Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
15 July 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:15am

I hitchhiked across Brexit Britain – this is what I learnt

Flora Neville relied on the kindness of strange voters to reach John O'Groats. 

By Flora Neville

I was standing in a service station outside Bodmin in Cornwall, holding a sign that reads “John O’ Groats”, when Mr Leave incarnate approached. He was a white, working class, sixty-something, Cornish, overweight man. “Either you’re getting married,” he said, “Or this is about Brexit.”  

In the days following the EU referendum, a friend and I decided to hitchhike from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. I voted to Leave. He voted to Remain. Marriage was clearly off the cards. 

“All I will say,” continued my fellow Leaver, “Is don’t vilify my generation. They never listened to us.” 

Blanket stereotyping is not only unhelpful, but, as I learnt on my journey, inaccurate. Opinion was nuanced, even among the gnarliest fishermen. “The trawler boys” were anaesthetising themselves in the Star Inn in the Cornish town of Newlyn where, a couple of months ago, one stabbed another in a fight over which way was north. These men rake the seafloor of everything from dolphin to mackerel. It’s a lucrative but dangerous game. They earn up to £3,000 a week, but lose skippers every year. 

“I hate boats, I don’t want to talk about boats,” said a veteran wearing a turquoise t-shirt emblazoned with the word, “iDad”. He, like everyone else in the pub, hated the EU and its various regulations. Still, iDad voted to Remain because he believed fishing was the last thing on the British government’s list of priorities. He also recognised that regulations are sometimes necessary to prevent his boys from pulling everything out of the sea. iDad is proof that not all of the electorate are narrow-minded, ignorant or stubborn.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
Defining a Kodak culture for the future
How do we restore trust in the public sector?
A better future starts at home

The crew were moving on to “the Swordy”. They insisted we join them. But we peeled off, and bumped into John, a Cornish-born handyman who gave us a bed for the night. He was devastated by the referendum result, and believed politicians and media moguls were pedalling lie after lie. “No one is listening or talking to the actual people facing the issues,” he said. “They are the ones who will always get screwed over.

“Still they’re happy. They work like dogs, sweat, eat proper food, come home, maybe shag the Mrs.”

Outside Manchester, Lee, a pro-Leave, ex-Labour voter in his mid-50s, postponed a conference call to drive us half an hour out of his way and buy us coffee. “They think us little people are stupid,” he said, “But we’re not; we want to be heard.” He picked up an empty cup and flipped it over. “That’s what needs to happen to British politics,” he said. I asked him what he wanted in a leader. “An honest person with integrity,” he replied. “Britain is a resilient country, but we’ve lost our identity.”

Identity is a word that cropped up in almost every car and conversation, whether pro-Leave or Remain. Jason, an ex-army wiry Scot who describes everything real and good as “brand new”, drove us to the remote Highland village of Strathcarron and put us up for the night. “Your country stopped being great a long time ago, you’ve got no f**kin’ identity!” he cried, as we flew 100 miles through astonishing scenery. “Scotland has identity, or at least we did. But what country when they’re offered independence f**kin’ turns it down?!”  

It took us three days, twelve hitches and a few bottles of Scotch blend to go from one political and geographical extreme to the other. It was an adventure that made me understand my own conditioning. In London, where I live, I am busy, I am earning, and I am always going places. So much as a smile on the tube is met with suspicion. In just three days I felt that hard wiring begin to slacken. The only place we were trying to get to was John O’ Groats, and frankly, at the start neither of us had believed we would succeed.

Sitting in passenger seats for 800-odd miles, I was overwhelmed by how immeasurably interesting people really are. And how resilient they can be when they are dealing with real issues – terminal cancer, losing a job, alcoholism. 

When we arrived in Wick, on the tip of the Scottish coast, it was around 6pm and ready to pour. We took refuge in a charity shop. Seeing our bedraggled state, the shop assistant, Lorna, took up our cause. Fag between sparkling pink nails, she drove us to John O’ Groats in her blue jaguar, telling us about the time she went to London for the national darts championships. We leapt out at the signpost, took a snap and felt victorious. That night, her friend put us up.   

We never had to pay for a bed; people are kind. They are also extremely frustrated. Brexit is in part a cathartic screech after years of politicians blocking their ears to anyone with an inconvenient opinion. If they start to listen, perhaps finally we will see meaningful change.