Puz­zled by the Brexit vote? Take your­self off to Blak­e­nall Heath

The Guardian - - LETTERS - Giles Fraser

The phone went one Sun­day evening. It was the bishop of Wolver­hamp­ton, my then boss. There was this job he couldn’t find any­one to do. Would I go and look af­ter a parish to the north of Wal­sall called Blak­e­nall Heath? Big barn of a church, no money, strug­gling. Just for a bit, he said. I’d like you to pack up and go there in a cou­ple of weeks. We did, with a new baby and no idea what we were let­ting our­selves in for.

Peo­ple gen­er­ally didn’t go to Blak­e­nall Heath un­less they came from there. Unem­ployed men would sit around in their front gar­dens on dis­carded so­fas, look­ing bored. Some of my parish­ioners spent all day in their dress­ing gowns. Burned-out cars dec­o­rated the road­side. Back then the vicarage was ringed by flats whose res­i­dents would fre­quently shoot at each other with air ri­fles. At night, the pel­lets would ping off our roof. Even the lo­cal po­lice didn’t like go­ing into Blak­e­nall Heath. It was treated as a ghetto.

Blak­e­nall Heath seethed with the anger of the un­heard. And that anger found its way into my bones. It wasn’t just about the poverty. It was deeper than that. As the months went by, I be­gan to get some sense of what it felt like when no­body lis­tened to or cared in the slight­est about what you said. It felt like no one gave a shit. Ev­ery now and again the place would show up on some list of crap towns for posh peo­ple to snig­ger at. Other than that, you weren’t no­ticed.

In Blak­e­nall Heath my pol­i­tics changed. Both the­o­log­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally, my stu­dent lib­er­al­ism had few an­swers for a place like this. In­deed, I be­gan to sus­pect that the broadly pro­gres­sive ver­sion of cap­i­tal­ism that I had ac­cepted might even be a part of the prob­lem. These weren’t the “left be­hinds” – a term that im­plies that with a quick hop and a skip they might just catch up. This place was the in­evitable byprod­uct – waste prod­uct, even – of mar­ket forces, and the price that more pros­per­ous parts of the coun­try had se­cretly ac­cepted as worth pay­ing for the many other ben­e­fits that cap­i­tal­ism de­liv­ered to them. The prob­lem was sys­temic.

In Wal­sall, 67.9% voted leave in the ref­er­en­dum, on a huge turnout. And then, this year, they voted out Wal­sall North’s long­stand­ing Labour MP, David Win­nick, who had cam­paigned to re­main in the EU. Re­main­ers will never un­der­stand what went on here if they think it’s just about money. Homo eco­nomi­cus – who seeks to op­ti­mise their eco­nomic prospects through ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est – doesn’t live in Blak­e­nall Heath. Homo eco­nomi­cus doesn’t buy his cooker through weekly in­stal­ments at Bright House at 69.9% APR. A re­main cam­paigner told me about a doorstep en­counter he had on a bomb­site of a coun­cil es­tate in the Mid­lands. “You have a lot to lose fi­nan­cially if we leave the EU,” he ex­plained, ra­tio­nally.

“Oh, yes,” she ges­tured to her run-down

It seethed with the anger of the un­heard … It wasn’t just about poverty. It was deeper than that

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