A year and a half after a majority of British voters made the decision to take the country out of the European Union despite warnings of economic doom and diplomatic isolation, those who were determined to give elites a kicking or “take back control” of their borders say they stand by their decision.
Dagenham, a working-class district east of London, embodies the hard-to-predict logic behind the Brexit vote. Voters there opted to leave the free trade zone of the European Union despite the biggest employer in the area being a Ford engine factory whose supply chain and exports depend on Europe.
‘Stick your fingers up to the government — give them a kick’
People on the damp streets of Dagenham told WikiTribune they stand by their decision for a range of reasons: fear of uncontrolled immigration, wanting to tell politicians who is boss, a genuine desire to leave the European Union, and in many cases a protest vote they never expected to lead to a national vote for “Brexit”.
“Brexit was just like, stick your fingers up to the government — give them a kick,” said Alan Jones, who runs a carpeting business on the main shopping street of Dagenham and says he didn’t bother to vote at all—believing, wrongly as it turned out, that the referendum wouldn’t change anything.
The referendum—a rarity in the British parliamentary system— was called in June 2016 by then British Prime Minister David Cameron. It led to a political earthquake, since a majority in favor of “Leave” overturned 40 years of alignment with the laws, common market and free migration rules of the European Union. “Leave” polled at 51.9 percent and “Remain” at 48.1 percent, with strong “out” sentiment in working class areas while metropolitan centers like London were strongly in favor of “remain”.
The Financial Times has reported that UK gross domestic product has already fallen nearly 1 percent as a result of the Brexit vote. The pound has fallen sharply, jobs are moving to Europe, and inflation has risen. “The results vary according to the comparisons made, but all show the UK economy has been damaged even before it formally leaves the EU on March 29 2019,” the paper reports. While the pound fell 20 percent against the dollar two months after the referendum, it has since recovered somewhat and is 7 percent below the dollar (Econotimes).
The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and neighbouring Havering rank highly on lists of Britain’s most pro-Brexit regions, with 62 percent and 70 percent of their respective electorates voting to leave the EU.
The main shopping street near the Dagenham Heathway tube (subway) station is populated by independent outlets and betting shops, as well as a busy and well-equipped local library.
Dagenham is a London borough in flux, with regeneration projects bringing some jobs. One such project is a large-scale film studio and media complex to be built in Dagenham East. The council is looking for investors but says the Hollywood-scale studio could bring around 780 jobs and generate £35 million a year.
The prospect of future prosperity provides a contrast to the area’s recent history. Dagenham’s Ford car manufacturing plant was once London’s biggest employer, peaking at 40,000 on-site workers in 1953, according to the company. Car production stopped in 2002, and Ford’s remaining engine manufacturing plant currently employs 1,830 people.
The northern city of Sunderland, home to a huge Nissan plant dependent on exports to Europe, also voted in favor of Brexit.
According to figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the borough of Barking and Dagenham has a higher proportion of people claiming job-seekers’ benefits than the national average—though the rate has dropped consistently since peaking in 2011, levelling out in May last year.
Nearly 18 months after the Brexit referendum, a common complaint among voters is the absence of clear information from government on the impact of leaving the European Union.
“They’re keeping mute,” said Charles Etereri, an unemployed former veterinary surgeon who voted for Brexit. He said he is changing careers and studying for a PhD in hospitality. People in his area are very disappointed, “because nothing’s happening,” he said. “There’s no sign that it will ever happen.”
Barry, who did not want to give his full name, owns a nearby car repair shop which offers MoT (roadworthiness) inspections and bodywork. He said the information available has become increasingly polarized and divisive since the referendum in June 2016.
“Both sides are just trying to wind people up. How much of the coverage is true? How much is just made up to sell a story?”
Despite apparent progress, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has come under pressure (FT) for appearing to lack a clear vision for Brexit, inconsistent positions on key issues, and a lack of transparency.
While the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the formal process of exiting the bloc began on March 29 last year (2017), when the government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union.
