One recent afternoon I set out on my old Raleigh bike on a tour of post-Brexit Britain. Two years earlier I had travelled the country on my bike as I researched a book. Now, after the vote for Brexit, I began another journey, this time with an even stronger sense of political disorientation. I wanted to discover what had become of the euphoria and, indeed, anger so present after the referendum of 23 June. For two weeks I cycled through the ex-industrial towns and cities of the Midlands and the north of England, two of the regions I visited in 2014.
My method then had been basic and, to some, ill-advised. Over the four months I cycled, I either wild-camped or stayed in the homes of people who had heard about my venture by word of mouth, or whom I’d met along the road, and I asked people, simply: “What is life like here?” I received a bewildering range of responses, from worries about wages or what world their children might inherit, to explanations about ecological and community projects built on a sense of renewal and hope. I encountered generosity and insight into different ways of life in Britain, and last summer published my findings as Island Story, a travelogue in the spirit of William Cobbett and Orwell.
Many of the areas I had written about are now readily associated with Brexit, such as Barnsley (68 per cent Leave), the former mining town in South Yorkshire. Covering the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Channel 4 News sent a crew there. Its report featured a local man who explained why he had voted Leave: “It’s not about trade or Europe or anything like that, it’s all about immigration. It’s to stop the Muslims coming into the country, simple as that.”
The presentation of what people in this town or Sheffield and Wakefield nearby had called “Barnsley Man” had been a sore point. In Sheffield (51 per cent Leave) Allie, an artist and teacher, felt it absolved the wealthier south of responsibility, even though the south had voted in far greater numbers to leave. Barnsley Man – old, white, working class, ignorant, racist, and unable to speak without losing his temper – was a sign of a prevailing narrative of Brexit as a catastrophic revolt by a misinformed and alienated northern working class, an explanation that became increasingly unsatisfactory as I travelled and talked to people.
“Damn good thing it were, too,” said one former miner at a working men’s club, as we discussed Barnsley’s vote to leave. Some agreed, others shook their head. I had passed “Vote Leave” stickers plastered on the walls of a derelict social club, and encountered common justifications that cited uncontrolled eastern European migration, resulting in the loss of local jobs. But people’s concerns were not about immigration itself, or cultural identity; rather, they centred on low wages and employment. “There’s nowt round ’ere ’cept call centres,” said Rory, a young betting-shop worker.
Many customer-service centres operate in the nearby Dearne Valley. The work is insecure, stressful and subject to a demeaning level of surveillance (call response rates, targets met, time spent in the toilet). Other sources of employment include distribution warehouses and factories of several major clothes retailers. I was told repeatedly that these companies recruited and bussed in Polish workers from Warsaw to work on a seasonal basis for low pay, at the expense of local people.
“I’ve been trying to take it to the papers,” a young woman said to me as the issue was raised in the back room of the Red Shed, the Labour club in Wakefield, West Yorkshire (66 per cent Leave). She had become aware of the practice of bussing in through a friend at one factory, but my later research showed that it’s an open secret. One must attribute some validity to such stories, at least in terms of how local people feel. They hint at the complex and contradictory stories and motivations behind Brexit in former industrial areas such as these.
“It’s divide and rule,” said a woman who had earlier told me about her involvement in the miners’ strike pickets thirty years earlier. “We have to fight to push up their wage, and challenge the bosses.”
In what the political economist William Davies calls a “shadow welfare state”, many people across the north are employed in poorly paid call-centre or service-sector jobs, subsidised by in-work tax credits. Child and working-tax credits, implemented by the New Labour government, in effect benefit low-wage employers as much as workers, and cost the state £30bn a year. A further £9.3bn in housing benefits was paid to private landlords last year. Though tax credits and housing benefits provide a lifeline to workers and their families struggling to make ends meet, they do nothing to address the underlying problems of low wages or unemployment, or the need for a new public strategy to encourage higher-skilled, higher-waged work.
Cycling from one former industrial town to the next, I observed that the primary contributions to the built environment in the past three decades or so are the retail park and out-of-town supermarket. Like the call centre or the distribution warehouse, they are the principal points of Britain’s service sector, and are enabled by unskilled local workforces on state-subsidised low wages and the complex logistics of globalised trade. Spread across Britain and similar in appearance everywhere, these bland structures signal the possibilities and pitfalls of state investment guided by short-term economic gain.
Workers are increasingly caught in a cycle of insecure and unpredictable shift patterns, thanks to zero-hours contracts. This makes claiming housing benefit difficult, and includes spells of unemployment during which credit cards, payday loans or borrowing from friends and family become the main means of subsistence. A recent Trades Union Congress report found that 3.2 million households were in “problem debt”, spending more than 25 per cent of their household income on unsecured debt repayments. Of this number, 1.6 million households are in “extreme debt”, handing over more than 40 per cent of their earnings to creditors. Some of the poorest households choose not to join the electoral register, fearing that their details will be shared with debt collection agencies, and are thus locked out of political representation.
