What Brexit Britain thinks now: ‘I’ll start speaking German. I don’t care any more’
Patrick Freyne revisits English towns to find out how views have changed since 2016
Brexit Britain (from top left): Kieran Genius, Nicole Elizabeth, Wendy Lumley, Br Adam Lee; (bottom row, from left) Brian and Maureen Gilmartin, James Jefford, Dan Curtis, and Tony Wyatt and Pietro Riccio. Photographs: Ric Mellis
Driving around the UK this week is a strange experience. As the radio shouts about cliff edges and late-night press conferences and troops being put on standby, people drive to work and school, buses follow their time tables, and life goes on.
The last time I went to Stratford-upon-Avon in the west midlands and Reading in the southeast was in 2016, the week before the UK referendum on EU membership, and while some people had strong views then, many seemed strangely disengaged or even apathetic. Now, in contrast, everyone I speak to seems worn out and, in many cases, angry.
Some leave voters are still gleefully insistent that the Brexit utopia is around the corner. Most are frustrated that the process isn’t easier, a few going so far as to say they would vote differently now. Others say that, although everything is terrible, “democracy” must out.
Leavers and remainers are united in a belief that their politicians are a disgrace and everything is awful. They all emit a world-weary groan when asked about Brexit
Remain voters, in contrast, seem saddened, scared and desperate for reprieve. Both leavers and remainers are united in a belief that their politicians are a disgrace and that everything is awful. They all emit an almost identical world-weary groan when asked about Brexit. You should imagine this groan before each of the conversations recounted below.
Danish Sophie Clausen and Italian Manuela Perteghella were so dejected in the aftermath of the referendum that they set up Stratford-upon-Avon’s “Brexit Café”. This is a semi-regular event that allows people from both sides to respectfully talk about their views as they eat biscuits and drink coffee.
For their first gathering they invited the Brexit-inclined Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi. Another event was invigorated by a London-based group of leave voters eager to set up a similar group back home. “I think they felt isolated in London,” says Perteghella.
“There were so many social media attacks and newspaper headlines [but] I don’t think people ever met face-to-face to discuss it,” says Clausen, who has lived in the UK since the 1990s. “It was about actually trying to understand each other’s points of view.”
Perteghella and Clausen are not nonpartisan. They are members of Stratford for Europe (the group’s logo is a picture of Shakespeare inside the 12 gold stars of the EU flag) and they want people to know how much this referendum, in which they couldn’t vote, hurt them.
Perteghella, who is also the local co-ordinator for the 3 Million, an advocacy group for EU citizens living in the UK, notes the red tape EU citizens face in order to remain in the country or change jobs.
We’ve lived in fear and anxiety for the last three years. I feel the country I came to has completely changed. I no longer feel welcome
“We’ve lived in fear and anxiety for the last three years,” says Clausen. “We have no idea what our status will be. Will we be degraded to second-class citizens? . . . I feel the country I came to has completely changed. I always loved this country and I was grateful, but I no longer feel welcome.”
Nearby, Rachel Dealtry, the remain-supporting day manager in a café called El Greco’s, tells me that Brexit makes her feel bad for her colleagues and she feels more European than British. There are three Britons among the 15 employees of El Greco’s.
Everyone there is fed up with Brexit but they make jokes about it, says Dealtry. When people leave work for the day, they say “I’m doing a Brexit”.
Stratford for Remain campaigner Mark Cunliffe tells me that the local service industry is heavily staffed by mainland Europeans and that restaurants are already finding it harder to get staff. He says that big employers such as Jaguar Land Rover are planning a long shut down in production at the start of April. He says he lost £50,000 (€58,140) due to currency fluctuations hitting his renewable energy-related business. He laughs. “I was on local TV recently and they asked me to stop looking down the camera so angrily.”
Jean Haslam in the Deli Café, which she owns and where I met her three years ago, is still an enthusiastic leave voter. Why? “We’re saturated. Polish, Romanians, all drawing on resources.”
What about the majority of Europeans who’ve been here for years, adding to the British economy? “I don’t think anything is going to happen to them,” she says, confidently.
Her sister, Violet Jordan, voted leave too but now thinks it was a mistake. “How could we win against all these countries?” she says.
Haslam thinks everything will be fine, that post-Brexit there’ll be more money for the National Health Service and that talk about food shortages or factory closures is “scaremongering”. So why hasn’t it gone smoothly? “Parliament are a disgrace.”
She introduces me to four older women who meet in her café every month.
“I voted leave but now I’ve switched to remain,” says Jackie Bell.
“I voted remain and now I’d vote leave,” says Jennifer Taylor.
Maddie Putt and Wendy Bailey, in contrast, high five each other over their unwavering support for leave.
