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Splintered Isle: A Journey Through Brexit Britain

SHIREBROOK, England — There used to be a mine at the edge of this small town near the center of England. Now there is only a warehouse.

The mine provided coal that powered the country. The warehouse stores tracksuits.

The mine meant a job for life. The warehouse offers mostly temporary work for the lowest legal wage.

You work here, one worker told me in the drizzly parking lot last month, and you get treated like a monkey.

Shirebrook was the third stop of a 900-mile journey I made through Britain last month. I was trying to make sense of a splintered country in the run-up to the Dec. 12 general election. The outside world typically sees Britain through the affluence and cosmopolitanism of London, but other than one quick stop there, I went elsewhere, looking for people beyond the capital’s glare.

Everywhere I went, it felt as if the country were coming unbound. For all sorts of reasons, all sorts of people — Leavers and Remainers; blue- and white-collar; Jews and Muslims; English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh — felt alienated and unmoored.

At times, I was reminded that electoral politics are far removed from many people’s priorities, which range from simply making a living to fighting global warming. “There’s no Brexit on a dead planet,” said Lauren McDonald, a Glasgow student who recently quit college to mobilize against climate change.

Again and again, though, people came back to the politics of nationalism, austerity and economic alienation. And in Shirebrook and beyond, the frustrations were rooted in Brexit.

Since the surrounding constituency was formed in 1950, its mostly working-class residents have always elected a Labour lawmaker.

Then came the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which seven in 10 local voters supported Britain’s departure from the European Union. Many are now furious that the country still hasn’t left.

“Every time you turn the television on, it’s all Brexit,” said Kevin Cann, a Shirebrook resident and former miner who voted to leave. “By now it should have been done, dusted.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a pro-Brexit Conservative, hopes to turn his minority government into a majority by capitalizing on that frustration. For the first time ever, that could tip Shirebrook’s seat to the Conservatives, a party once detested in mining constituencies like this one.

“Miners now are like, ‘Oh, Boris, Boris,’” said Alan Gascoyne, who once headed the mine’s union branch and now runs a former miners’ club.

“Crazy,” he added.

The local warehouse is at the heart of this extraordinary shift, both in Shirebrook and across post-industrial England.

It was built in 2005 on the site of the town’s former coal pit. For years, the mine was the pride of Shirebrook — the reason the town was built in 1896. The work there was dangerous, but it provided secure jobs, fair salaries and pensions, as well as a sense of purpose and community.

The pit was “like the mother,” Mr. Gascoyne said. “The mother sort of looked after everybody.”

But the mine closed in 1993, amid a wider process of deindustrialization and privatization carried out by the same Conservative Party that Mr. Johnson now leads.

Twelve grim years later, it was physically replaced by the warehouse, but the emotional void remained. The warehouse provides more jobs than the mine did, but it is mostly low-paid work in humiliating conditions.

A worker gave birth in the warehouse and left the baby in a bathroom. Others were penalized for taking short breaks to drink water. A parliamentary inquiry found that the owners, Sports Direct, treated its workers “without dignity or respect.”

Most residents refused to work in such a degrading environment, so the jobs are largely taken by people from poorer parts of the European Union. In the local consciousness, the concept of regional decline then became fused with that of European immigration, instead of neoliberal economics.

“I looked at what was around me, and I looked at the dilution of wages — because Europeans are coming in,” said Franco Passarelli, the son of Italian immigrants, explaining why he voted to leave the European Union. “We’re only a small island, and if people keep coming in, basically the country is starting to implode.”

In a Brexit-less world, this town might still vote en masse for Labour. The party’s manifesto promises to raise the minimum wage and scrap the kinds of employment contracts used at the warehouse.

But all of this has been trumped by Brexit.

Before joining the European Union, Britain was “quite a wealthy country,” said Mr. Cann, the former miner. “Why can’t we be that again?”

In Shirebrook, as in much of Britain, I sensed that following through with Brexit was seen as something that could restore the social fabric. But elsewhere, it was chewing at the ties that bind.

For some wealthy Londoners, who typically vote Conservative but also like Europe, Brexit has undermined their support for Mr. Johnson’s party. For some ethnic and religious minorities, it is even menacing.

To illustrate this point, Maxie Hayles, a veteran campaigner for racial equality, took me to a hotel in the puddled center of Birmingham, Britain’s second city.

The hotel had long been refurbished, its floor plan altered, even its name changed. But finally, Mr. Hayles found a particular room.

This was the place where in 1968 Enoch Powell, then a Conservative government minister, made a notoriously racist speech claiming immigration would ruin Britain. To this day, that speech remains synonymous for some Britons with prejudice and division. Mr. Hayles, who was then a 25-year-old Jamaican immigrant, still remembers the fear it gave his community.

Britain has since changed. A black-owned business now occupies Mr. Powell’s office. The hotel room has been divided in two, repaneled and recarpeted. But Brexit risks tearing up the metaphorical carpet again, Mr. Hayles warned.

Racist attacks increased around the time of the referendum campaign, by about a fifth. The prime minister has compared hijab-wearers to mailboxes. And Mr. Powell has a modern-day cheerleader in Nigel Farage, Brexit’s biggest proponent.

“We’re not into good times, in terms of Brexit and what it means for black minorities in Britain,” Mr. Hayles said. “It’s serious days ahead.”

In London, at a rabbinical school in a 300-year-old manor house, I had lunch with Laura Janner-Klausner, the most senior rabbi in British Reform Judaism.

She is no Brexit supporter, but she also fears prejudice from another quarter: Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s leadership has been slow to address instances of anti-Semitism.

Addressing poverty is a moral issue for Jews, Rabbi Janner-Klausner said. “Which is why, in the past, the natural place for Jews in this country was the Labour party.”

So while she and many Jewish voters have traditionally voted Labour — her father was a Labour lawmaker, as was his father before him — she will not in this election.

She is not alone. Several Labour lawmakers have quit in horror, including Luciana Berger, who is running in Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s constituency for the Liberal Democrats, a rival centrist party.

And last month, the spiritual head of Britain’s Orthodox Jews said Mr. Corbyn’s leadership put at stake “the very soul of our nation.”

Rabbi Janner-Klausner did not go as far. She said that the biggest threat to British minorities remained the far right.

“But here,” she said, “I will vote for Luciana.”

We turned left at the pink pub, through the mist, then up into the Welsh mountains. Down a track to the right stood the Davies farm. Ceri Davies was in the barn behind the house, checking the renovations.

Wales does not loom large in British political discourse. Its independence movement is smaller than Scotland’s. But even in these remote uplands, something is nevertheless stirring, partly thanks to Brexit.

Mr. Davies has lived all of his life in this single valley, barring three months in a nearby town. He speaks Welsh with friends and didn’t know a word of English until school. His father was a sheep farmer, and so is Mr. Davies. His 750 sheep grazed on the slopes above us.

Brexit threatens that — hence the barn.

Like many British farms, Mr. Davies’s business breaks even only because of a subsidy from the European Union. Worse still, Europe beyond Britain’s borders buys about a third of Welsh lamb.

The Conservatives have promised to replace the subsidies with new payments. But if European officials place tariffs on British meat after Brexit, it might ruin farms like Mr. Davies’s.

“It is pretty scary,” he said.

So the barn, along with the lush meadow behind it, is his insurance. Mr. Davies and his wife, Rebecca Ingleby-Davies, plan to turn the meadow into a luxury campsite, or “glampsite.” The barn will house the showers.

There is an irony to it: Idealized as a return to British traditions and heritage, Brexit might instead finish some of them off.

“This area is really built around farming,” Ms. Ingleby-Davies said. “If you take that away, then you’re going to lose a massive amount of culture and community.”

Not to mention the Welsh language, which is spoken more often in rural areas.

Mr. Davies is sanguine — he gets on with everybody, even the people whose Brexit votes might wreck his business. But Ms. Ingleby-Davies finds it harder to forget. There are people she now avoids, certain gatherings she boycotts.

That frustration has swelled into something more profound. She wants Wales to stay in the European Union — as an independent country.

That is still a minority view. But polling suggests that up to a third of Welsh voters are warming to the idea as Brexit rumbles on and the specter of English nationalism rises.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a nationalistic person,” Ms. Ingleby-Davies said. But she thought that an independent Wales, protected by the European Union, would be “stronger than just being, you know, an afterthought in London.”

The ferry slid from the Liverpool docks, past the red cranes and into the Irish Sea. Outside, the waves were gentle. In the canteen, passengers were seething.