In the wilted yet cheerful seaside town of Morecambe, Sonya painted a stark picture of her work as a private lettings agent. Over £9.3bn of public money was paid to private landlords in housing benefit last year, a doubling over ten years, and far more expensive than building affordable accommodation. Sonya’s tenants are “trapped” in cycles of poverty and debt, with no obvious reprieve or refuge. “What good are food banks when people can’t afford to pay their gas or electricity to heat the food?” she said.
Although such stories illustrate the UK’s gaping wealth inequalities, they also show the dismal progress in some areas in the quarter-century since John Major’s pledge of a “classless” society and the infamous (mis)quote of John Prescott that “we are all middle class now”. The political effects of such social shifts have not yet fully come to light. The surge in support for Ukip across the ex-industrial north and east over 2014-15 has been stalled, for now, by uncertainty about the party’s leadership since Nigel Farage’s resignation. But I was struck by a pessimism in these communities, so many of which felt overwhelmed by an unfair fate. The horizons of political possibility had been hemmed in by the miseries of economic hardship.
Many I met felt untouched by politics, perhaps because politicians of all stripes rarely speak with any insight into the difficult decisions involved in juggling household debt, or the mixed feelings involved in claiming benefits. It has become a banality to invoke the Stakhanovite image of “hard-working families”; less often do we hear directly from these individuals, with the occasional exception of exploitative TV series such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street or The Great British Benefits Handout (Channel 5).
On the road, few people spoke about political leaders, and Labour’s spate of self-flaying in its second leadership election since May 2015 prompted indifference or disappointment. Talk of Trident or renationalising the trains may be too theoretical, even middle class, in places where basic poverty is an elementary concern. Usually, luminaries on the left, such as the polemicist Owen Jones, address the comfortably converted, gathered punctually in town halls, immune from the debate among the depoliticised masses in the pubs, supermarkets and bedrooms of this island.
Cycling around Britain, I would set out most days without knowing where I’d end up. Such nomadism came not without stresses. But it was a fair exchange for serendipity – sunset conversations with shepherds along Loch Eriboll, blue jokes in the lock-ins of Liverpool and Dalmellington, or the drama of lugging a weighty steel mule up the steeps of Snowdonia and the eye-watering wonder of plunging down the other side.
I had no map, and sometimes relied on the tent and a discreet field or park for a place to kip, but more often I found contacts through a blog and social media. Pulling over on street corners or stopping at fast-food outlets, supermarkets and pubs, I would mine passers-by for clues.
As I travelled through Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, I listened to people projecting the effects of austerity on to migrants. In Corby, Scottish workers told me that Poles had “overrun” the area. “I just don’t like the ones claiming [benefits],” said a barmaid in one town-centre pub. Others such as Ashgar, a former steelworker in Rotherham, blamed the “greed” of “London” or factory owners for the loss of local steel jobs, rather than any government policy or trend towards deindustrialisation.
Stories of feeling left behind by the economic development of “London” were common. “London” had privatised industries and utilities, and cut funding from communities to prop up a corrupt banking system while people outside the capital were sanctioned for minor or non-existent benefit improprieties. “London” had imposed a narrow political and cultural vision on the rest of the country which gave communities no great say in how they were governed. To many of the people I met, the word “London” carried the same negative connotation as “neoliberalism” or “globalisation”, and had a similar meaning.
The chain stores may stock the latest cheap gadgets and clothes from the Far East, but for many communities the loss of jobs, community buildings, social care and affordable rents has been too high a price to pay. Voting Leave became a kind of protest button, pushed in anger at decades-long disempowerment. Brexit, a largely English independence movement ostensibly against the EU, is at times indistinguishable from a movement for independence from “London”. Voters judged that the potential hardships associated with leaving were a price worth paying to regain sovereignty from the capital.
In Nottingham (51 per cent Leave), David talked of friends in his home town of Long Eaton, Derbyshire, who had voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. “A whole two generations of massively disenfranchised people put two fingers up to the elite,” he said. To Jeremy Corbyn’s chagrin, many Brexiteers live in safe Labour seats.
For the painter John Wilkinson, the problem was clear: “In England it is already yesterday.” Among left-wing artists in the exhibition “Fighting for Crumbs” in Sheffield, the mood was disillusioned yet reactive. In these pessimistic visions, the future seemed lost or abandoned. Beside Wilkinson’s paintings were photos by Connor Matheson capturing teenage ravers, food banks, Grimethorpe miners celebrating Thatcher’s death, and more mundane moments amid allotments and council estates festooned with St George flags. Reconstructions of the past seemed to preoccupy many people, as they struggled to identify new sources of pride in their decaying environment.
