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Fintan O’Toole: Brexit not the pure shining prize it once seemed

In Leave heartlands, people must decide if Brexit dream still worth sacrificing all else for

It is hard, if you spend any time around Stoke-on-Trent, to remind yourself that this was once the centre of the world. Local people don’t even call the place Stoke-on-Trent, a name that was applied overall to the towns of Burslem, Cobridge, Etruria, Fenton, Hanley, Lane End, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall only in 1910. They still call it The Potteries because that is what these towns were for more than two centuries.

It was here that some of the early geniuses of the industrial revolution – most famously Josiah Wedgwood – put together an abundance of coal and water with the discovery that the local red clay, when mixed with flint, could be turned a delicate white – to develop the mass production of affordable ceramics that could be exported around the world. This was the Silicon Valley of the 18th century, the nursery of one of the most profound revolutions in human history.

In Longton, where a pottery factory opened in 1787, the beautiful old kilns, shaped like huge bottles made of brick, still stand. But it’s all “heritage” now. Most Wedgwood is made in Jakarta – the main survival in England is the Wedgwood Story museum. It houses the company’s vast collection of its own work that was almost sold off to help pay the pension bill when Waterford Wedgwood went into liquidation in 2009.

An older local man remarked to me that when skilled workers were sent out from The Potteries to the Far East to train the workers that would replace them, they were blinded by their own sense of history: “They thought these skills were in the blood, inherited across the centuries. Turned out they were not in the blood at all – anybody could learn them.”


Old industrial England 

In a place like this – and in so many other areas of the old industrial England – nostalgia seems entirely rational. Older people will tell you that the big thing was not just that you could get a job, but that if you didn’t like the job you were in, you could leave and get another one. That sense of power (for both men and women) came from the sheer range of large factories that grew up around the core of the ceramics industry: Michelin tyres, coal mines, engineering works, the clothing plant that made most of the uniforms for the British forces.

They didn't quite believe their luck when they won in 2016 and life has taught them that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is

But it’s nearly all gone now. Stoke-on-Trent has the 12th highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods of 317 council districts in England. A third of the city’s districts are classed as being among the most deprived in the country. You don’t have to look far to see boarded-up shops. If you Google “Stoke”, one of the questions the search engine’s algorithms suggests is “Is Stoke a dump?” It isn’t but it is easy to understand why a pall of melancholia should hang over places like these, the knowledge of past greatness making the unhappy present seem even gloomier.

So of course Stoke voted for Brexit – by a resounding 69.4 per cent. This makes it a crucial battleground now. If Boris Johnson is to win a majority in next month's UK general election, he will do so because these voters (and those in similar constituencies in the midlands and the northwest of England) abandon their generational allegiance to Labour and vote Tory to "get Brexit done". In Stoke-on-Trent North, for example, Labour's Ruth Smeeth has a majority of 2,359 over the Tories in a constituency that voted 72 per cent leave in 2016. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, another Potteries constituency, 62 per cent voted leave and Labour's Paul Farrelly has a majority over the Tories of just 30 votes. These seats – and dozens more with similar voting patterns – seem easy pickings for Johnson.

Undertone of weariness

Yet the impression I got on a short visit to the area last week (and it is only an impression) was more complicated. I’m sure there are people who are obsessed with Brexit, but obsession is not what strikes you. People will tell you they voted leave but with an undertone of weariness in their voices. The melancholia that pervades the place applies to Brexit too. There is an air of fatalism about it all: we never get what we want, so why should this time be any different?

The feeling that “nobody ever listens to us anyway” seems already to have settled in. They didn’t quite believe their luck when they won in 2016 and life has taught them that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The lovely thing they thought they had three years ago has been tarnished by delay.

The question then is not whether these people have changed their minds about Brexit itself – they haven’t. It’s whether it now seems worth sacrificing everything else for. Everything else is the NHS and the schools and the local services that have been devastated by relentless Tory cuts to council budgets.

If Brexit were still the pure, shining prize it seemed to be in 2016 – a moment, for these voters, when they felt themselves powerful enough to make their own history – the answer to that question would be “yes” and Johnson would be certain to take all these seats. But it’s not and he isn’t.