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SIX YEARS ago this week, the outcome of the Brexit vote confounded the political class, changing many long-held assumptions about the political map of Britain.
Struggling to make sense of the geography of Brexit, pundits quickly seized upon the idea that the Brexit vote had been delivered by those in “left behind” communities, with a common claim being that the legacies of deindustrialisation and manufacturing decline, and subsequent decades of disinvestment, had fomented a fundamental political discontent.
Those who voted to leave Europe were depicted as voting against Westminster as much as they were voting against Brussels.
However, quickly drawn conclusions that Brexit voters were predominantly drawn from white, working-class communities in provincial “left behind” regions — and the converse identification of Remainers as middle-class “cosmopolitan urbanites” — have been subsequently refuted by more nuanced academic analyses.
These suggest a weak relationship between Brexit voting tendencies and deprivation, with the idea that we now live in a country where someone’s class predicts their attitudes to the EU appearing flawed given nearly half of those in higher managerial middle-class positions also supported Leave.
Age and education appear to have been better predictors of voting behaviour than occupation and class, with older, less-educated people more persuaded by the Leave campaign argument that EU membership had undermined national political autonomy and cultural identity.
But one thing immediately obvious about Brexit was that it was about Englishness rather than Britishness or the idea of the UK as a whole.
Scotland voted 62 per cent Remain and Northern Ireland 56 per cent as opposed to England voting 53.4 per cent to Leave, while Welsh-speaking regions of Wales also had high Remain votes.
Telling here were the post-Brexit surveys which showed those voters who described themselves as English rather than British were more than 70 per cent in favour of Brexit. The Leave mantra of “taking back control” worked for these voters precisely because it appealed to nostalgic nationalist sentiments, suggesting that EU membership was an unwelcome interruption to our “island story.”
The language of Leave hence drew on rich repository of bellicose nationalism, its broad, sunny uplands invoking a green and pleasant land, long-defended by our so-called “national heroes” — Churchill, Bobby Moore, Vera Lynn, Lord Nelson, James Bond and the rest.
As an exiled “man of Kent” what struck me is how often the Leave campaign also invoked the landscape of the county of my birth. Images of refugees arriving on the county’s shores, in the shadow of the famous White Cliffs, appeared particularly potent.
The fact that increasing numbers managed to evade cross channel patrols, and were pictured standing on Kent beaches, allowed some sections of the pro-Brexit media to discourse a de facto “invasion” (one article in The Sun carried a photo that it claimed captured “The Moment Migrants Storm Kent Beaches,” invoking militaristic metaphors of national defence having been breached).
At the same time, the HGVs stacked up on the M20 motorway, causing interminable delays, were blamed on French port strikes, or the bureaucratic excesses of the EU.
Foreign lorry drivers, lacking basic parking facilities, were accused of despoiling the English countryside with excrement and urine. The Garden of England was redubbed the Toilet of England. Tellingly, on Brexit Day (31st January 2020), the white cliffs of Dover appeared on the front of the Daily Mail’s Brexit souvenir edition which hailed “A New Dawn for Britain.”
Later that day, Dover’s Tory MP Natalie Elphicke shared Twitter footage of a celebratory fireworks party on the cliffs that she claimed would be visible from Calais, held partly in response to the cliffs being used as the backdrop for anti-Brexit messages.
This figuring of Kent as the front line in the “battle” with the EU was then significant in the run-up to Brexit. Since then, the county has continued to attract media headlines, with the conjuncture of Covid-19 (the “Kent variant”) and the “migrant crisis” putting the county into the spotlight like never before.
Much of this coverage has revealed that the county is paying a high price for Brexit, with several villages now having “inland border” facilities on their doorstep, creating noise and light pollution 24/7; delays on the county’s motorways have continued, with an astounding £69 million spent on Operation Brock (the M20 contraflow system intended to cope with HGV queues) between 2016 and 2020 alone; the county’s fruit production has dwindled as foreign labour has departed and aquaculture has been hit by an EU-live shellfish ban.
Around 59 per cent of Kent’s population voted to Leave. No doubt many of these believed that severing ties with Europe would help economic revival by preventing the influx of foreign migrants prepared to work for less than British nationals.
But the P&O affair has surely debunked such myths: it is not EU legislation that allowed P&O to sack 800 workers without notice but legislation passed by Chris Grayling in 2018.
With Dover’s P&O ferries being registered in the Bahamas and Cyprus and the company owned by Dubai-based DP World, it shows that UK labour laws and not EU membership are to blame for recent job losses in the county.
The recent problems witnessed in Dover are symptomatic of the “race-to-the-bottom” capitalism that the Conservative Party has encouraged through its anti-union reforms — reforms that have left employees with little recourse in the event of unfair and unjust redundancy.
Though Kent is still a relatively affluent place and many who voted for Leave were no doubt confident the county would prosper in the post-Brexit era, the recent wave of redundancies at Dover and real-terms pay cuts elsewhere, remind us that the pursuit of exclusionary nationalism and severing political ties with Europe was never likely to restore the fortunes of the poorest populations in society.
Indeed, exclusionary nationalism is arguably part of the problem not the solution: the contemporary crises of global income inequality, climate-induced displacement and corporate social irresponsibility increasingly require us to work across international borders, not harden them.
While it was entirely conceivable that post-Brexit Britain could have advanced labour rights by connecting in a progressive way to international labour movements, for Boris Johnson and his political allies getting Brexit “done” was never about making a better Britain: it was simply a means to seize power by selling a dream of an England that never was.
Borderland: identity and belonging at the edge of England will be published by Manchester University Press in July — all royalties are donated to the Kent Refugee Action Network.
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