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Brexit — what people think now

14 March 2019

Adam Becket and Hattie Williams heard reactions to this week’s Commons votes


St Botolph’s Church, Boston

St Botolph’s Church, Boston

Boston, Lincolnshire

Leave: Boston recorded the highest majority of Brexit voters in the country — 75.6 per cent of the town voted to leave the EU

THE mood in the town has not changed, the Team Rector of Boston, the Revd Alyson Buxton, said on Tuesday before MPs voted down the Prime Minister’s deal a second time; but there has been huge frustration and uncertainty about the political process.

“We are all bored with it, fed up to the back teeth of it; because, actually, we just need some kind of steer about what is going to happen.

“We have no idea what a no-deal Brexit means or what that looks like. We have no idea who to believe in terms of what the future might hold in that case. . . The town hasn’t changed in terms of how it voted: if there was another referendum and it went Remain, after everything the town has been through in the past few years, it would concern me in terms of civil unrest in the town.”

Frustration was still the chief emotion of the day, she said on Wednesday, after Tuesday’s vote.

“Everybody is going about their day job of caring for people regardless of the political situation; but there is a huge sense of complete and utter frustration and bewilderment. We were shocked when the referendum vote came through. This morning, it is, ‘My goodness, what on earth is going on?’

“There is no consensus about anything, everybody has their own little ideas. The benefit of the nation is almost coming second in this discussion. The people’s vote would be so divisive, especially if it went the other way. We don’t need that kind of polarised division now.”

She was in favour of a second referendum. “I would like to vote again, because we all have facts, actually, to stay. It was almost a protest vote last time for some people. It would be different now, but that doesn’t mean to say that it would be the right move.”

Ms Buxton voted Remain in 2016. It took her 18 months to tell her congregation, she said, “because, at the time, it was quite a powerful situation, and people in the town thought that [Brexit] would just happen overnight, and that the population [from the EU] would go home. But we have children in schools who have been born in this country; it wasn’t about where people had come from, it was the fact that our population grew so fast so quickly.

“If we had had 10,000 people moving from Newcastle to Boston it would have been the same; it was just that we needed people for the jobs. Unemployment is very low. I know the factories rely on the economic migrants to help with the work.”

Promises made by the Vote Leave campaign to curb immigration had been a key incentive for the Brexit landslide, she said. Boston had a high proportion of Eastern Europeans: three-quarters of rough-sleepers in the parish are Eastern European, which had “complicated” the place of the Church in reconciliation.

“Because they are foreign nationals, they don’t get the housing allowance and help that they need.”

The Church’s role had been to “stand in the gap”, she said. Since last September, St Botolph’s had been serving breakfasts to 40 to 50 people every morning and lending the pews as beds. “We do all we can. We have a multilingual chapel, for example, and service sheets in translation; we have a coffee-shop chat for people of all languages to come together formally.”

She continued: “The vision of our church is to be a place of hospitality, and at times that is complicated because not everybody is hospitable to one another. That is not just UK to eastern European people, but between European migrants, too. . .

“We want a resolution. It is a topic of conversation. Because people are getting so fluent in their arguments for and against it is really hard to pick — everything sounds sensible.”


Edinburgh, Scotland

Remain: More than 62 per cent of the 1.66 million people who voted in the EU referendum in Scotland voted to remain. This included 74.4 per cent in Edinburgh

IN HIS retirement, the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Rt Revd David Chillingworth, is looking after a congregation in Newington, in central Edinburgh. Speaking on Wednesday, after MPs voted down Mrs May’s deal, he said that the biggest concern that Brexit held for the city was the threat to diversity.

“It is immediately and obviously ethnically diverse to a marked extent in Edinburgh, and Scotland generally. In the area and in the congregation, there are a significant number of international students, mostly post-graduate at Edinburgh University.

“Not surprisingly, there are significant levels of concern about changes that would make that diversity difficult to sustain; that would threaten it. General issues about immigration and student fees, most are unknowable; none the less, they matter deeply because, as a congregation, we have been learning to prize and affirm that diversity.”

There was also a sense of separation from England in terms of political passion, he said. “In the congregation, I pick up what I think is generic in Scotland, and that is a sense that this is something which is happening somewhere else. . . that this is not an issue that people in Scotland have sought, and, therefore, [there is] a sense of slight helplessness; also, that, whatever the issues for Scotland may be in the future, they lie in the future, and we just have to wait while this plays itself out.”

This did not, however, equate to a lack of interest or investment in the process, he emphasised. “Edinburgh is very sophisticated politically and in every other way; we are very closely linked to what, here, we call down south.

