Pro-Brexit city glad to poke establishment in the eye

In places like Sunderland, with its once-robust shipyards silent and dead and its citizens leery of both London and Brussels, the idea of the European Union (EU) never really took hold.

Although the once-proud working-class city in England's north-east heartland benefited from the bloc, the "Brexit" campaign found many adherents and brought long-suppressed grievances into the open.

And when the decision to pull out of the EU sent financial markets into a tailspin, Mr Ken Walker, 59, a retired construction worker, was unfazed. "I don't have any money in the stock market," he said as he drank a pint of beer in a pub. "So what's it to me?"

The pub, called the Speculation, still had "Vote Leave" posters on its walls, and a fellow drinker exclaimed "Aye!" and banged the counter in agreement.

Sunderland stunned the country when voters overwhelmingly opted to leave Europe in last Thursday's referendum, by 61 per cent to 39 per cent. It was a far higher vote for Britain's exit than pollsters had predicted, and it was the first sign that Prime Minister David Cameron's gamble on staying in the bloc had lost.

Sunderland's citizens seem to have voted against their own interests. Not only has the city been a big recipient of European money, it is also the home of a Nissan car factory, Britain's largest, and automobiles produced there are exported, duty free, to Europe.

"Vote Leave" campaigners in Sunderland. The once-proud working-class city in England's north-east heartland stunned the country when its voters overwhelmingly opted to leave the European Union in last Thursday's referendum, by 61 per cent to 39 per c
"Vote Leave" campaigners in Sunderland. The once-proud working-class city in England's north-east heartland stunned the country when its voters overwhelmingly opted to leave the European Union in last Thursday's referendum, by 61 per cent to 39 per cent. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The plant, which absorbed workers from the dying shipyards after it opened 30 years ago, became a symbol of the benefits of EU membership, and Nissan was opposed to the British exit.

Yet Mr Edward Pennal, 64, a former army mechanic who voted Leave, took the uncertainty in stride, dismissing it as scaremongering. "No, I can't see them cutting off ties," he said of Nissan, because the company has received government grants to stay in Sunderland. And the pound's fall is a good thing for exports, he said. "I was very pleased with the result."

Sunderland's decision was also a vote against the Labour Party, which pushed for Britain to remain in the Union but is no longer seen by many voters in the city as a champion of the working class. Instead, they and working-class voters across Britain are increasingly moving right over the issue of immigration, switching to the anti-Brussels, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (Ukip), which campaigned for the exit so Britain could control its borders.

Nationwide, young voters provided much of the support for the Remain campaign, but that was not the case in Sunderland.

Eighteen-year-old John Todd, an information technology apprentice, voted for the first time, and said he supported Ukip.

"We're segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland," he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. "It's us against them," he said, adding: "The EU is a mystery to us. We've never heard about it here."

The outcome of the vote in the large section of industrial north-east England that includes Sunderland exposed deep regional divisions and a rift between classes - a working class that feels it has lost out from globalisation, and a more mobile, educated class of people who have prospered from free trade and movement.

Similar trends are emerging in France, where the National Front party has had success in poor cities across the country's former industrial heartland. Now, its leader Marine Le Pen is calling for a similar referendum in France to pull out of the EU.

In Sunderland, a city of 273,000 on the North Sea coast, there were few signs of "bregret" or "regrexit" - terms shared on social media to describe the pangs of remorse some felt as they watched billions of dollars get wiped off world markets when the result came in.

Pro-Leave voters said they had nothing to lose because they had little to gain from globalisation in the first place.

"Give Brexit a chance," said Ms Maria Taylor, 58, a florist on a street where rows of brick houses, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, shove against one another. "It can't get worse than what's been going on already," she added.

In Washington, a run-down neighbourhood close to the Nissan plant, shops on Co-operative Street appeared as if out of a time warp: a hairdresser with bonnet hair dryers, a candy shop where a single ceiling bulb illuminates rows of dusty containers filled with stuck-together sweets.

To people like Mr Walker, the turmoil in the financial markets was a distant rumble, a problem for the rich "down south" in London and for those with enough resources to take a bet on the vast flows of speculative money that shift around the globe.

As de-industrialisation and other factors have hollowed what was once a manufacturing stronghold, the region has struggled to catch up with its richer southern neighbours despite efforts by recent governments to bridge the divide.

"All the industries, everything, has gone," said forklift operator Michael Wake, 55, gesturing towards Roker Beach, once black from the soot of the shipyards. "We were powerful, strong. But Brussels and the government, they've taken it all away."

In 1988, the Conservative government of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher closed the last of the shipyards that once lined the River Wear. The EU contributed a £45 million aid package to help laid-off workers, but Sunderland never recovered from the loss. It consistently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, about 9 per cent.

The referendum, Mr Wake said, was an opportunity to "poke the eye" of Mr Cameron and the London establishment.

Fears over job security from an influx of cheap European labourers was another motivation. Decorator Heather Govan, 28, said cheap labour helped big businesses by keeping costs down, but not self-employed people like her.


But some residents said they had benefited from EU membership.

"I'm shocked - it's bad for the industry," said 53-year-old John Thompson, who has worked for more than 30 years in a components factory. "There is a lot of uncertainty now, and people who were going to invest here are going to think twice."

Many engineers in the shipbuilding industry took jobs at Nissan. They became part of an upwardly mobile class able to afford houses along the now soot-free beach.

To them and their families, the EU is appealing. They can swim at the Sunderland Aquatic Centre, a £20 million (S$36 million) project with an Olympic-sized pool that the EU helped finance. They can send their children to the sleek, modern Sunderland University campus, which also had EU financing.

EU money also helped establish Sunderland Software City, a business centre that offers support and advice to aspiring software entrepreneurs.

However splashy these projects may be, they remain largely inaccessible to Sunderland's working class. Many cannot afford the £30 monthly fees at the Aquatic Centre, and people in the nearby Washington neighbourhood said they had never set foot inside.

As for Sunderland University, the tuition, which the government recently raised, is too much for many young people.

"All the money is going back to the rich," said Ms Taylor, the florist. "The working class is completely hammered. They've sold us down the river." Her neighbour John Hall, 54, looked determined. "All the people here are looking out for their grandchildren," he said, adding: "In 20 years' time, it would be a better place for them."

"We're big, we're strong enough," he added. "It might be hard, but we'll still eat."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Pro-Brexit city glad to poke establishment in the eye'. Print Edition | Subscribe