Brexit: If another referendum reverses EU vote ‘there will be blood on the streets’
People in Dover are cynical about warnings that a no-deal Brexit will bring the town to a standstill if the 10,000 lorries that pass through the port every day are delayed by customs checks on both sides of the Channel. They say that they already have all-too-much experience of congestion. “What we do know is…
People inDoverare cynical about warnings that a no-dealBrexitwill bring the town to a standstill if the 10,000 lorries that pass through the port every day are delayed by customs checks on both sides of theChannel. They say that they already have all-too-much experience of congestion.
“What we do know is that Dover is going to be gridlocked whatever happens,” says a local trade union official whose members work on the cross-Channel ferries.
“It is bad enough here as it is on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when traffic is at its heaviest, particularly at this time of year when the bad weather delays the ferries and we have deadlock.” He pointed to the rain-swept road outside his office where a long line of trucks was stopped bumper-to-bumper.
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Local specialists in cross-Channel logistics in Dover are unconvinced that a no-deal Brexit on 29 March would be as calamitous as the British government claims, seeing its warnings as scare tactics geared to frighten the House of Commons and theEUinto reaching a deal.
Andy Tomlinson, who lives in the town, has spent a long career shifting goods in and out of the UK since well before customs barriers with the EU were abolished 25 years ago. He says he voted Remain because “it is easier to move cargo toHollandor elsewhere if there is no border control”.
But, even if this is reimposed, he is not too worried, scoffing at the idea that any British government could allow its trade with the rest of Europe to be strangled.
One particularly menacing leaked government report says that trade between Dover andCalaiscould collapse byup to 87 per cent for six monthsin the event of Britain tumbling out of the EU without an agreement. Tomlinson is sceptical that anything so cataclysmic is going to happen – largely because it would be so cataclysmic.
“On the supply chain, which is the area I work in,” he says, “we’ve only got a maximum of two days’ worth of products on the road at one time so I can’t imagine [transport secretary]Chris Graylingand his colleagues saying that ‘it’s going to be hard borders, it’s going to take nine days to get your stuff cleared through the ports’ – and all that rubbish. I personally can’t see something being done which is going to generate enough panic to make the UK come to a standstill.”
He may be right on this and, even if he is not, he is very much aware of a lucrative silver lining for himself and people in his line of business whatever the nature of additional regulatory obstacles to trade if Britain and the EU fail to reach an agreement: “If we get a border as it was before 1993, everything [moving in and out of UK to EU countries] will need customs clearance, so for my business… it is fantastic.”
He recalls halcyon days before open borders with the EU when businesses like his were needed to clear the way for cross-Channel trade in Dover, Ramsgate and other ports.
The much-predicted crisis at Dover may never happen, or, if it does, may be less of an armageddon than many have predicted. The media focus on the port as the choke-point for £122bn in imports and exports will shift away.
This would be a pity, because the 30,000 people who live in the town of Dover say that they are the victims of a slow-burn crisis – more serious for them than the melodramas of Brexit – that has transformed their lives for the worse since the early 1980s. Older residents recall that there used to be well-paid secure jobs available in this part of Kent, for instance at the East Kent coalfields just to the north of Dover, which at their peak employed thousands of miners before closing in the late 1980s.
The bitter legacy of the great miners’ strike against pit closures in 1984-85 lingers on. Kay Sutcliffe, who lives in the former mining village of Aylesham, says that “losing the pit here lost the heart of the village”. Other big employers, such as the Chatham dockyards, were closing or had already closed by then and, while there were new jobs, they were less secure than the old.
Government institutions such as barracks, prison and hospitals were eliminated or thinned out, while the ferry companies started recruiting staff from well outside the East Kent catchment area. Peter Wright, an official of the Public and Commercial Services Union in Dover, says that well-paid jobs have disappeared so that “there is only a small pot of money left from people who earn good wages in Dover and spend them in the town”.
Expenditure is squeezed for another reason too: Dover has a large Eastern European population who work hard but remit as much of their wages as they can back “home” to their families, sleeping four or five to a one-bedroom flat and spending as little in the locality as possible.
Interviews with people in Dover byThe Independent, and particularly those with Labour Party activists and trade unionists, show how difficult it would be for the party to oppose or be seen to hinder Brexit.
Opposition to a second referendum and “fence-sitting” is often blamed on covert anti-EU beliefs held byJeremy Corbynand a hard-left faction around him. But in Dover and Deal, a seat which Labour held between 1997 and 2010 and hopes to regain if it is to form a government, the Labour leadership stance very much reflects the political situation on the ground. Leave won 62 per cent of the vote in this district in 2016 and opinions have not changed significantly since then.
Again and again, Labour Party members and voters say that they see the decision to leave the EU as a vote against an unacceptable status quo that should not be revisited. This is a political reality which, when repeated on a national scale, has made it difficult to stop Britain leaving the EU.
At times it feels as if all the ills of post-industrial Britain are on display in Dover – and are at odds with the grandeur of its setting at the mouth of a small valley which cuts through the famous white chalk cliffs that tower over the town and became a symbol of Britain’s defiance of Hitler. Dover has been “the Gateway to England” since prehistoric times (a surprisingly sophisticated 3,500-year-old bronze-age boat is in the local museum) and is overlooked by the magnificent medieval fortress built by Henry II.
“When you look up you see this beautiful castle – perhaps the best in England,” says Judith Lee, who has worked in Dover on social issues for seven years, “but [at ground level] all the big shops on the high street like Marks and Spencer have closed. Even McDonald’s has gone and a joke in the town is that if even they can’t make money on the high street then nobody can.”
