Brexit has di­vided Bri­tain and put both sides on edge


National Post (National Edition) - - WORLD - Jess shankle­man and Thomas Penny

As Bri­tish politi­cians con­front the threat of a chaotic Brexit and calls for a re­run of the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, the china plates in Par­lia­ment’s tea rooms carry a timely re­minder of the per­ils of democ­racy: “Made in Stoke-on-Trent.”

The city, 217 kilo­me­tres north of the Palace of West­min­ster in Lon­don and once the heart of the world’s pot­tery in­dus­try, is a po­tent sym­bol of the gulf be­tween politi­cians and the peo­ple who put them in power. Left be­hind by glob­al­iza­tion and ne­glected by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments, no city voted for Brexit more em­phat­i­cally.

The mood in Stoke now en­cap­su­lates the risks facing politi­cians of all stripes with the coun­try in tur­moil over how to fol­low through on the vote to leave the Eu­ro­pean Union. Brexit is due at the end of March and Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s deal is on course for a cat­a­strophic de­feat in Par­lia­ment next week. A grow­ing num­ber of her Con­ser­va­tives now be­lieve the only way out of the cri­sis will be to call an­other vote and let the peo­ple de­cide.

Time and a di­vided elec­torate’s pa­tience are run­ning out. The po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, mean­while, grows more febrile.

Pock­ets of pro­test­ers at West­min­ster have be­come the norm, some with EU flags and oth­ers with Bri­tish ones. But this week it just got nas­tier as one mem­ber of par­lia­ment was jos­tled and called a Nazi for back­ing a se­cond ref­er­en­dum to break the na­tional im­passe. Some peo­ple in Stoke say politi­cians need to think hard about what they might un­leash.

“There would be vi­o­lence all over the coun­try, far left, far right, skin­heads,” said Kevin McCor­mack, 59, stand­ing along from a pa­rade of stores in the Stoke sub­urb of Ben­tilee, which is sta­tis­ti­cally among the 10 per cent most de­prived neigh­bour­hoods of Eng­land. “All these MPs work for us sup­pos­edly, they’re sup­posed to do what we ask them. Peo­ple are sick and tired of be­ing told what we can and can’t do.”

These are dark days in Bri­tain. The fi­nan­cial cri­sis and en­su­ing govern­ment aus­ter­ity drive left their mark on the coun­try. Then the Brexit vote threw up the op­por­tu­nity for a pop­ulist re­bel­lion and a cry for help. The na­tion was split 52 to 48 per cent in favour of leav­ing the EU. What fol­lowed was po­lit­i­cal in­er­tia as the U.K. got con­sumed by the process of ne­go­ti­at­ing an exit deal. And now comes more anger and re­sent­ment while the prospect of an eco­nom­i­cally ru­inous “no-deal Brexit” in­creases.

It helps ex­plain why even some of those who want to re­main in the EU are skit­tish about a se­cond ref­er­en­dum, which will be­come an ur­gent ques­tion if, as ex­pected, May’s deal is de­feated and Par­lia­ment wrests con­trol of the Brexit process from her mi­nor­ity govern­ment.

For two years, anti-Brexit cam­paign­ers have been pin­ning their hopes on an­other vote to over­turn the re­sult of the first. Now, with the House of Com­mons dead­locked and the U.K.’s exit just two months away, even May sees that it might hap­pen as a na­tional cam­paign for a “Peo­ple’s Vote” gath­ers pace.

But would a new ref­er­en­dum heal the wounds of a coun­try al­ready at war with it­self? May has re­peat­edly cited first time vot­ers who would feel be­trayed when she has re­jected pleas from par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to hold an­other vote. There’s pal­pa­ble fear over what might hap­pen if the elec­torate’s wishes are frus­trated.

The bit­ter­ness comes through in Stoke, where gross weekly pay is 16 per cent lower than the U.K. av­er­age and a greater pro­por­tion of peo­ple is likely to rely on so­cial se­cu­rity hand­outs. Al­most 9,000 more peo­ple turned out to vote in the ref­er­en­dum than in the gen­eral elec­tion a year ear­lier. Just short of 70 per cent chose to leave, more than any other Bri­tish city. Now they want to see re­sults.

“These are peo­ple who felt dis­en­fran­chised from the po­lit­i­cal process, they’ve opted in and are now wait­ing to see if there’s any point,” said Ruth Smeeth, who is the mem­ber of par­lia­ment for Stoke North.

