SEETHING PRO-BREXIT TOWN HAS SEC­OND THOUGHTS

Lo­cals in this old ship­build­ing city feel as if they will be left out of the mix.

Bangkok Post - - SUNDAY FORUM - By Ben­jamin Mueller

They train in a gym near the docks of this old ship­build­ing city, men who see cage fight­ing ei­ther as an es­cape from hard times or as a liveli­hood, bring­ing in a few hun­dred dol­lars ev­ery week­end. But lo­cal pro­grammes like the gym — which rely on a char­ity that gets Euro­pean Union funds for ne­glected com­mu­ni­ties — could soon be­come ca­su­al­ties of Bri­tain’s loom­ing split from the bloc. Even as the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment tries to shield big busi­nesses from the eco­nomic fall­out, many in Sun­der­land say, with some bit­ter­ness, it is once again ig­nor­ing the con­cerns of peo­ple like them.

“The City of Lon­don’s pro­tected at all costs,” said Steven France, who runs the gym, “but that’s no good for us on the out­posts of Eng­land.”

Two years af­ter the peo­ple of Sun­der­land voted 61 to 39% in a na­tional ref­er­en­dum for Bri­tain to ex­tract it­self from the Euro­pean Union, their anger at what they see as Bri­tain’s two-tiered econ­omy and in­dif­fer­ent political class has hardly cooled.

Where they once saw a vote to leave the Euro­pean Union as a way to strike a blow against the es­tab­lish­ment, they now see the process known as Brexit as just an­other bro­ken prom­ise made by the political elites.

Per­haps as a re­sult, some re­cent polls have shown a broad cool­ing of at­ti­tudes to­ward with­drawal, in Sun­der­land and other places that voted to leave. Many have come to doubt the prom­ises trum­peted by the Leave cam­paign, in­clud­ing new trade deals, an in­fu­sion of money into the health care sys­tem and com­plete in­de­pen­dence from the Euro­pean Union.

In in­ter­views, res­i­dents said that what Prime Minister Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment has done since the ref­er­en­dum — press­ing ahead with aus­ter­ity mea­sures, pre­sent­ing a busi­ness-friendly Brexit plan that fails to de­liver all the promised ben­e­fits — only re­in­forced the sense that their needs were be­ing ig­nored. The re­sent­ment runs strong­est among hard-line sup­port­ers of Brexit, who want a clean break with the bloc.

“She should lis­ten to what the vot­ers said and come out — just come out — like the north­east said to,” Matthew New­ton, a 62-year-old re­tired coun­cil em­ployee, said over a beer at a pub, the Pea­cock, re­fer­ring to Ms May. “She thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll see what the ones in Lon­don say.’ But we’re a part of Eng­land, too.”

With a pop­u­la­tion of just over 275,000 on the blus­tery coast of the North Sea, Sun­der­land is the 28th-most de­prived city or town in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to a gov­ern­ment mea­sure re­leased in 2016, with nearly a third of chil­dren there grow­ing up in poverty. It has been hit hard by pub­lic spend­ing cuts as part of the Con­ser­va­tive-led gov­ern­ment’s aus­ter­ity pro­gramme. It is also in the re­gion whose econ­omy stands to be wal­loped worst by Brexit: Nearly 60% of ex­ports from the north­east go to the Euro­pean Union.

Peo­ple de­scribed the 2016 ref­er­en­dum as a chance to get Lon­don’s at­ten­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tions of elected lead­ers ne­glected its sag­ging econ­omy, which was dev­as­tated af­ter the ship­build­ing in­dus­try col­lapsed and the mines closed.

The vote was os­ten­si­bly a protest against the obli­ga­tions of EU mem­ber­ship, es­pe­cially pro­vi­sions that al­low cit­i­zens of any mem­ber state to live and work in Bri­tain. But it also re­flected re­sent­ment to­ward the political elite and prom­ises that the mem­ber­ship fees sent to the Euro­pean Union would be used for Bri­tons in­stead.

Many in Sun­der­land say they are grow­ing in­creas­ingly doubt­ful that those prom­ises will be ful­filled, and mind­ful that north­east­ern Eng­land has re­ceived con­sid­er­able fund­ing from the Euro­pean Union — about $445 mil­lion (14.6 bil­ion baht), for the pe­riod from 2014 to 2020, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal of­fi­cials.

They credit the gov­ern­ment for sav­ing jobs at a Nis­san plant in Sun­der­land, Bri­tain’s largest car fac­tory, which ex­ports more than half its cars to other EU coun­tries. Af­ter Nis­san hinted at pulling in­vest­ments from the fac­tory fol­low­ing the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, the gov­ern­ment re­sponded with mea­sures to pro­tect the carmaker from neg­a­tive eco­nomic im­pact. But res­i­dents said that step alone was mea­ger in the face of plum­met­ing ben­e­fits, ris­ing food prices and loom­ing uncer­tainty across the work­force, which in the north­east is heav­ily de­pen­dent on ex­ports to Euro­pean coun­tries that could be­come costlier af­ter Brexit.

Thiemo Fet­zer, an eco­nomics pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of War­wick, has found that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple voted for Brexit not be­cause they were ide­o­log­i­cally op­posed to the Euro­pean Union, but rather be­cause they wanted a way to protest af­ter aus­ter­ity cuts had left them feel­ing ig­nored by the gov­ern­ment. Those same vot­ers, he says, are now the most sus­cep­ti­ble to doubts about Brexit be­ing the best path for­ward, sug­gest­ing that, for them, pock­et­book is­sues out­weigh ide­ol­ogy.

Per­haps re­flect­ing those chang­ing at­ti­tudes was well-re­garded work by Sur­va­tion, a re­search firm, that showed sup­port for leav­ing had fallen around 10 per­cent­age points in Sun­der­land since the ref­er­en­dum. This was not a tra­di­tional opin­ion poll, how­ever, but an es­ti­mate based on re­sponses from 20,000 peo­ple na­tion­wide that were com­bined with in­for­ma­tion about the de­mo­graph­ics and vot­ing his­tory of lo­cal ar­eas.

At Pop Recs, a mu­sic shop and cafe near the bus de­pot, three peo­ple who voted to stay in the Euro­pean Union were de­bat­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum.

Barry Cor­nell, 42, wor­ried an­other pub­lic vote risked re­viv­ing the far-right UK In­de­pen­dence Party, which played a ma­jor role in the Brexit cam­paign. But the shop’s pro­pri­etor, Dave Harper, said he did not much care whom a ref­er­en­dum an­gered, so long as it re­versed Brexit.

Laura Brewis, 37, an arts or­gan­iser and fundraiser sit­ting be­side Mr Cor­nell at the counter, lamented that elected lead­ers had said noth­ing for years about the EU fund­ing that came to Sun­der­land.

Grants from the bloc have con­trib­uted to an aquatic cen­tre and a univer­sity cam­pus, and helped un­der­write a busi­ness cen­tre that as­sists as­pir­ing soft­ware en­trepreneurs, though these ameni­ties are not al­ways within reach for res­i­dents.

In a square in the city cen­tre, a mon­u­ment fea­tures the ship­yard work­ers who once made Sun­der­land the largest ship­build­ing hub in the world. It looks like a lo­cal project through and through, ex­cept for a small bronze plaque nearby cov­ered in brown­ing grass.

De­scrib­ing the source of some fund­ing, it fea­tures not a Union Jack, but the flag of the Euro­pean Union.

LAST OUT­POST: Pedes­tri­ans walk through the Bridges shop­ping com­plex in Sun­der­land. Many see Brexit as an­other ex­am­ple of bro­ken prom­ises.

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