Brexit voters in fading towns wonder if they were misled

By Rick Noack

People in Gravesend and Tilbury on the River Thames are worried about what's next for an increasingly divided Britain. Photo / iStock
People in Gravesend and Tilbury on the River Thames are worried about what's next for an increasingly divided Britain. Photo / iStock

After mass layoffs in the 1970s and '80s, the once-vibrant port town of Tilbury in southeastern England lost much of its glory.

Many stores are closed, and windows are broken. A closed guest house in the town's centre is plastered with advertisements for instant cash loans. "Money matters," one reads.

Tilbury is one of England's poorest places - and one of its most Eurosceptic. More than 72 per cent of voters here and in surrounding Thurrock in Essex voted for Britain to leave the European Union in last week's referendum. Few places voted more decisively.

But by today, the initial excitement among some pro-Brexit voters had already started to disappear, making room for worries about what's next for an increasingly divided Britain.

Some in this town of 12,000 have also begun to wonder whether they had been misled by politicians advocating to leave the EU amid a campaign marked by negativity on both sides.

"I was swayed by the rhetorics, but if I had thought this through, I would have voted to stay in. I would certainly do so now," said Antony Kerin, 38, who was watching his daughter at a newly refurbished but nearly empty playground.

Concerns about the economic fallout from the vote were on the minds of many here. Many who voted in favour of Brexit work in professions and for companies that could suffer under uncertainty over trade deals, such as car manufacturers. And they predominantly live in poorer regions - those that have received significant subsidies from the EU.

Tilbury was hoping to receive an EU grant worth more than US$6 million, but those dreams were shattered by the referendum results.

Kerin, who moved to Tilbury 10 years ago and is currently unemployed, said he had been trying to move to public housing in a different city. But he will likely have to remain patient: Out of Thurrock's 165,000 residents, 6500 are on a waiting or transfer list for public housing.

"They're making us stay here to rot," said Kerin, referring to county officials and the British Government.

For others in Tilbury, the referendum has had deeply personal implications. The news that Britain had voted to leave the EU shocked Kate Clarke, 38, but not her husband.

"He voted for a Brexit and told me I was blind. He was short-sighted, but many others were, too," she said.

"I know people who've fallen out with their friends over this," Clarke said while preparing for a bike tour at the World's End - one of the last pubs in Tilbury.

Clarke said she understands what might have motivated her self-employed husband to vote to leave the EU. Over the past years, migrants had increasingly competed with locals in the town and had brought down prices for services - driving some entrepreneurs out of business, she said.

"There is a lot boiling beneath the surface here," said Steve Liddiard, 65, the local councillor who is a member of the Labour Party. "People's anger is understandable, but they blame the European Union for what is actually the British Government's fault."

But not everyone agrees. "I'm so happy we voted out," Nigel Foster, 45, said as he stood outside a pub next to Liddiard.

A supporter of the right-wing UK Independence Party (Ukip), Foster works at Tilbury's port. "I've seen migrants arrive here illegally in containers. Now, we can finally send them back to where they came from," he said.

"But that has nothing to do with the EU," Liddiard said.

Liddiard later said he would have continued to specify that it was not immigrants who are driving up housing prices in Tilbury, but rather Londoners moving to the outskirts. But before he could continue, he was interrupted by Foster's 24-year old daughter, Jay.

"I have had a full-time job for years, but I still have to live with my parents because I cannot afford my own home," she said, adding that she had voted against EU membership.

He voted for a Brexit and told me I was blind. He was short-sighted, but many others were, too
Kate Clarke

But she insisted the referendum had already made things worse. "We should not have been able to make this decision. There was so much scaremongering on television. And now it's madness, absolute madness. Nobody knows what will happen."

Standing inside his laundry shop, Nigeria-born Izuchukwu Eze, 37, smiled when he said people in Tilbury had treated him well over the past eight years. But neither he nor his Polish wife understand the political views of their neighbours.

"They don't have a clue," Eze said. "When they hear people like Ukip politician Nigel Farage say on television that we should leave, then they will vote 'leave'. "

Eze said believes Tilbury will regret voting to exit the EU. "Some of my customers have come here over the last two days, loudly asking themselves: 'Have we done the right thing?'

"I don't think so," Eze said.

But despite uncertainty over his future residence status, Russian-Estonian migrant Vladislaw viewed the referendum outcome more positively. He declined to give his full name because of concerns about employment.

The 22-year old chef, who moved to Britain a year ago with an EU passport, does not believe Britain's decision to leave the EU will have a significant impact on his own future.

"I'm not an idiot, he said. "This country needs us."

- Washington Post

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