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Listen carefully to the Brexiteers

09 September 2016

Many of the poorest people voted to be even worse off, says Paul Vallely

I HAD an unworthy thought this week. I was listening to Brexit Street, a regular BBC radio slot of vox pops among the residents of Thornaby, on Teesside. The area, which voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union, is just ten minutes away from where I grew up. I recognised the voices, but the views they offered were so spectacularly ill-informed that they brought to mind Churchill’s celebrated dictum about democracy’s being the worst form of government.

The residents variously said that they had voted Out because the country had gone to the dogs with all the asylum-seekers who wouldn’t work, and with the steel industry closing. All the EU had ever done for us was a bit of free butter from the butter mountain. The north-east had been ignored for decades. And MPs were just lining their own pockets.

Some of this is true, but is nothing to do with the EU — which has given more regional-development money to the north-east than anywhere else in the UK. Some of it is downright wrong: it is British law that forbids asylum-seekers from working.

Should such people have been allowed a vote? This was my unworthy thought. Or, I then reflected, should David Cameron have been such an arrant fool as to allow a yes/no referendum on so complex an issue — and then be so maladroit as to allow his populist opponents to caricature the EU in the way that they did?

And yet . . . before the vote, I heard one Nissan worker say that his bosses had told him that a Leave vote could jeopardise 6000 jobs at his plant in Sunderland, and 30,000 more in the supply chain. He still voted Out, saying “Sometimes being worse off is a price worth paying.”

A price worth paying: the arguments advanced by Joe Average may have been dodgy, but perhaps we need to read between the lines. In General Elections, only votes in swing constituencies really matter, but in a referendum, every vote counts. Given a voice, ordinary people shouted that they wanted to take back control of their own destiny, which globalisation has stolen away (Comment, 1 July).

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week articulated that cry more lucidly. It revealed that Brexit voters were far more likely to be low-paid, unemployed, or lacking educational qualifications. All of that dooms their children to poor cognitive development, low skills, bad housing, high-cost debt, and a shorter life. The report sets out an action plan for government, employers, and councils to remedy this.

The Japanese government this week issued a 15-page list of demands, seeking to protect the interests of Nissan and other Japanese firms in the UK. Its ambassador here called for our Prime Minister to offer a “well thought-through consideration” of the issues, before formal talks on withdrawal begin. It was in everyone’s interest to make Brexit as successful as possible, he said.

”Everyone”, Theresa May should remember, includes the ordinary people of Thornaby, and similar parts of the country, whose howl of rage has brought us to this pass.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.

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