Since March, UK and EU negotiators have been meeting every few weeks to negotiate the terms of their future relationship (UK Parliament). Debate has focused primarily on settling the UK’s outstanding financial liabilities due under contracts agreed during its time as an EU member and questions over the UK-Irish border.
Voting against the status quo
The pro-Brexit voters WikiTribune met cited differing reasons for wanting to leave the EU, though many talked of what they see as high levels of immigration which they blame for a lack of affordable housing and depressed wages. They also said immigrants exert pressure on already strained local services.
The Financial Times reported in March 2017 (when the referendum result was already known) that studies have shown the gains from immigration have benefitted immigrants themselves, but have not obviously increased British prosperity.
These issues were frequently debated in the runup to the referendum, with immigration proponents pointing out that services such as healthcare rely disproportionately on an immigrant workforce, as set out by fact-checking group Full Fact.
House prices in Dagenham have risen, despite warnings from the former Chancellor of the Exchequer before the referendum that a Leave vote would lead to a decline in property values. This increase is in line with the trend in property values across the UK, and especially London.
Barry says he is open to immigration, even “quite a high level of it,” but is against “open door” immigration. “This area lacks the infrastructure to handle all of the extra people,” he said.
The borough has a higher than average resident population born overseas, at 38 percent in 2015, compared to 13 percent nationally.
Local Labour Party councillors Lee and Phil Waker, who describe themselves as traditional socialists and internationalists, say open borders have driven down wages for local working people. From their perspective, things have gotten worse for the area while being in the EU. They say UK manufacturing, which traditionally supported areas like theirs, has fallen dramatically.
“You have areas like this suffering particularly from housing, lower living standards, and you say ‘won’t you vote to tell us how marvellous everything is as it stands’,” said Phil Waker.
The frustration with governments in Brussels and Westminster was a more general factor behind the area’s strong turnout in favour of leaving the EU.
Alan Jones, who lives in neighboring Southend but runs the carpet business in central Dagenham, thought the referendum was a foregone conclusion: “I thought it was already decided…I was proved wrong, I didn’t think we would leave.”
In the car repair garage, Barry took a similar line: “I’m glad it happened … but I didn’t think for a moment [that it would],” he said. “A lot of it was a protest vote.”
Lack of change drives skepticism of politicians
People WikiTribune interviewed seem convinced they voted the right way.
‘Our borders need to be stricter’
Those who cited immigration and its perceived link to pressure on services and housing say nothing has changed. Debbie Prager, a housewife from Dagenham, thinks the UK’s borders need to be stricter. She and her friend Dot were both eager for Brexit negotiations to be over. “They need to stop mucking around, stop arguing amongst themselves, and just get it sorted,” Debbie continued, adding that UK and EU leaders are “all as bad as each other.”
Those driven by frustration with the EU and UK governments said their views have been reinforced by the slow progress in the European Union bureaucratic center in Brussels and the British parliament in Westminster.
“I just want it done and over with – it’s dividing the country,” said Barry, who said the “divorce bill” settlement – currently estimated to be 50 billion euros is a “punishment bill” imposed by the EU.
Voters who rejected forecasts of a post-Brexit economic downturn as “scaremongering”—a stance frequently cited by pro-Brexit media such as the Daily Express—view the long-negotiated “divorce bill” as another creation of embittered ‘Remainers’.
Lee and Phil Waker are similarly steadfast in their views: “I don’t think we should be blackmailed,” said Lee.
Representatives of the 27 EU member states, without the UK, met earlier this month and agreed that sufficient progress has been made—based on a set of last minute “gentlemen’s agreements”—to allow the next phase of talks to start next year. It was technically the last time a single member country can veto agreements as they stand, before the council transitions to a form of majority voting.
The pro-Brexit voters in Dagenham are weary of the debate, but feel their long-term skepticism is being validated. They say they are disappointed with the perceived lack of progress, but not surprised.