It might be horrible to say it, but at the end of the day we’re British and have to look after ourselves
Taylor initially voted to remain because she believed in the post-war union of nations. But the European Parliament’s behaviour since the referendum has turned her off. She calls them “tossers”.
Why did Bell change to a remain position? “Because of all the bother. . . I’m bored with it. I don’t understand it all.”
They admit that none of them realised it would all get so complicated. “We just thought it was going to be a simple thing,” says Putt. “I mean if you want to change your job you just put your notice in.”
At a neighbouring table I meet Ricky Roebuck. He’s a carer for his disabled 10-year-old daughter but back when he was looking for work, he says, he was competing with Polish people happy to take minimum wage in order to save money for houses back home. So, he voted leave.
He doesn’t have any problem, he adds, with people like his business-owning Albanian next-door neighbour who came to stay and “makes a massive contribution”.
But what if Brexit makes it difficult for people like him? He sighs. “Okay, it might be horrible to say it, but at the end of the day we’re British and have to look after ourselves.”
Now, he fears that Brexit will be indefinitely delayed. He doesn’t believe a no-deal Brexit would be as bad as some people say but he doesn’t trust the politicians to carry it out. I ask if it’s possible the leave campaign made it look too simple? “The remain campaign should have put their case across better. That’s their problem. That’s their own fault.”
Next door to Shakespeare’s childhood home, Sir Stanley Wells, the Shakespearean scholar and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, tells me that he’s “vigorously opposed to Brexit . . . I feel our cultural intellectual ties with Europe are so important and I deplore anything that might break them down”.
‘They’re ignorant buggers,’ says Sir Stanley Wells, the Shakespearean scholar and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
It’s also probably not something that Shakespeare would have wanted. Wells once wrote a paper called “Shakespeare, Man of the European Renaissance”, and he points out several places where Shakespeare’s plays reference Ovid, Petrarch and Montaigne. “Shakespeare was soaked in European culture,” he says.
So why does he think people voted to leave? He talks about Britain’s insular streak and distrust of foreigners, but first he just laughs and says, “because they’re ignorant buggers”.
Across the road in the year-round Christmas-themed Nutcracker shop, I meet Steve Bartlett. Nearly three years ago, listening to the same Christmassy mix tape, Bartlett told me he was looking forward to leaving the EU. Now he sounds despairing. “I can’t believe what a fiasco it is. If I could find somewhere to run away and hide, I would.”
What did he think was going to happen? “I thought it would be more organised. I thought it could be a new start where we could stand up on our own.”
What way did his friends and family vote? “Fifty-fifty,” he says. “It was a class argument as much as anything else. The ones . . . who were struggling, wanted to leave. The ones who were doing all right, the middle class and richer, they wanted to remain.”
Would he vote differently if there was a second referendum? “I don’t think I’d even vote. That’s how downhearted I am. I don’t think I’ll ever vote for anything again.”
In a Caffe Nero, Anthony Rixon is talking to a tattooed Franciscan brother, Adam Lee, about potentially joining his order, when I come over and ask them about Brexit.
“I’ll take my hand off the Bible for a moment to say, ‘it’s bollocks’,” says Br Adam, who really does take his hands of his Bible to say this.
He voted to remain. Rixon voted to leave. Reading, in which 58 per cent of voters chose remain, is the first city in which I keep bumping into leave and remain voters hanging out together.
“I wanted us to govern our own country,” says Rixon. “But now I’d vote to stay just to get it over with.”
Br Adam voted remain because he didn’t think there was enough information. “I thought it was unrealistic. Lies like the £350 million for the NHS overshadowed everything for me [a leave slogan read “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”]; and the border with Ireland wasn’t even mentioned before the vote.” (We mentioned it in Ireland, I point out).
“I just didn’t want to be ruled by Germany,” says Rixon. “Immigration was a bit of an issue for me, but I don’t mind people coming from Syria whose lives have been ripped apart or other people who come for good reasons.”
They both agree that it’s a mess now. “I’m just hoping they get it over with,” says Br Adam. “Rip the plaster off and get it done.”
“I hope there’s not another referendum because I think it would damage the country,” says Rixon. “But if there is, I’ll vote to stay. I’ll start speaking German. I don’t care any more.”
Bill Millis, a staunch leaver, is sitting near a statue of Queen Victoria with a younger remain-voting relative, James Jeffords. “We should come out on March 29th deal or no deal,” he says. “Europe has too much control over our country. They make our laws.”
A tiny percentage of the laws come from Europe, I point out. “But they still make them,” he says.
“We get a lot of economic benefits from Europe though,” says Jeffords, who works for the NHS. “It creates jobs. And we recruit people from abroad to do jobs that British people won’t do. And the hard border goes against the Good Friday Agreement. I’m an ex-soldier myself and I was over in Northern Ireland.”