“Clearly, there are Leave supporters here; but the overall tenor of Scottish politics is much more inclined towards positive attitudes to Europe and immigration, which obviously is not the case everywhere in the UK; but then Scotland hasn’t seen the levels of immigration which have been seen in other places; so it is not strictly comparable.”

The implications on academic and medical research were strong concerns, but these were part of a series of “micro-issues” next to the “big, big stuff” going on in Westminster of which the implications were unknown, he said.

ISTOCKLuton Airport

Luton, Bedfordshire

Leave: Luton voted 56.5 per cent to leave the EU

THE Vicar of All Saints with St Peter, Luton, the Revd David Kesterton, said on Wednesday that faith leaders were alert to tensions and potential unrest in the coming weeks.

“Overall, people are exasperated, and some fearful, about the possible implications. I’m not sure if there is a clear view on the appetite for a second referendum. . . The local authority are asking us, as faith leaders, to be alert to any possible rise in community tension, including hostilities towards the migrant communities here. We are always alert to the possibility of an increase in such activity by the far-Right groups.”

As in Boston, immigration had been a major factor in determining the Leave vote. “Because we are a very multicultural community, there are lots of people moving in and out all the time. The immigration factor was key for people settled here, given the limited resources for public services.

“A lot of people were persuaded that putting a stricter cap on immigration would allow more resources to go around, such as the health service, school places, etc.”

The town has a high population of South-Asian Muslims, many of whom voted to leave, and Eastern Europeans, including a large Roma community. The Roma community remained particularly anxious about the future, he said. The church had been a meeting space for the Luton Roma Trust.

“The Red Cross here do a lot of work with people who are migrants and don’t have the right to remain; there is obviously anxiety about how they will be affected.

The shadow of the far-Right has hung over the town in recent years, and clergy at All Saints’ and neighbouring churches have been involved in pushing the Church’s message of peace and reconciliation.

“There was a concern that the referendum and what follows it might lead to an upsurge in [far-Right activity]. We work very closely with the police community-cohesion team in Bedfordshire, and there was some indication early on that there might be a little bit, but not as much as we had feared. . . Unfortunately, we have a bit of a history in the town of this going on.”

This includes action from the English Defence League and Britain First a couple of years ago. “We were very active in reassuring the community, especially the Muslim community here, that we would all stand together — that we would not be divided by some of the rhetoric that was coming out.

“That took quite a lot of time and effort for some of us working on the front line; that has been less time consuming in the past 18 months or so, but we are aware it could come back.”

ISTOCKThe dreaming spires of Oxford


Remain: Oxford voted 70 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU

COMMUNITIES in the city, including a significant population of EU citizens, were still desperate to remain, the Assistant Curate at St Clement’s, Oxford, the Revd Philip Lockley, said on Tuesday.

“This is a very strongly remain area; our congregation is very international, including several EU citizens and families, but there has been worry, insecurity, concern, and doubt that has gone beyond those in the congregation who are EU citizens. The aftermath has been for all nationalities. People from African countries, for example, have felt less welcome, wondering where they belong.”

There had been no local activism, he said, because “It is like a nightmare, and people want to wake up.” The city was questioning what could be done.

“It is not a case of let’s just get it over and done with. The opinion is that this is such a mistake, and we need to find a way of remaining. . . EU membership is the best deal for Oxford for all the major employers, industries, and ways of working.”

He himself had voted Remain, but he had been ministering in strong leave areas in County Durham at the time of the referendum. “I have sought to bring a Leave perspective [to the congregation in Oxford] — my own experience of needing to minister in a Leave area, while profoundly disagreeing, and overcoming that by listening and seeking to understand and reconcile.

“While we might feel here in Oxford quite a distance from many Leave areas, the understanding that we are a country that is so divided that we need to find a way of talking to each other and bridging those differences. . .

“For those in my congregation who are EU citizens, that has been very difficult to hear, because they have taken the vote and the whole experience of the past three years as a personal rejection of them.

“It is personal for me as well: my family were refugees from Germany in the 1930s; the EU project for me is a way we prevent that from ever happening again.”

ISTOCKA view of Wrexham

Wrexham, Wales

Leave: Wrexham, in north Wales, voted 59 per cent to leave the EU

A TEAM Vicar in Wrexham, the Revd Sarah Errington, said on Tuesday that Brexit had taken a back-seat next to the pressing issue of homelessness. “I very rarely talk with anyone about Brexit, because it is so divisive, and everybody has a strong opinion.

“Homelessness is a big issue in Wrexham, which is much more on people’s doorsteps and in their faces. I know people who have to deal with homeless people on their doorsteps. . . whereas Brexit is out there, and people do not feel like there is anything they can do as individuals about it.