Dependency on benefits to subsist in boring, insecure or difficult low-wage work does not inspire gratitude. Writing in June in the London Review of Books, James Meek made a similar observation about farmers, many of whom supported Brexit even though they are heavily reliant on EU subsidies to augment the plummeting prices paid by supermarkets. “It’s an unholy mess that’s developing,” said Eden, as we spoke on his sheep-rearing smallholding beside a large Argos distribution centre in Darlington, on Teesside. Globalisation has reduced prices and forced many farmers into a race to the bottom. “People want to blame the poor for the situation they find themselves in,” he said.
But it’s not only farmers who feel beleaguered, their pride or way of life tested by recent developments. The collapse of manufacturing, mining and steel since the late 1970s has resulted in what Jeremy Seabrook, interviewing people in the West Midlands last summer, called “unhealed social and psychological lesions of class”. In his book Cut Out: Living Without Welfare, Seabrook argues that these areas were not given the chance to grieve for the industries they have lost and around which generations of communities had developed.
Travelling through the same parts, I found it common to hear of cities spoken about in the past tense. In Wolverhampton it was locks and furniture; Nottingham, bicycles and lace; in Bradford and Halifax, textiles. Each town had its trade. “It’s got a lovely history,” said Ian in Wolverhampton. “Shame it’s a s***hole now.” For there is no belonging or co-ownership in the glut of retail parks left behind, nor in the finance sector or on the property ladder. “We used to make things,” said Steve in Derby, using his own city’s economic uncertainties as a symbol of something broader.
Emma, a part-time teacher working in the Midlands in Tipton and Dudley, told me about young mothers to whom she taught basic budgeting and childcare. “People complain about scrounging . . . Most people I meet, they’re just trying to get by.”
The Brexit vote has exposed rather than initiated this incoherence. If a shared sense of place or identity is defined by making or doing, then those who cannot make or do – from welfare recipients to foreign nationals who use the NHS – become, in the eyes of some, despised. Two implications follow. First, pride in work correlates to a misleading notion of a “traditional working class”, readily linked to manual work, social conservatism and older age, such as that of Barnsley Man. This understanding of class as primarily cultural (through which the concept of a beleaguered, mythically homogeneous “white working class” often arises) obscures what is the original and more obvious economic definition of “the working class”: those who must work, will work, or have had to work full-time for a basic living. Class is no longer clear.
A second implication of pride in work emerges in how this is internalised where such work isn’t readily available, as in Barnsley or Rotherham, or the struggling former industrial cities of the north-east, such as Ashington and Middlesbrough, or Newport in south Wales. In Langley Moor, County Durham, Clarissa and her daughter told me about the high suicide rate among young men. Elsewhere I heard tales told, in hushed tones, of brothers, fathers and friends who had taken their own lives – each for different reasons, but so often in places bereft of investment and hope. Where communities, certainties and “jobs for life” are disarrayed by forces so distant and complex they might well be confused with fate, the individual effects can be terrible.
Pessimistic narratives of decline and “Broken Britain” are tedious, and also stand as obstacles to imagining political alternatives. Seismic changes to the fundaments of the United Kingdom will have consequences over the coming decades, but exactly how so remains unclear. Absent from most of the debate during the Brexit campaign was a discussion about the future of the political union between not only Britain and Europe, but also the UK’s member states. What kind of society do, say, the English desire? How will it be powered, how will its people house and employ themselves, and how will it be governed?
Across my post-Brexit journey, I quizzed people about the kinds of political transformation they would like to see. In Nottingham, I heard compelling arguments for a universal basic income and a 30-hour working week, aided by automation and progressive taxation. In Sheffield, the artists Glen Stoker and Anna Chrystal Stephens invited me on a group trespass of a patch of derelict wasteland near the city centre. Discussions about what this site could become in public hands led to wider questions about who owns much of Britain. In Manchester (60 per cent Remain), Jen enthused about rediscovering politics along with neighbours in her community and Steve refused to acknowledge what some would call realism – the necessity of compromising one’s political intentions. In Liverpool (58 per cent Remain), Brian, an indefatigable trade unionist, debated with international students the need to invest in green energy.
All were inspired by developments in Scotland, where a very different-natured independence campaign has led to lasting discussions about a progressive and better future for all. Instead of reactions against low wages, or perceptions of immigration or the effects of austerity, here there are discussions about renewable power, buying back local land into common ownership, as well as rediscovering local histories and the Scots Gaelic tongue.
Is it naively idealistic to imagine that the same could happen here, elsewhere in our post-Brexit land? Perhaps, but within such hope lies the motivation to act.
J D Taylor’s book “Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain” is published by Repeater
This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage