After almost two years of online European Movement campaigning and Zoom meetings, we were eager to discover what the citizens of Stoke on Trent think about how Brexit is going.
Setting up the stall in Hanley
Our stall was set up by the Blue Clock, Hanley, outside the Potteries Centre main entrance and at the crossing point of two main pedestrian routes through the town. It had all seemed much easier than we remembered.
But we noticed some differences since our previous stall. Nearly 10:30, a month before Christmas and the town was very quiet to the point of being depressing.
The square and the usual busy street was almost deserted. The absence of dodging and jostling with fellow pedestrians was what made setting up the stall easy.
Since our last stall, more shops had closed. We were pleased to see that the florist, his stall a sole patch of colour, was still plying his trade with an array of festive arrangements.
After a very slow start, footfall and visitors to our stall picked up around noon.
Where have all the Brexiteers gone?
Disappointingly Brexiteers seemed conspicuous by their absence. Could it be that there were no Brexit supporters in Hanley still willing to make their case?
Where were all the comfortably off, stand on our own two feet, believe in Britain couples who had been eager to talk to us before? Where were the people with whom we agreed in terms of problems but disagreed with in terms of cause and solution?
Looking around at the half empty streets they didn’t seem to be there.
Most of the shoppers gave the impression they were only in town because they needed to be. Head down, get on with it. No-one on a fun day out. No time to stop for a chat. No dawdling window shoppers for the few windows left to shop in.
Glum decline? Even the Blue Clock had stopped. The regular PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) said it was even quieter than usual, but they thought people who could afford to shop had gotten used to doing it online and were no longer coming to town. Covid didn’t help.
Hanley residents struggle to see benefits of Brexit
Many of those who stopped to talk to us and put stickers on our Brexitometer had voted remain or had been too young to vote. It is fair to say that Remainers had expected some damage from Brexit but were still surprised by the extent of problems caused by Johnson’s deal.
“I didn’t want it in the first place, but I never thought it would be this bad”.
“It’s all gone wrong because it was built on lies.”
The handful of those who thought Brexit was a good thing couldn’t identify any tangible benefits, although one said he was pleased we could now control our borders and was relieved that Angela Merkel no longer made our laws. Others muttered about immigration and borders.
A young lad – too young to vote – said it was good we could keep our own fish but when we suggested the fishers might prefer to sell them, he agreed and said “Yeah, suppose so”.
One leave voter, more typical of the confident leave supporters we had seen in years past was appalled that the government had forged ahead to ‘Get Brexit Done’ with what turned out to be no plan, inadequate preparation, no debate on the consequences, and in the middle of a pandemic.
In our earlier campaign for a follow up referendum, one of our greatest frustrations had been our inability to overcome the ‘project fear’ shield: the government wouldn’t do it if those claims were true.
Faith in the government not to do damage may be changing
One woman whose male companion was trying to think of Brexit benefits interrupted him and said, “I’ve lived here for decades and I’ve never seen it this bad”.
Another person shouted across to us, “It’s not just Brexit that isn’t working, nothing in this country is working”.
Someone else replied, “Do I think Brexit is working? I’m glad I’m leaving the country”.
A large majority of those who responded to our Brexitometer survey, “Brexit: how’s it going?” had noticed gaps on the shelves, lack of choice, and price increases.
Some were still not sure whether Covid or Brexit was most to blame, but the majority blamed Brexit for the shortages (labour, lorry drivers, additional red tape), the florist among them. He’s packing it in because Brexit has made business unviable.
On a brighter note, a much larger proportion of young people are engaging with us, the majority students from the two local universities.
More from Central Bylines
- Brexit: assessing the mood in Stratford-upon-Avon
- Sharing a BrexiTear (for the EU flag)
- About those Brexit benefits, Mr McCartney
A PhD student who had voted remain in the referendum had been directly affected by Brexit. He had secured a funded research post in Denmark which was cancelled due to Brexit. He’d managed to find a similar post in Staffordshire, but it didn’t provide the international experience he’d been hoping for, and it had less than 40% of the funding.
Many of the youngsters had been too young to vote in 2016 and their plans had been made “post Brexit”. They couldn’t miss what they personally never had but they were acutely aware that they did not have the same opportunities as their EU citizen counterparts.
A group of medical students were worried about Brexit’s impact on access to medical research, drugs, and medical supplies. They were concerned about the future of the NHS. For them Brexit was only one aspect of what they appeared to think was a descent into chaos and dysfunction.
“It’s chaos”, said one young man. As an overseas student he said, “I’m not really affected and I don’t have a vote, but what is going on? No one seems to know what they are doing, or even why they’re doing it. They’ve created chaos”.
Chaos was a word that cropped up a lot from young people.
It’s hard to say what the people in Hanley thought of Brexit but maybe it is significant that it was our first street stall where no one shouted, “We voted out, get over it”.