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8 July 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:26am

How Sunderland became a poster child for Brexit

Like many working class cities, Sunderland mistakenly used the referendum as a means to protest against the Establishment.

By Graeme Atkinson

I’ve been particularly struck by the media’s attention on Sunderland following the EU referendum. Even the New York Times has cast its view on a city most US citizens will never even have heard of. 

Despite being the first to rubber stamp Brexit, my city hasn’t always been so insular in its views. Time travel back a thousand years or so and a man called Bede, born in an area now known as Monkwearmouth, was emerging as a progressive scholar. The impact of this 7th Century religious man on global thinking cannot be underestimated. His contribution to the accessibility of Latin and Greek teachings to his fellow Anglo-Saxons helped indoctrinate English Christianity.  Despite this liberal heritage, Sunderland’s decision to vote leave is both regressive and at odds with the clear EU benefits to the city. As Bede himself once wrote: “All the ways of this world are as fickle and unstable as a sudden storm at sea.”

The reality is that just over 150,000 jobs in the North East rely on trade links with the EU. With high unemployment there is no longer a prosperous evening economy in Sunderland, either. It’s common for metropolitan areas to see their inhabitants spilling out of workplaces into bars and restaurants, spending their hard earned money. Unfortunately after rush hour, the city centre is deserted. It wasn’t so long ago that Wearsiders didn’t even have a cinema in which to enjoy their leisure time.

What about Nissan’s large car plant and its 6,700 employees? The Japanese car manufacturer has made a home in Sunderland since 1984. Our membership of the EU and the trade links that brings, are central to its choice of Wearside as its base. The company said as much before the referendum. While I’m sure it won’t relocate immediately, question marks have been placed over Nissan’s viability to remain in situ if trade tariffs are imposed. Despite this, even some of its own workers voted to leave.

So what does this all demonstrate? Well, no, it hasn’t been the UK Government helping my city – ironically it has been Europe. Here we are in 2016 inward looking and regressing to an apparent desire for levels of independence not seen since the kingdom of Northumbria. Frankly, Sunderland has been trying to learn to walk again since the decline of its industries, and just as one foot was being placed tentatively in front of the other, with Brexit our crutch has been kicked away.

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In Wearside, 61 per cent opted to leave, with immigration cited as a significant factor. However, only 5 per cent of people in Sunderland are non-UK born. Clearly, the apparent “issues” relating to immigration were not impacting directly on the city as much as its residents believed. These false perceptions were allowed to fester unnoticed by some.

Of course, it was not without warning. The Labour heartland of Wearside has long been painted as the fag end of the UK, with Westminster happy to stamp its heel upon it to further its own priorities. Gone are the shipyards and the mines, which gave the city a great pride and industrial vibrancy.

Against a historical political backdrop of depravation, how long does it take before the attitudes of any UK city evolve from the “bullied” into the bully? How long until sections of society, constantly subjugated by the few, take action? Famous for its links with Alice in Wonderland, Sunderland has held a looking glass over Westminster, and for too long now has seen that its sovereign rule simply bears no resemblance to life on Wearside. No, it was not without warning.

Scaremongering and uncertainty existed on both sides of the Brexit argument of course, and for Sunderland, well, it gambled on the unknown. Some may say when the alternative was the status quo, why not risk it all for the possibility of some genuine hope? It’s a fair question, but the problem was that the chance for optimism was based on dishonesties and untruths to further the political career of the very elite this city has suffered at the hands of for so long.

The politically apathetic residents of Sunderland were revitalised by the Leave campaign, that much is clear. But despite my feelings on the matter, blame cannot be placed at the door of any fellow resident making this decision, not even for making a choice that I consider breeds fear and indifference. Unfortunately, after being ostracised by a London centric government for generations, swathes of Wearside voters were galvanised by a rhetoric and hyperbole that was not commensurate with the task in hand.

This fear and suspicion of the elite that rankles in areas of low income and high unemployment allowed tribal-like factions to creep out of the dark ages in my hometown and bring their xenophobic attitudes to the ballot box. It has no place in Sunderland, or in modern society for that matter. These intolerances inextricably intertwined with a Brexit are as relevant to life now as bows and arrows, and should be consigned to the history books that our man Bede helped write.

For those leading the Brexiteers, the EU referendum was orchestrated not as a rebellion against UK’s partnership with Europe, but an uprising against the Establishment. In mistakenly blaming the EU for the historic failings of UK Government, Sunderland helped fight the wrong battle influenced by erroneous reasons. By acknowledging the warnings that should have been foreseen much earlier we can hopefully avoid a darker conflict that currently seems to be lurking around the corner.

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