Alan Kinney set aside his tuna salad to make his point. “It would be a big, big betrayal,” he said.

The cause of his anger was the sea itself: This stretch of water between two parts of the United Kingdom — Britain and Northern Ireland — has become the latest obstacle to Brexit.

During the last decades of the 20th century, nationalists in Northern Ireland unsuccessfully fought to reunite the territory, which remains under British control, with the Republic of Ireland, which won independence in 1922. Most paramilitaries put down their arms in 1998, after a peace deal opened the land border between northern and southern Ireland.

To avoid enforcing post-Brexit customs checks on that land border, Mr. Johnson has effectively agreed to treat the entire island of Ireland as a single customs area. Customs checks will instead be enforced on goods crossing between Britain and Northern Ireland, in sea ferries like this one.

That might placate many Irish nationalists. But it has enraged the territory’s loyalists — Northern Irish residents, mainly from Protestant backgrounds, who want to remain within the United Kingdom. They feel the customs checks would create a reunified Ireland in all but name.

Mr. Kinney, a member of the Orange Order, a hard-line loyalist group, pulled a magazine from his bag.

“No to a sea border,” the centerfold read. “No to an economic united Ireland! No surrender!”

The next article was about Catholic pedophiles.

Three tables away, Tim McKee fortunately had not heard our conversation. A nationalist, Mr. McKee certainly did not want a land border. But a sea border was no good either: It might set off a violent backlash from loyalist paramilitaries. He feared a repeat of the 1970s, when he was nearly blown up by loyalist bomb.

“Johnson’s actions,” he whispered, “are going to kill my friends.”

Dotted throughout the cabins, several loyalists echoed Mr. Kinney and several nationalists agreed with Mr. McKee. But Susan and Jack Price bucked the trend.

The Prices were Protestants by birth. But forced to choose, they would prefer a sea border within the United Kingdom to a land border with Ireland.

Perhaps more surprisingly, both said Brexit had made them more supportive of Irish reunification. Though loyalist by background, they ultimately felt more attachment to Europe than Britain.

“I just feel,” said Mr. Price, a teacher, “that being a European is more important.”

In a wasteland on the edge of the Scottish town of Motherwell, our final stop, Tommy Brennan pointed out things that were no longer there.

There had stood the factory gates, he said, there the cooling towers. This was once one of Europe’s biggest steelworks, where Mr. Brennan first worked in 1943.

But now there was nothing but yellowing grass. Once bigger than Central Park, the Ravenscraig steelworks was shut and dismantled in 1992, after being privatized by London’s Conservative government. That put an estimated 10,000 residents out of work, including Mr. Brennan.

In Shirebrook, I saw how deindustrialization eventually contributed to Brexit. But in Motherwell it helped heighten resentment of the British state rather than of Europe: In 2016, this area voted to stay in the European Union, but in a Scottish independence referendum in 2014 it favored leaving the United Kingdom.

Mr. Brennan was among those voters — he had concluded that London would never prioritize Scottish interests. “If we’d been an independent nation when Ravenscraig closed,” he said, “it would never have closed.”

Yet alienation takes many forms, even in the same town. After talking with Mr. Brennan, I crossed Motherwell to meet a woman born the year after the steelworks closed.

With little permanent work in a post-steel Motherwell, Ashleigh Melia had spent her adult life in temporary jobs on the minimum wage. Now, in her work as a cleaner, employers sometimes send her away as soon as she arrives — there’s no work that day, and therefore no pay.

The Conservatives’ decision to shrink the British state in recent years, cutting welfare payments by about $40 billion, has also squeezed her family. Her 4-year-old daughter, half blind and half deaf, has been denied disability allowances worth up to $460 a month.

Fired from her latest job in October, Ms. Melia now struggles to pay bills, her four children joining the 600,000 British minors who have fallen into poverty under the Conservatives.

To cut electricity costs, she encourages them to play in the dark.

But unlike with Mr. Brennan, all of this has not led to political engagement. Rushing from job interviews to hospital appointments, and with no internet at home, she had no time to think about politics.

She couldn’t name most political parties. She had no opinion on Scottish independence.

It was a reminder of another reality — one in which many find it hard enough to live, without worrying how to vote.

The steelworks?

Ms. Melia had never heard of it.