Brexit fatigue: ‘It’s been two or three years nearly. We’re sick of it’
Wrong assumptions and flawed facts underpin Hull’s attitude to Border and Brexit
Anne Gorman: “The old guard feel neglected.” Photograph: Jennifer O’Connell
Phil Barron is manning the truck wash at the port in Hull. A sign nearby reads “Keeping Britain Trading”.
Barron is concerned about the impact a no-deal Brexit would have on Britain’s ability to do just that at the busy port, a hub for freight traffic from Zeebrugge and Rotterdam. But he’s not concerned enough to change his mind. He says he voted to leave after a terrorist attack made him question immigration.
“It made me think, hang on, I don’t want all these North Africans coming in through Europe, and I still don’t.” Which attack? Manchester, he says immediately. In reality, the attack at the Ariana Grande concert happened a year after the Brexit vote. There’s been “too much scaremongering”, he adds, but he’s talking about trade, not terrorism. “At the end of the day, people still want to buy products from the UK and products from Europe, so there’s still going to be that interaction.”
Brexit is more complex than he realised, and he has sympathy for Theresa May, but doesn’t know what people expected with a Remainer in charge of the negotiations. Whatever happens now, he still wants out. “I haven’t swung to the other side.”
Steve Petherbridge, who is here to have his truck washed, hasn’t changed his mind either. Like most people I speak to, he is impatient with the protracted negotiations. “They’re saying now we’ll stop in. We can’t stop in. We voted out, and deal or no deal, we’ll stop out.”
Nearby, two Hungarian truck drivers are having lunch in the front of a cab. They are wary about talking, and don’t want to give names. “Brexit was a joke,” one says.
Will a no-deal Brexit make their lives more difficult? “Actually nobody knows.” At the moment, one of the men says, there are not enough people manning the UK customs posts, and he doesn’t know where they’re going to recruit additional workers from. But he drives an ambient food truck, and long delays at the ports would be disastrous.
In 2016, slightly more than two in three of this city’s 260,000 residents voted to leave the EU. More recent opinion polls seemed to suggest a shift in public mood. According to polls by the pro-referendum group Best for Britain last year, the constituency of Hull North is now 60 per cent Remain, a swing from 52 per cent Leave; Hull West and Hessle, which was 67 per cent Leave, is now 54 per cent Leave. But if the people of Hull and the surrounding towns are suffering Leavers’ remorse, they’re not admitting to it.
Kingston-upon-Hull, you quickly learn, is a place that defies easy categorisation. It has the dubious title of being the second most-bombed town in England during the second World War, when 90 per cent of its buildings were destroyed, and it still bears the scars. Here and there, examples of the remaining 10 per cent stand, relics of Victorian quaintness that are incongruous among the block modern shopping centres and offices. It is a once-thriving fishing port, which still hasn’t recovered its mojo after the industry declined in the 1970s – something for which many hold the EU responsible. It is also, however, the proud winner of the title of the UK’s capital of culture for 2017.
The attitudes to Brexit are as hard to pin down as everything else about Hull.
Anne Gorman from Galway, who has lived just outside Hull for 16 years in total and works in the National Health Service, loves the city for its warmth, sense of community and resilience. She voted Remain, and believes the referendum result here was a pushback by a community that felt left behind. “There is an objection to the large number of non-nationals that have come into the city over the last five years or so, but the main reason is the old guard feel neglected,” she says.
Amid all the anti-immigrant sentiment from Brexiters, nobody answered the question of who will do the unskilled jobs that the English workforce don’t want to do. “There isn’t exactly a long queue of kids coming out of secondary school who want to go pulling the vegetables out of the field in Lincolnshire.”
Outside the job centre, not everyone has heard of Brexit. “Brexit? Something to do with Europe, was it?” one young woman with a stroller says.
Gary Ferrerby pulls up on his motorbike emblazoned with L plates. He reels off the reasons he voted Leave: because of immigration; because he doesn’t trust politicians; because “this country has gone downhill since we went in the EU” and because “it’s costing 20 odd million a day to stay in the EU”.