The largest store still open on the high street is a charity shop. “I walked down Dover high street last Saturday and it is desolate,” says Tomlinson. “You get people asking you for 40 pence.”
Conditions in the rest of Dover often appear better when looked at from the street than they really are. “There are massive four-storey houses all divided into bedsits, overcrowded, often in disrepair and hit by drugs and crime,” says Lee. She considers herself fairly tough and difficult to intimidate, but adds that there are streets in central Dover she considers almost too risky to visit.
Levels of deprivation are high: wages are low, educational standards poor, rents high and poverty growing. Benefits have been curtailed by the introduction of universal credit, which was rolled out in full under a pilot scheme in Dover in 2017. “Its introduction led to an immediate jump of 65 per cent in people resorting to food banks,” says one local source, who adds that even people in wheelchairs are being denied disability benefits.
The poorer areas of Dover are in the centre and the better-off on the outskirts. Pretty but expensive houses in places like River stand beside the Dour chalk stream that finally disappears into a culvert before reaching the harbour.
The town is overlooked by the White Cliffs Park that offers an ever-changing view of ships moving in and out of the port and the crowded shipping lanes in the Channel between Dover and Calais 22 miles away. Visitors from Britain and abroad are attracted to the White Cliffs andDover Castle, but the tourists do not do much good to people in the town, which is short of good hotels, restaurants and places to stay.
A striking feature of life in Dover is not only the deprivation, but the high level of inequality between rich and poor districts – and between Dover and other towns nearby like Deal and Sandwich. “We are back in Victorian times,” says Lee.
Lamenting the loss of well-respected, well-paying jobs, Wright says that “the middle class doesn’t exist anymore – there are just high earners and ‘just-getting-bys’ whomTheresa Maypromised to help and hasn’t.” He adds that there is a “skills gap” between Britain and other countries with too few British workers trained as able seamen or ship’s engineers. Speaking of the civil service, he complains that “a lot of my members are earning less now than they were in 2010: they certainly aren’t going to be going to Waitrose to buy artisan bread”.
Other trade unionists concur and see outsourcing as an all-embracing threat to secure, well-paid employment.
Mike Sargent, a railwayman who is on the trades council, denounces outsourcing as “a race to the bottom. We used to have hundreds and hundreds of people who worked on the railways. They have been done away with. It is these cowboy firms that come and go bust.”
Many of these problems and issues are the same as in the rest of the country but in Dover they are present in an extreme form. This is particularly true of immigration: unsurprisingly many immigrants arrive in or close to Dover as the nearest point to France.
Charlotte Cornell, the Labour candidate for the Conservative-held Dover and Deal constituency, recounted her experiences inpart one of this series. She says that when she is campaigning on the doorstep “there’s that narrative of ‘if we can’t look after our own, why should we extend a hand to others?’ It’s ‘look after our own first’.” She explains that “when you go onto local internet forums there is a variety of opinions, but some are extreme, saying ‘shoot them’, ‘sink their boats’ – really violent xenophobic stuff.”
Conversations on the street in Dover reveal a false but widely-shared conviction that immigrants receive feather-bed treatment along with substantial financial benefits – often £350 a week is cited – which far exceed anything paid to British pensioners.
In practice, the better skilled East European immigrants, temporary or permanent, usually move on from Dover because they can see that there are few jobs and it is only the less skilled who stay put. One of the largest immigrant communities is made up of Slovakian Roma (gypsies) who started arriving in Dover in the late 1990s. There is an acute awareness of ethnic differences.
Sam Hall, a primary school teacher at a school in the centre of Dover, says: “I had a five-year old pupil, a lovely little boy, who said he had been beastly to a Slovakian because the Slovakians are ‘part of the black army’. I asked his mother about this and she went bright red [with embarrassment] because the five-year old must have heard it from her.”
On another occasion, Hall showed her pupils a picture of the Nasa control room at the time of the moon landing and asked them if they noticed anything about it (she was hoping that they would notice that there were no women present). One small girl considered her answer for a moment and asked: “is it because they are all Polish?” White, non-Slovakian families complain that, if there are five or more Slovakian children in a class, then their own children get less attention. Others feel that education never did them much good, or put them on a ladder to a better life, so why should it help their children.
Hall says that “when family liaison officers visit homes what they often see is a giant TV, a couple of sofas, iPhones, iPads and no books or toys.”
One local observer says that the outcome of the 2016 referendum in Dover was solely determined by the issue of immigration.
“The Leave vote was sold on one subject and one subject only which was immigration,” he says. “It isn’t that people think that Britain needs to be a great nation along the lines of some Churchillian version of ‘Let’s Make Britain Great Again’.”
Others do not disagree entirely with this, but they say that there were multiple reasons for the vote, such as lack of good jobs and a belief, that was not necessarily racist, that immigrants were taking those that are available. These discontents blended with anger over issues for which the EU and immigration were scapegoated, such as NHS cuts, school closures and a reduction in bus services.
Eric Segal, a Labour Party supporter and trade unionist, says: “I’ve been politically active for years and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a turnout like that for the referendum ever before.”
Asked what would happen if there was a second referendum or Britain’s departure from the EU was neutered or reversed, Segal replies: “I think it would increase anger by 100 per cent; I personally think that there would be blood in the streets.”
This could well be so, though he also expresses the frustration of a political activist with the apathy and what he describes as the traditional British attitude of “mustn’t grumble” and “you didn’t hit me hard enough so hit me again – we are like that in this country”.
The apathy could well win out over the anger and Tomlinson may be right in dismissing as exaggerated fears that a no-deal Brexit will produce chaos in Dover.
What is less clear is why leaving the EU – or staying in it, for that matter – will seriously improve the lives of people in Dover.