“People care, but it is less tangible, and less immediate. People have lost patience with politicians. I haven’t been aware of any campaigns in Wrexham; I haven’t seen any European flags or Brexit stuff around town.”

The focus in the diocese was more on ministering to local issues than on reconciliation. “We have a lot of work focused on homelessness and human trafficking. . . Nobody has said much about a second [referendum] at all.

“There is a feeling of being left behind here. . . that Wales has been ruled by London for centuries, and that not a lot of what people do here matters in London. I get the sense that that was why there was a majority leave vote.”

ISTOCKBrixton Village Market, in Lambeth

Lambeth, London

Remain: Almost 60 per cent (59.9 per cent) of the 3.8 million people in London who voted in the referendum voted to remain. In Lambeth, the Remain vote was the highest in the country: 78.6 per cent

THE Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lambeth, the Revd William Wilson, who voted Remain, said on Tuesday that the UK was “crazy” to be stepping away from the EU. He did not want a second referendum, however.

“I think it is still the case that the majority [of the country] are in favour of leaving: it is appropriate that we should leave on good terms, and do the democratic thing. I’m not happy with the idea of a second referendum — it would make a divided country even more divided.”

Though Brexit was not a major topic of conversation in his congregation, the view in Lambeth was clear: “It is rare to find anybody in favour of Brexit in Lambeth. I’m aware of people who do want a second referendum; they argue that people didn’t know the enormity of the impact of leaving, and they’re probably right — nobody talked about the costs.

“We haven’t had a massive consciousness in our congregation of a division over Brexit, it hasn’t been an everyday problem. . . There is probably a sadness at [the] lack of a national unity approach from politicians. . . There is a sort of a bemused amazement at what they’re doing, but also a sense of resignation.”

The Government should have gone with the negotiated deal, he said; a no-deal outcome would be “tragic”. “It is extraordinary that the situation has been allowed to get to this point. . . I’m hoping for a situation that creates the least amount of economic damage.”

ISTOCKA seaside view of St Austell

St Austell, Cornwall

Leave: Cornwall voted 56.5 per cent to leave the EU. St Austell is one of the largest towns in Cornwall, with a population of about 20,000

REMAIN campaigners and pollsters were common in the streets, the Vicar of St Austell, the Revd Howard Flint, said on Wednesday, and there were “undoubtedly” people on both sides who had changed their views.

None the less, “St Austell, like the rest of Cornwall generally, is still quite determined to leave: it is what they voted for. There is immense frustration with the process.

“Cornwall has a strong self-identity; quite recently, there was a push for Cornish independence.” The Cornish identity was not English, he said. “Despite the fact we are holistically part of the UK in every way, there is a strong local feel.”

Brexit had polarised communities irrespective of age, gender, or political party. “It hasn’t been a unifying process, the question itself wasn’t unifying; the binary choice of in or out framed the whole thing. I see division and discontent with the process.”

This was partly due to the location of Cornwall — 330 miles from London — and a “sense of self-determination” to have a voice, and bring power back to the far corners of the country, Mr Wilson said.

“There has been a fracturing in the UK, and we have been part of that. In London, the sense of being together, the ethnic mix, is not found here. It is all about power, or a feeling of powerlessness. When the power is focused so far away, in London, in Brussels, the people here feel disempowered. People [are] saying ‘Let’s get the power back’ — not destructively, but self-determining.”

There was certainty amid the anxiety, however. “We get the sense that God is working well here. I don’t think this is a catastrophe or a disaster — I don’t think the fabric of society is falling apart. . . We are working together very closely with other churches in the town, which creates unity in contrast to the disunity of Brexit; we’re countering the angst.”

He prayed for Mrs May and politicians, he said. “These MPs need immense wisdom in all of these votes.”

ISTOCKA historic pottery factory in Stoke-on-Trent

Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Leave: The town in central England voted 69.4 per cent to leave the EU

WHILE Brexit was “vitally important” to the community three years ago, and views had not changed, other issues, such as jobs and housing, had become more pressing, a Team Vicar in Stoke-on-Trent, the Revd Geoff Eze, said.

“The length of time and the parliamentary back and forth has made people less interested [in Brexit]. . . There have been other things that have been going on: people want to see investment in this area in terms of jobs and [housing]; people want to make sure their kids can eat.

“People in Stoke realise that they are worlds apart from London in terms of attention and being on the agenda. The sense of abandonment hasn’t gone away, but it hasn’t necessarily got worse, either. There is a nonchalance about the fact that people haven’t got what they voted for yet; people wonder if their voice matters.”

There was no anger, however, only frustration, he said. “People just want to get on; they want to know if they’ll have a job at the end of the year, whether they can pay their mortgage, whether their children can go to a good school.”

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