Another man wearing a Hull City football club hat draws a link between Brexit and “the IRA bombing McDonalds and places because they wanted independence, and now they’re getting independence, they say they don’t want it”.
Confusion about Ireland’s relationship with Britain and how it might be impacted by Brexit is widespread. Down at the port, Petherbridge reassures me that I shouldn’t worry, “nowt will change in Ireland. The British soldiers will still be there.”
Later, in a taxi between Hull and the prosperous town of Beverley, about eight miles away, the driver, Nigel, voted in favour of leaving, and feels let down by politicians and the media. He admits he doesn’t really get the fuss about a hard border. “We’re all coming out, what difference does it make?” He is astonished to hear Ireland is not leaving the EU. “Why are southern Ireland stopping in the EU? Why are they not going with England?”
Some of the confusion may be attributable to the fact that Hull has an Irish community that is tiny, and typically quite transient. A small cohort commute here to work weekly, flying in on red-eye flights on noisy turbo-prop planes via Leeds, and home again on Thursday or Friday.
One of the fly-in, fly-out workforce is Dr John Byrne, who is in healthcare. Byrne says people in this part of the UK, “other than political anoraks”, are not energised about, or even aware of, the backstop issue. UK politicians, he says, have been guilty of not understanding what their constituents were thinking. The referendum vote was “a kicking”.
But he thinks the chance of a no-deal Brexit is receding, particularly as people get immersed in contingency planning and the implications become all too real. “Apart from hardline Brexiters, nobody really wants a no-deal Brexit.”
Peter Bartlett, a mechanical engineer from Leixlip who commutes to Hull to work on a construction project, is not convinced Brexit is going to happen at all. He’s so unconvinced, in fact, that he hasn’t bothered to apply for an Irish passport. He was born in England and still uses an English one. “They’ll get to the crux, and then they’ll back down. My prediction is that they’ll stay in the EU.”
Eight miles north, in Beverley – a place of more obvious charms than its larger neighbour, including redbrick streetscapes and picturesque tea rooms – few people share Bartlett’s conviction. “We voted out to stay out,” says Simon Foster, out shopping with his girlfriend, Gloria Ashun. Neither of them actually voted, he clarifies. But if there was a second referendum, they would vote to leave. They want “out, even if there’s no deal”.
They don’t talk about it with their friends, all in their 20s, anymore. “It’s been two years, or three years nearly. We’re sick of it,” says Ashun.
Further along the street, Pip Seminara is returning home from having her hair cut. With an Italian last name, and three children who have plans to travel, her position is complicated.
‘Make England great’
When Brexit happened, she had just bought a house and was worried about house prices, “so I very selfishly voted Remain. But when the Leave vote came in, I was pleased. I didn’t realise much how on the edge I was. I wanted to leave because I thought it was a really good opportunity . . . to make England great for Britain’s sake.”
Her preference for Leave wasn’t about immigration. “We’re not trying to pull our drawbridge up, we just want to manage our own affairs, thank you.”
Britain pays more than the other countries, she says. “No wonder they’re so pissed off we’re leaving – they’re going to lose our money.”
She believes that if Britain goes, it will pave the way for other EU countries, like France, to leave. She is not convinced Britain will leave, but even if it stays, she thinks the EU will take “a hard look at itself . . . It’s an opportunity to kick them up the butt and say what kind of EU do we want.”
But the Irish Border issue “is a huge risk. I’d never like to see a hard border in Ireland: the logistics of it, the money we’d have to put into it. It’s too sensitive.”
Another man stops to share his view on why Britain must leave, with or without a deal. If Europe had been left as a common market, it would have been fine. “But the idiots over in Brussels tried to dictate our laws.”
The woman with him doesn’t want to stop. “You’ve said too much. You’ve got verbal diarrhoea,” she says. Exasperated, as he keeps talking, she turns to me. “Why, if you’re from Ireland, are you here?”
He has a last word before he allows her to pull him away. “I won’t trust the EU as far as I can throw them.”