They usually never talk about Brexit, and I’m worried for a moment that I’m causing an argument, but they quickly agree on several things – that the current fiasco would never have happened under Maggie Thatcher, that Tories are greedy, that a second referendum would be an affront to democracy and that it’s all a big mess.
“Nobody knew what they were voting for,” says Jeffords. “Nobody knew what the positives were and what the negatives were.”
“They still don’t know,” says Millis.
Outside the old Town Hall, Andrea Rixon, the inventor of the Omy (“a hands-free intimate stimulator for women”), tells me she wants to leave because “we’ve been dictated to so much by Europe”.
In what way? “Nothing I can think of on the spot but it’s just about taking back control.”
She thinks the EU has been making the Brexit process so onerous because Britain leaving might spark the end of the union as a whole. She insists that the business dangers are overblown and she isn’t worried about a no-deal Brexit. “It’s like a divorce. In a divorce you wouldn’t be beholden to an ex-partner.”
Remain supporter Pietro Riccio also uses a divorce metaphor, but he uses it to make a point about compromise. “In a divorce one person doesn’t get everything. There has to be a negotiation.”
He first arrived from Italy in 1974 just as the UK was entering the common market. He’s been “killing” his leaver friends Tony and Sapia Wyatt with Brexit conversation for an hour. He feels people were lied to and that Brexit is disastrous. The Wyatts disagree. “I wanted to leave the day after the vote,” says Tony. “I wanted the trade to be better for this country, without all the red tape you have in the EU.”
Are these debates a strain on their friendship? Riccio laughs. “No,” he says. “At the end of the day who’s going to suffer? People like us, the middle class.”
Retirees Maureen and Brian Gilmartin just laugh when I mention “the B word”. “We were all for it on the terms that were told to us, but the goalposts have moved,” says Brian.
“I don’t think we were told enough really,” says Maureen.
I didn’t understand it well enough to vote. People shouldn’t vote on things they know nothing about. I think that was the problem
Would they vote the same way again? “Probably, on condition that we were put in the picture of what we were going to do and what we were not going to do,” says Brian.
Why did they vote to leave? Immigration was part of it, says Maureen. “I have no issues if they come in and work and support themselves . . .We can only support so many people.”
But don’t European citizens bring in more money than they take out? “It depends where you are,” says Maureen.
Nearby, florist Nicole Elizabeth is chatting to her friend, Smiths-playing busker Dan Curtis. She has British parents but was born and raised in Spain. She wants to stay in the EU.
That said, neither of them voted. “I didn’t understand it well enough to vote,” she says. “I don’t think people should vote on things they know nothing about. I think that was the problem.”
She rattles off the talking points of both sides. She knows the arguments better than a lot of people I’ve met who actually did vote. “I think people just voted for a drastic change,” she says. “None of the promises politicians made for years have come true. The people got sick of it so the one time they were asked to make a big decision they decided to vote for the unknown.”
Her mother, Wendy Lumley, who is visiting from Spain, believes Britain should leave the EU. She has no problem with immigration, she says, because, well, she’s an immigrant herself, but she does believe that Britain “should take control back from Brussels and stop giving them so much money”.
She adds that Brexit might yet affect her residency rights and ability to receive healthcare in Spain. “But I’m taking the high ground.”
Kieran Genius (“A hard name to live up to”) is a 24-year-old charity worker and aspiring journalist who voted remain and spent a lot of time trying to change the mind of his half-Jamaican mother who was voting leave. She has an issue with eastern European immigration, he says.
His friends, on the other hand, are largely remainers, but a lot of them didn’t vote. “They regret it now.”
He believes Brexit has unleashed some formerly-repressed racism. He spent time going door-to-door for a charity in London and, after the referendum, there was a big increase in people saying, “We don’t want to give any money to Africa, we want to keep it for Britain . . . People’s racism has been endorsed by Brexit.”
Dragos Gostian is a bit worried about his own future in the country. “There’s talk of people who earn less than £35,000 (€40,730) not being allowed to stay here. But an economy needs all kinds of jobs.”
Britain, he says, has been good to him until now. At home in Bucharest he couldn’t afford to live on his high-school teacher’s salary but here he can pay rent, eat and send money home on his earnings as a Deliveroo cyclist.
Beyond his own interests, he thinks Brexit is a big mistake for the UK. “I think to balance the US and China we need a big market in Europe. It’s not the time for the UK to leave that.”
Later that evening my car’s front-left tyre bursts on a slip-road on to the M4 and I am relieved to be bailed out by a kind and friendly Brexit-voting man from a free, car rescue service.
As we drive, he laments the European Commission’s “dirty tricks”, Europe’s ingratitude to Britain for saving them during the war and says that Britain wants to protect Ireland from the intransigent EU’s hard border.
I am so grateful to be rescued, I don’t contradict him once.