The Lincolnshire town of Skegness (Skegvegas, as it likes to call itself) depends almost entirely on its reputation as a place for good-value family holidays. It has generous sandy beaches, was the location of Billy Butlin’s first holiday camp and attracts visitors from across the UK who trundle towards the coast with their caravans in their thousands. Considerable numbers of people have chosen to retire there.
Like many seaside towns, it’s one of the most deprived areas of the UK, a fact acknowledged in the current draft town plan which recognises the pressure on suitable housing and available services. Along with its neighbour Boston which recorded the biggest vote (75.6%) in favour of leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum, Skegness became something of a poster town for Brexit, recording over 70% support for the project.It also gave its Tory MP Matt Warman a substantial majority of over 25,000 in the 2019 ‘Get Brexit Done’ election. It therefore had expectations that things would improve.
A rude awakening
Recently the town received a rude awakening. Panicked by the breakdown of control at the Manston reception centre in Kent, the Home Office authorised the dispersal of the migrants housed there to accommodation they had requisitioned in hotels around the country. Skegness was one such place to receive a tranche of the Manston population.
Predictably, as the Home Office is so dysfunctional, it didn’t give the town much notice. Equally predictably, the residents were outraged by the decision. Such was their anger, a public meeting was hastily arranged to allow them to question their local MP Matt Warman, officials from the town and district council, and the local police on the 25 November. The meeting was filmed and watching it closely tells an interesting story about how the residents have begun to feel about those Brexit promises.
The meeting was conducted by Matt Warman. Credit where credit’s due, at least he turned up, unlike the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who refuses to face her shadow Yvette Cooper in the House of Commons on this issue. He also did his best to answer questions honestly; when he did not know the answer or when the answer was uncertain, he was brave enough to say so, unlike his boss Rishi Sunak.
A mood of fear and loathing
The meeting drew a packed audience and the first five minutes revealed the prevailing mood.
Mr Warman began by saying that he would take as many questions as he could but there might be facts people would not like to hear. His reminder that the government is obliged to provide ‘decent but not luxurious accommodation’ was greeted with cries of “Rubbish!” When he said that legally the government could not ‘send them back’ however they arrived, he was heckled.
When he informed the meeting that many of the migrants were from ‘many of the most troubled countries’ in the world (specifically mentioning Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq) he was shouted down; and when he said he couldn’t promise how long the hotels would have to continue to provide accommodation, several shouted, “You need to.”
The mood of fear and loathing was palpable. Hoteliers were concerned – reasonably, perhaps – about the damage the presence of the migrants would do to the holiday trade on which the town depends. They reported an increased number of queries about the viability of a visit.
Plenty expressed worries over safety because of the largely male nature of the migrants, the challenge to services and adequacy of resources. Reassurances by the local police superintendent that the force was well equipped and crime had not increased were treated sceptically at best.
The loathing the locals had for migrants came over loud and clear.
More than one person demanded they be turned back as ‘illegals’, even though Mr Warman explained repeatedly that it was not legally possible. One man described them as “all the same”. A woman demanded to know why the council wasn’t challenging the decision to place the migrants in the town in court – “everyone wants them out”, she stated – and only grudgingly acknowledged the MP’s point that the tactic had been tried, had failed and trying again would waste more taxpayers’ money.
There was disrespect bordering on contempt for the law, for the Home Office and for the perceived lack of guts by officials – including the local MP – to fight for the town.
Questions about specific issues were raised. Asked about procedures for tracing migrants without documents who might abscond, Mr Warman said most wanted the right to remain but any that infringed that rule could be deported as criminals. He told the meeting that claiming asylum under the United Nations Convention on Refugees (UNHCR) changed a migrant’s legal status, meaning they could not be regarded as illegal immigrants and the government had a duty to protect them.
Asked about the speed with which the migrants were processed, Mr Warman admitted it was too slow. Asked when the policy would end, he was unable to give any assurance on that point. The perception that the migrants were being given housing priority over locals caused particular resentment, even though the MP claimed there was no need for a person to be homeless in Skegness. That remark did not go down well.
Brexit: the reality
The meeting reveals a number of awkward truths about the Brexit that Skegness thought it was getting, compared with the current reality.
It was clear those at the meeting felt they were being taken advantage of by the government over the migrant issue. They resented this, presumably because they thought their vote meant their concerns would be addressed. When Matt Warman told them, “It would not be honest for me to stand here and pretend I can deliver all the right solutions”, the effectiveness of his representation of the town was denounced by more than one person.
It was also clear that those at the meeting had little idea of the legal and practical implications surrounding the issue and were reluctant to accept that the aim of controlling the UK’s borders was failing and the power of the UK Border Force to manage its own affairs was much diminished. Asked about this, Mr Warman was forced to admit that leaving the EU means the ending of the Dublin Convention and the UK would have to negotiate treaties with individual countries that will allow the UK to return individuals, all of which will take time.
The discontent in Skegness is now finding wider expression elsewhere, as a powerful article in the Observer newspaper last Sunday illustrates. More and more people realise that the Conservatives have failed on 2 of their Brexit promises – control of ‘our money and our borders’ – leaving only the issue of laws. There is a bill being prepared for Parliament to scrap those EU laws still on the UK statute book – but when the country finds out that business will suffer a further battering, and you only have to watch this clip from a recent Question Time to see what that looks like, it’s hard to imagine anything but further disillusion.
The economic record of the last 12 years wasn’t raised until right at the end – something of a surprise, since it was clear throughout that people felt the town was not getting enough support even though helping the ‘left behind’ was a government pledge. By then, half the audience had left the meeting early. Perhaps they had other commitments. Perhaps they wanted to find out how England’s match against the USA in the World Cup was going. But it felt as though they were fed up, that their concerns weren’t being addressed and that nothing would change.
The consequences for politics and for the Conservative party at the next election are likely to be profound.