Sunderland, ‘the city that crashed the pound’, defiant after Brexit
Few in the Brexit bellwether city have regrets – but enthusiasm for Leave has wavered
A family outside their house in Sunderland, where Brexit was heavily backed, on June 26th, days after the referendum. Photograph: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times
A pedestrian walks past shuttered shops on a high street in Sunderland. The city was a bellwether for how much people want to leave the world’s largest trading bloc rather than embrace it. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bridges over the River Weir in Sunderland, a city originally built on shipbuilding and coal mining. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sunderland was once called “the largest shipbuilding town in the world”. When, in 1929, the future King George VI opened the squat metal arch bridge that spans the River Wear, he would have looked out onto a teeming dockside framed by the vast North Sea.
The shipyards are long gone. And, at least for now, Sunderland has become “the city that crashed the pound”.
“I’ve no regrets. I would vote the same way tomorrow,” says David Saxon Adamson, one of the 61 per cent of people in Sunderland who voted to leave the EU last month.
The 36-year-old roofer is unfazed by the ongoing predictions of economic meltdown. “Everyone just needs to give it a chance. It’ll take a while but it’ll be okay,” says Adamson over an afternoon pint in a quiet city centre bar festooned with England flags from the national side’s ill-fated European Championship campaign.
His partner Rebecca Clarke agrees. “What will happen will happen.” The mother of two voted for Brexit because Europe “never did anything” for her family. “My dad worked in the shipyards but when the EU started he lost his job,” she explains.
Karen Ditchburn understands the motivation to leave. “When I was growing up you could just walk into a job, now there’s nothing,” says Ditchburn, who runs a stall in Park Lane Market, close to the train station. All around her are tables laden high with cut-price chocolate and crisps, and cuts of beef wrapped in cellophane.
Ditchburn has had the same pitch for 18 years. “Back then it was so busy you could barely stand up,” she says. “Now everything is disintegrating.” Most of the market’s units are shut. A sign pinned to one metal shutter declares defiantly “This market is not closing”. The only other stall, selling second hand washing machines, is unmanned.
End of the empireBrussels
Sunderland has benefited from EU cash. Hoarding running along Keel Square lists hundreds of the estimated 8,200 ships built in the local yards. The names will eventually be cut in granite onto the attractive pedestrianised square. The project was EU supported – although the only acknowledgement is a tiny brown plaque buried at ground level among a bank of flowers.
“Trying to explain that we are a net gainer [from the EU], that we get more out than we pay in. That’s a difficult point to get across,” says local Labour councillor Mel Speding. A former colliery engineer, Speding says that he is “nervous” about the future.
But many in Sunderland will not mourn the passing of a £20 million aquatic centre or a business park for software entrepreneurs that they see little benefit from. Sunderland, like many other parts of the UK, has been battered by globalised economic winds that have brought little but a rising sense of powerlessness. Unemployment is about 50 per cent higher than the UK average. Many of the jobs that do exist are precarious and poorly paid.
A stone’s throw from Keel Square, in the shadow of three vertiginous 1960s era concrete apartment blocks and a glass-fronted shopping centre, Rob is smoking a cigarette outside the Londonderry bar. The 26-year-old, who asks not to use his surname, voted leave because “you can’t get a job. The immigrants are coming in and undercutting us.”
Dave Johnson regrets his decision to vote Leave. “If I’d thought about it properly I’d have voted in. But I didn’t,” says Johnson, who runs the bakery Taste of Home. He has signed a petition calling for a second referendum. “I’d vote in for sure next time.”
Sunderland’s Brexit vote was, in part, a protest by an electorate that rarely has the chance to protest. Labour has run the council for more than 40 years. The council’s 1970s offices have a lonely, underused feel. Half the staff have been laid off during years of grinding austerity.
All of Sunderland’s MPs are Labour, and many local voters are divided on the prospect of a leadership contest. “They should leave Corbyn alone,” says Joe (25). “He’s doing a good job”. The strongest anger often seems reserved for the Labour parliamentary party.
The main threat to Labour’s hegemony comes from Ukip. The anti-immigrant party won almost a fifth of the northeast vote in the 2015 general election. “We have beliefs that aren’t just Europe,” says local Ukip activist Alan Davies.
The political shift to the right is a growing concern for minority communities. Sunderland is a conspicuously white city with a history of far-right activism. Just a few days after the Brexit vote a Muslim mother had her veil ripped from her face in the Bridges shopping centre.
“It’s not a one-off incident, it’s all around in the air,” says Abu Shama, manager of Sunderland Bangladeshi international centre. Shama says “misinformed racism” was stoked by the Brexit campaign. “People want someone to blame.”
Empty unitsDave Harper
But Sunderland’s relative autonomy has allowed creativity to flourish. Pop Recs opened as a two-day pop up. “Three years later we are still going,” says Harper. The walls are lined with record sleeves and artful photographs. Downstairs is a drop-in mental health clinic for young people.
Harper, who voted to stay, describes the Brexit vote as “community suicide” but says that it needs to be understood against the backdrop of “25, 30 years of being broken down”. There are signs of hope. Hundreds attended an anti-racist rally last weekend. There has been a sharp increase in volunteers to work with asylum seekers.
Fears have grown for Sunderland’s economy. Car manufacturer Nissan employs 8,000 directly and a further 32,000 in their supply chain. Hitachi recently warned that they may cut jobs and investment into the city.
Nicola Hawkins is concerned about the immediate future. “It’s a right mess. They’ve no plan,” the hairdresser says, a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster pinned to the wall behind her.
“If there is a recession will people come in for haircuts?” asks Hawkins. She gestures outside the window at the development of a new music, arts and cultural quarter across the street.
“Will our government just give us money to do that? I don’t think they will.”