoped.
Other fishermen in Morecambe Bay gather shellfish, such as cockles and mussels, for export, mainly to southern Europe. Leaving could restrict their access to European markets, but two of them said they still wanted out, even though they worried about the potential impact on their business. UK cockle fisheries made over four million pounds in 2017.
The EU was originally set up for fair trading, said one of these fishermen, Michael Wilson, but it hasn’t worked out like that. “We’ve countries joining with no money and we were providing money, so it was time to get out or go independent, I think.”
The Leave vote cuts little ice in Brighton on the south coast, one of the few coastal towns with a clear majority in favor of remaining in Europe. In the wealthier part of town, almost three-quarters of voters wanted to stay in Europe.
“I believe that the Leave campaign was based entirely on lies and there was no way I was going to vote in support of that,” said Ruby McMahon, a 22-year-old literature graduate who works in a clothing store. She came to Brighton in 2015 to go to university, and said she stayed because she had been raised “in a very conservative backwards town.”
Brighton’s demographic profile is almost the mirror image of Skegness. People who live in the town, which houses the UK headquarters of American Express, earn more than the British average – almost 10 percent more in Brighton Pavilion, the richer part of town. The mean age, at 37, is younger than average, according to the 2011 census. Almost 40 percent are educated to the highest level, and around 20 percent of residents say their ethnicity is not white English or British.
McMahon – like the Ovingtons in Skegness – said her vote was partly driven by her aspirations for the future.
But where the Ovingtons want more opportunities at home, McMahon worries that Brexit will damage her chances of living and working outside England: Once outside the European Union, Britons may no longer enjoy freedom of movement.
“I’m scared of how badly handled it’s been,” she said. -Courtesy: Reuters

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