In Boston, Lincolnshire, Brexit still means Brexit
The town that had the highest pro-Brexit vote in 2016 is still resolutely anti-EU
A butcher’s shop in Boston, Lincolnshire, where 75 per cent of voters backed the UK decision to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty
Boston’s market place was cold and wet, as a biting wind drove the rain in from the North Sea, down the Wash and along the Haven into this Lincolnshire town. Surrounded by the fertile agricultural land of the Fens, Boston has been trading with Europe for more than 1,000 years, dominating the wool trade for centuries and establishing strong commercial and intellectual relationships with the Continent.
“You’ll have a hard job to find Remainers around the town, especially anyone who’ll admit to being a Remainer,” says Mike Cooper, the Conservative leader of the local council.
Cooper, who runs a bubble-car museum outside Boston, reels off statistics about the town, which has an unemployment rate of just 1.5 per cent but one of the lowest standards of living in the country.
“We’ve got the highest rents in the east midlands and the lowest wages. We’ve got the highest in-work benefit ratio anywhere in the country because we’ve got a very low-wage economy and very high living costs,” he says.
Much of Boston’s economy is based on the low-wage food production sector, where supermarkets keep prices low, narrowing the margins of the farmers and processors who grow, pick and pack vegetables, fruit and flowers. But rising costs owe much to ballooning rents, driven upwards by a dramatic population increase since 2004, when 10 new member-states joined the EU.
Britain, like Ireland and Sweden, allowed citizens of the new member-states to come and live and work immediately, and thousands moved to Boston, where at least one in five of the 65,000 population was born outside the country.
“We just had our population increased by over a quarter in the space of barely 10 years. And the infrastructure can’t catch up. You can’t build schools and hospitals and doctors’ surgeries fast enough,” Cooper says.
Still, Cooper believes most of the immigrants now living in Boston will stay in the town and he’s happy for them to remain, working in local businesses and, in some cases, running their own.
It’s not too many, it’s we’ve got enough. We can’t go on at the speed we were going
“I know a lot of eastern European families who have bought houses and settled down. This is their home now, they’ve been here 10 or 12 years and they’re going to stay. It’s moved out from working in factories and picking and packing, because now we’ve got Polish garages, hairdressers and everything else. They’ve started businesses. Most of the eastern European shops are really good and a lot of British people shop in them as well.
“It’s not too many, it’s we’ve got enough. We can’t go on at the speed we were going. We couldn’t do another 10 years and put that many people in again,” he says.
If immigration was one driver of the Brexit vote, impatience with Brussels was another, and many Bostonians complain about EU “meddling” in regulations surrounding the food industry. Cooper says he sees little sign of buyer’s remorse over the Brexit vote, even as the economic consequences of leaving the EU become more apparent.
“I think a lot of people realised that there was quite likely to be an economic hit. But overall, at the end of the day, we will be better off and a lot of our industries will be better off,” he says.
“I think we’ll go back to trading with our old allies, people like New Zealand, Australia, India, emerging markets. There’s a lot of good markets, there’s a lot that we can do. I think people will cope with whatever comes along.”
‘Too many immigrants’
National polling shows scant evidence of a change of heart over Brexit, with fewer than 10 per cent of Leave voters saying they would now vote to remain, a figure mirroring almost exactly the proportion of Remain voters who say they would now vote to leave. There has been a slight shift towards Remain in recent months but that is mostly accounted for by people who didn’t vote in the referendum who say they would now vote to stay in the EU.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and Britain’s leading polling analyst, says there is no sign of a shift in opinion big enough to tempt either of the main parties to push for a second referendum. But he says there is some evidence that many of those Leave voters who are changing their minds are doing so because they fear the economic consequences of Brexit.
Anton Dani says some Bostonians are reconsidering their decision, partly because of the likely economic cost but also because the process of leaving the EU is proving so lengthy and difficult. If there was another referendum, he doesn’t believe Leave would win three-quarters of the vote in Boston again.
“If we get 50 per cent I think we would be lucky because I think a lot of people now are thinking more about what’s happening because the process of Brexit hasn’t been dealt with the right way. Now, local people sometimes feel confused or betrayed by the government . . . and some people say they think they’re going to come with another referendum,” he says.
Driving along West Street, which connects the railway station with the town centre, Dani identifies each shop we pass: “Polish, Lithuanian, Polish, Polish, eastern European, Turkish/Kurdish, Portuguese, eastern European, eastern European, Turkish/Kurdish, Polish. The Star of India, that’s Indian.”
Born in Morocco, raised in France and married to a Polish woman, Dani moved to Boston from London seven years ago to raise their two sons, both of whom went to a local grammar school. Four years ago, when the BBC’s Question Time was broadcast from Boston, Dani made a comment from the audience, calling for more integration of immigrants.
“Nigel Farage was impressed. He came over to me and said, ‘well said’,” Dani recalls.
A lot of foreigners, they hang in the street, drinking, smoking anywhere, sleeping on benches
He joined Ukip and was elected as a councillor for the party, campaigning for Brexit before setting up a new group, the Bostonian Independents, with two other Ukip councillors.
“There are too many immigrants. We have some schools here with over 1,000 kids, 70 per cent are from migrant families. It will take you three weeks to see your doctor. The roads are packed with cars. On top of that, we have some anti-social behaviour on the streets.
“A lot of foreigners, they hang in the street, drinking, smoking anywhere, sleeping on benches,” he says.
About 15 miles southwest of Boston, a group of women at Lamb’s Flowers are feeding tulips into a Furora machine to be graded and bunched, while another group checks them before wrapping them in plastic for sale in supermarkets all over Britain.
Sue Lamb tells me that, of the 50 people working for her at the moment, all are from eastern Europe apart from her family members and one English supervisor. “We couldn’t do without them. It’s not that we don’t look for English people; they just don’t want this sort of work,” she says.
Some of her workers have gone back to Poland, partly because a weaker pound has left them with less money to send home and partly because the Polish economy is picking up. There was “a bit of unrest” locally after the Brexit referendum but Lamb thinks the local people need to understand how much they depend on immigrants.
“A lot of these people keep some of our own people, the local people, in work. Without these factories working you don’t need the electricians, you don’t need the plumbers, you don’t need lots of things,” she says.
Lamb admits that an end to free movement of people from Europe could destroy her business, along with every other farm and packaging business nearby. But that didn’t stop her voting for Brexit.
“I voted to come out. I just felt we needed some discipline about everything. The labour thing is an issue. But we kept pouring money into Europe. It’s all unaccountable, and that isn’t how things should be. You can’t run a business like that, you can’t run a government like that. We’re trying to run 27 nations like that and they’re just doing whatever the hell they want,” she says.
At the end of the day there were reasons I think that were good enough for us to stand alone
Despite her Brexit vote, which she doesn’t regret, Lamb remains critical of the Leave campaign, and she has no doubt there will be an economic cost to leaving.
“Look, this was a knee-jerk reaction. And then the ones who made the reaction cut and run. I don’t think it was thought out at all, and I think the arguments that were put forward were very poor and ill-thought-out. But at the end of the day there were reasons I think that were good enough for us to stand alone. And I think it’s all quite achievable. But it was never going to be easy,” she says.