Bri­tain’s most ar­dent Brexit city shows a coun­try on the brink

Gulf Times Business - - BUSINESS -

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

The city, 135 miles (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 glob­al­i­sa­tion 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 per­cent 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 per­cent in favour of leav­ing the EU. What fol­lowed was po­lit­i­cal in­er­tia as the UK got con­sumed by the process of ne­go­ti­at­ing an exit deal. And now comes more anger and re­sent­ment while the prospect of an eco­nom­i­cally ru­inous “nodeal 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 UK’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% lower than the UK 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% 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 politi- cal elite are will­fully 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 UK 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Qatar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.