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'It's about time they got their fingers out' - England's former industrial towns anxious to leave EU

Former industrial towns in the north of England voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.

File photo of a view from Redcar beach showing the Corus Plant in Redcar in the north of England which has mostly closed down.
File photo of a view from Redcar beach showing the Corus Plant in Redcar in the north of England which has mostly closed down.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

AS A DRIVING force behind Brexit, the rust belt of northern England helped trigger an anti-establishment earthquake whose aftershocks travelled across the Atlantic, and its people are in no mood to back down.

The town of Rotherham voted 68% in favour of Brexit, and six months on its residents believe they, and other areas hit by industrial decline, are now at the epicentre of a generational shift in politics.

“It’s all a protest vote, you can see that in America with Trump getting in,” said Derik Cardow, a 72-year-old Brexit voter out shopping in a covered market in the centre of the Yorkshire town.

Cardow, who recently switched his support from centre-left Labour to the anti-EU, anti-mass-immigration UK Independence Party, said he would have “definitely” voted for Trump.

From his fruit-and-vegetable stall in the market, Luke Ellis, a 26-year-old who also voted to leave the European Union in the June referendum, said:

I don’t think it’s the EU, it’s the whole system.

Rotherham boomed during the Industrial Revolution, producing high-grade steel, but has suffered decades of economic decline with almost every steel mill and all the local coal mines closing.

The town has traditionally voted for Labour, but found common cause with Conservatives during the Brexit campaign over issues such as globalisation, immigration and free trade.

“It’s time we got back to looking after our own,” said Ellis, who blamed the import of cheap coal for the decline of the local economy, and of the US Rust Belt that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

‘On our knees’

Jonathan Lang from Shiloh, a Christian charity that helps adults affected by homelessness and substance abuse, said an economic and moral chasm had opened between the cosmopolitan political class and the “proud, hard-working, hard-drinking” areas left behind by globalisation.

“The reason they are not listening is because they don’t see it. This is why you had Brexit,” he told AFP, as volunteers served up lunch in the canteen next door.

The operations manager said there were an “awful lot of people who’ve not been able to adapt” to social changes beyond their control.

At the market, Ellis said:

“We’ve been on our knees.

You’ve only got to look around here. The market’s been a thriving market, to empty stalls. Empty shops boarded up in the town.

Immigration was Brexit’s hot-button subject, with the Leave campaign accused of fanning the flames of xenophobia.

That played a part in Rotherham’s vote but was not the main factor, said Joanne Griffiths (45) a rare Remain voter in the town.

“I don’t think it’s the fact that there are a lot of racists – there are racists everywhere – they just felt particularly put on,” she said.

They felt enough is enough.

The town of 250,000 has recently welcomed many Roma families from eastern Europe, with one estate a few miles from the centre of Rotherham housing 6,000 such migrants, according to a government report.

Hi-tech hopes

The referendum also revealed a sharp divide in support for the EU between younger and older voters in Rotherham and in many parts of Britain.

“The older generation were absolutely elated when they came in on that Friday morning (after the referendum),” recalled Ellis.

They’ve seen the decline.

The problem has been deepened by the “brain drain” of younger, well-educated locals to more affluent areas.

The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, built on a former coking plant partly thanks to funding from Brussels, is bucking the trend.

The research park is a collaboration between aerospace giants such as Rolls-Royce, the government, engineers and scientists, and is set to double its 600 workforce over the next five years.

“The AMRC really is establishing this part of Rotherham, and Sheffield, as the node of an advanced manufacturing district,” said chief executive Colin Sirett, a former Airbus head of research.

The park offers apprenticeship opportunities for teenagers and is indirectly creating jobs to cater for the growing workforce, but can do little to solve the immediate crisis in blue-collar employment.

Ellis explained that long-standing malaise had left the town unconcerned by predictions of rising prices and a Brexit economic slowdown and as determined as ever to leave the EU, reasoning:

If we haven’t got it, we can live without it.

Cardow said his main concern was the time the government is taking in leaving the EU.

They’re doing a lot of dithering. It’s about time they got their fingers out.

- © AFP, 2016

Read: Theresa May has scored a symbolic win in her plan for a speedy Brexit

Read: From Ireland at the Euros to Donald Trump: Here’s what got us talking in 2016

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