Diversity of opinion on Brexit manifest on Birmingham’s streets

With just a few days until vote, all seem to be accommodating each other’s differences


At the Rotunda in Birmingham’s Bullring, the centre of one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse cities, all human life has come to shop, eat and serve. People here are from all over the world but many were born and reared in Birmingham.

It may be one of the few cities where The Hot Sausage Company, selling the porky products Birmingham people adore, can rub up against “Islamwise” – a stall offering religious pamphlets and promising to “nurture souls through education and support”.

Pork is haram (or forbidden) under Islamic law, but practising Muslims Osama and John, who are manning the stall, show cheerful tolerance.

It is just a few days until the EU referendum vote and everyone is represented here in Birmingham today and they all seem to be accommodating each other’s differences.

Falun Gong invites people to think about China’s actions; the Lifeboat Association asks for donations from these very land-locked people; and a Jamaican busker bangs an African drum.

A white man from Worcester called Danny Lord hawks scarves, flags and mugs with the cross of St George.Lord plans to vote Leave on Thursday, he says. “This country should make its own laws. And we’re full up. We should put our own people first.”

He says it is not about the colour of people’s skin, it’s about their nationality. This absolves Lord of any dilemmas he might have as he sells an England ashtray to a black British man and an England scarf to a British man from Hong Kong.

Good for England

Sitionescu Bogdan is from Romania. He has been in Birmingham for three years. His two young sons and his wife Ionella arrived three months ago and the boys start school this September. He says he doesn’t have a vote and he doesn’t know how to get one. He has a job and a house.

If Britain votes to leave the EU, he will go back to Romania. “The EU has been good for England and leaving will be bad for it, but as for me, I will just start again.”

Toni Austin and Emma Nesbitt, who have an Irish grandfather and father respectively, are pushing children in buggies. Both will be voting to leave. “It’s very important for our kids’ futures,” says Austin.

She doesn’t think Britain should be “governed by Brussels”. We ask her how the EU dictates government decisions. “I don’t know,” she says. “But we are paying too much.”

Austin and Nesbitt are upset by the “unfairness” that their children are “pushed aside at school, while children who have no English get all the help”.

Immigration is a massive issue, they say. “Our local school is overrun, but please don’t misunderstand,” says Nesbitt. “Just because we object to eastern Europeans coming over taking jobs and school paces, it doesn’t mean we’re on the far right.”

Janet Sharp, an usher in Birmingham magistrates court, is collecting for the lifeboats. She is going to vote Remain. “I hate the idea of isolationism, that Britain might become smaller and smaller. I think it will be very sad if we vote out.”

Brussels gives

She hears a lot of talk about immigration and the amount of money the UK puts into the EU. “But they don’t talk about what we get back,” she says. “Time has moved on and you need a bigger bloc of countries around you. ‘I’m alright Jack’ just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Femi Oluwole is wearing a T-shirt he has made himself. “EU questions? Just ask; I’ll do my best. I won’t speak unless spoken to.” Oluwole’s dad was born in London, but went back to Nigeria aged six. In 1989, he came back to England with Femi’s mum, who is also Nigerian, and Femi was born the next year.

With his law and French degree from Nottingham University and a year in Brussels working in human rights, Oluwole is a citizen any nation would be glad to have.

“A lot of this referendum has been xenophobia disguised as patriotism,” he says. “Even when most economic experts are saying we’d be better to remain, immigration is still being raised as an issue.”

How does he feel as a black British man during this time when people are expressing opinions that make a lot of people uncomfortable?

“It makes me feel sorry. I think we don’t take enough notice of what people are doing in other countries and, as a result, we don’t give them the benefit of personhood, so it makes immigration seem like an invasion. It makes us afraid.”

Why should people in England vote to stay in Europe? “I won’t say they should stay in out of fear. I will say the EU protects our moral integrity when our own government won’t.”

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