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Britain’s Most Ardent Brexit City Shows a Country on the Brink

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 11/01/2019 Jess Shankleman and Thomas Penny

FOR JESS SHANKLEMAN STORY © Bloomberg FOR JESS SHANKLEMAN STORY 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 kilometers) 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 globalization 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.

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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 neighborhoods 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.”

Related: 'Brexit is the sure route to a divided Britain'

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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 favor of leaving the EU. What followed was political inertia as the U.K. got consumed by the process of negotiating an exit deal. And now comes more anger and resentment while the prospect of an economically ruinous “no-deal 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. 

Kevin McCormack © Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg Kevin McCormack The bitterness comes through in Stoke, where gross weekly pay is 16 percent lower than the U.K. 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 percent 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 political 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 U.K. 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.

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“It’s the coarsening of political debate that’s occurred as result of the move to the extremes on both sides of the debate in the U.K.,” said Guto Bebb, a member of the governing Conservative Party who resigned as a minister over Brexit and has had people protesting outside his home. He blamed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for allowing tensions to flare up on the left of the political spectrum. “And Brexit has done the same for the right.”

This week, police stepped up their presence around Parliament after pro-EU Conservative Anna Soubry was mobbed and called a Nazi on live television. Though May condemned the abuse, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the incident was another reason to avoid a second EU referendum.

A survey of 2,158 adults by YouGov in October found that 31 percent thought there was a risk of “civil unrest” should there be another vote and Britain failed to leave the EU. The figure was 50 percent among Brexit voters.

That said, among Stoke’s 270,000 population there’s a mix of anger and apathy. The risk is that voters energized by Brexit might just give up.

“What’s the point?” asks Kenneth Runt, 48, an engineer doing some grocery shopping in the district of Bentilee, which was developed in the 1950s and was one of Europe’s largest housing projects at the time. “If they don’t get the result they want they’ll just have another one.”

FOR JESS SHANKLEMAN STORY © Bloomberg FOR JESS SHANKLEMAN STORY

Brenda Wilson, 72, a retired saleswoman with dyed blond hair and leopard-print winter coat, said people wouldn’t bother voting again. “They’ve got to get on with it,” she said outside discount store Poundland in central Stoke. “It drives me crackers. I’m sick of hearing about it. They’re supposed to be clever people and they’re earning a lot of money and they can’t get it together.”

While polls show growing support for a second referendum across the country, Stoke doesn’t seem to be budging. Three-quarters of the emails local MP Smeeth received from constituents over the Christmas holidays urged her to support leaving the EU on the scheduled date of March 29 regardless of whether May’s Brexit deal is passed in parliament.

The city’s struggle to adapt to economic change has driven opposition to the EU and its commitment to free movement of people, which has allowed migrant workers particularly from eastern Europe to enter the labor market. The ceramics industry, which employed 50,000 a generation ago, is now down to just 7,000 people.

A decade ago, the far-right British National Party won seats in Stoke’s municipal government as voters protested they had been ignored by politicians from mainstream parties. Smeeth, a former director of an anti-extremist group, said parties across the country need to re-engage with voters to stop history being repeated.

“We created the BNP, we allowed a vacuum and they filled it,” she said. “That’s why we’ve got such a responsibility in this unsettling period of our national story.”


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