She op­poses a se­cond ref­er­en­dum even though her Labour Party has said it might sup­port one if it can’t trig­ger a gen­eral elec­tion. “If it looks like the po­lit­i­cal elite are wil­fully ig­nor­ing the ma­jor­ity of the gen­eral pub­lic they’ll stop trust­ing politi­cians, and when that re­la­tion­ship breaks down noth­ing good comes from it.”

In­deed, na­tion­al­ist groups have sought to ex­ploit the anger. Far-right ac­tivist Tommy Robin­son, now an ad­viser to the pro-Brexit U.K. In­de­pen­dence Party, used his so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing to build sup­port for marches on the streets of Lon­don that led to clashes with po­lice and counter-pro­test­ers.

The 2016 ref­er­en­dum cam­paign it­self is also remembered in Bri­tain for the bru­tal mur­der of Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labour MP. She was killed by a far-right ex­trem­ist a week be­fore the vote. Sev­eral politi­cians have re­ceived death threats since. A spike in hate crimes was recorded im­me­di­ately after the Brexit ref­er­en­dum and has been on an up­ward trend since.

“It’s the coars­en­ing of po­lit­i­cal de­bate that’s oc­curred as re­sult of the move to the ex­tremes on both sides of the de­bate in the U.K.,” said Guto Bebb, a mem­ber of the gov­ern­ing Con­ser­va­tive Party who re­signed as a min­is­ter over Brexit and has had peo­ple protest­ing out­side his home. He blamed Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn for al­low­ing ten­sions to flare up on the left of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. “And Brexit has done the same for the right.”

This week, po­lice stepped up their pres­ence around Par­lia­ment after pro-EU Con­ser­va­tive Anna Soubry was mobbed and called a Nazi on live tele­vi­sion. Though May con­demned the abuse, Brexit Sec­re­tary Stephen Bar­clay said the in­ci­dent was an­other rea­son to avoid a se­cond EU ref­er­en­dum.

A sur­vey of 2,158 adults by YouGov in Oc­to­ber found that 31 per cent thought there was a risk of “civil un­rest” should there be an­other vote and Bri­tain failed to leave the EU. The fig­ure was 50 per cent among Brexit vot­ers.

That said, among Stoke’s 270,000 pop­u­la­tion there’s a mix of anger and ap­a­thy. The risk is that vot­ers en­er­gized by Brexit might just give up.

“What’s the point?” asks Ken­neth Runt, 48, an en­gi­neer do­ing some gro­cery shop­ping in the dis­trict of Ben­tilee, which was de­vel­oped in the 1950s and was one of Europe’s largest hous­ing projects at the time. “If they don’t get the re­sult they want they’ll just have an­other one.”

While polls show grow­ing sup­port for a se­cond ref­er­en­dum across the coun­try, Stoke doesn’t seem to be budg­ing. Three-quar­ters of the emails lo­cal MP Smeeth re­ceived from con­stituents over the Christ­mas holidays urged her to sup­port leav­ing the EU on the sched­uled date of March 29 re­gard­less of whether May’s Brexit deal is passed in par­lia­ment.

The city’s strug­gle to adapt to eco­nomic change has driven op­po­si­tion to the EU and its com­mit­ment to free move­ment of peo­ple, which has al­lowed mi­grant work­ers par­tic­u­larly from eastern Europe to en­ter the labour mar­ket. The ceram­ics in­dus­try, which em­ployed 50,000 a gen­er­a­tion ago, is now down to just 7,000 peo­ple.

A decade ago, the farright Bri­tish Na­tional Party won seats in Stoke’s mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment as vot­ers protested they had been ig­nored by politi­cians from main­stream par­ties. Smeeth, a for­mer direc­tor of an antiex­trem­ist group, said par­ties across the coun­try need to re-en­gage with vot­ers to stop history be­ing re­peated.

“We cre­ated the BNP, we al­lowed a vac­uum and they filled it,” she said. “That’s why we’ve got such a re­spon­si­bil­ity in this un­set­tling pe­riod of our na­tional story.”



Stoke-on-Trent, once the heart of Bri­tain’s pot­tery in­dus­try, has seen some hard times of late and voted over­whelm­ingly in favour of Brexit. It has be­come a sym­bol of the gulf be­tween politi­cians and the peo­ple who put them in power.

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