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