Insight: So near and yet so far in Britain’s EU tug of war

Tory supporter Oliver Coulson and Labour supporter Harry Edwards join forces. Picture John Devlin
Tory supporter Oliver Coulson and Labour supporter Harry Edwards join forces. Picture John Devlin
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George Square, Glasgow – or Freedom Square, as it was known in the heady days of the independence referendum – is subdued. In the week running up to 18 September, 2014, it was awash with saltires and Yes signs and megaphones. The Friday before the EU referendum, its benches are occupied by shoppers, workers and pensioners, while the occasional flock of seagulls or tourists swoops on its statues. On a patch of grass lies a small shrine of candles and flowers left at a vigil held in honour of the victims of the Orlando massacre. Later on, it will play host to another vigil mourning the death of Jo Cox.

Campaigning has been suspended out of respect to the Labour MP, but even before her death, there was little evidence of the kind of excitement generated by indyref, the general election or even the recent Scottish Parliament election. The windows of city homes still carry the remnants of past campaigns – Lions Rampant, SNP signs, the names of Holyrood candidates – but there are few Remain or Leave posters to be seen.

On the square, the people I speak to may not be hugely energised by the forthcoming plebiscite – some complain of election fatigue – but they are neither ill-informed or unengaged. Most are voting to Remain.

In Carlisle – a journey of just an hour and ten minutes by train – a very different atmosphere prevails. For a start, the town centre is draped in St George’s Crosses; they have been hung to celebrate the forthcoming England v Wales match, as opposed to next week’s vote, but they add to a general sense of jingoism. Most people I speak to are voting for Brexit; almost all of them reference immigration, and I quickly lose track of the number of conversations that start: “I’m not racist, but.”

Yvonne McDermott and Carol Fletcher, from Cumbernauld, who have stopped off in the city during a bus tour of the Lake District, say they have been struck by the contrast. “We’re staying in Workington and – visually at least – the difference is amazing. There are flags and Leave posters in so many windows and fields – we weren’t seeing that at home,” says McDermott.

My expedition to compare attitudes to the EU referendum north and south of the Border is inspired by a suspicion that the short geographical distance masks a larger political gulf. In Scotland, polls have consistently suggested 60 per cent or more of voters back Remain (though the Leave campaign has been gaining ground).

Meanwhile, YouGov research found Cumbria was the tenth most Eurosceptic area in the country, while more than 70 per cent of those who took part in an online poll run by the Cumberland News said they supported Brexit. This despite the fact that farming continues to play a major role in the region’s economy and the Remain campaign has warned of potential job losses at two of the county’s biggest employers: Pirelli and Nestlé, in the event of a vote to leave.

Last week, the chairman of Ukip North West, John Stanyer, seemed confident Leave had the upper hand, with an entrenched feeling of disempowerment acting in the campaign’s favour. In Scotland, arguably, the same feeling of political disempowerment has already found an outlet in support for independence, and views over next week’s vote may also be influenced by hopes of triggering a second referendum.

Like Glasgow, Carlisle was once a Labour heartland, but Conservative MP John Stevenson took it in 2010 and, helped by boundary changes which brought in more rural voters, increased his majority in 2015.

Cumbria’s MPs are pretty evenly split politically (three Labour, two Conservative and one Lib Dem), but three out eight of the North West England’s MEPs belong to Ukip and the area has had issues with right-wing activists. The HQ of the BNP is situated in Wigton and party leader Nick Griffin served as MEP for North West England from 2009 to 2014.

Stevenson is a member of the Remain camp. Recently, the owner of Carlisle ready-meals firm Cavaghan & Gray, Ranjit Singh Boparan, said a vote to leave the EU could seriously harm the UK food industry, which is heavily dependent on migrant workers from other EU countries.

On Thursday, however, there has been a development. As I arrive in the city, the bills for the Carlisle News & Star read: “City Tycoon Backs Brexit.” The tycoon in question is Fred Story, owner of Story Homes and Story Contractors, former owner of Carlisle United, and recent addition to the Sunday Times rich list. Story has told the newspaper the EU is squandering millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and that he has confidence in “our country”.

As always when visiting a new city, the first thing I do is accost the nearest taxi driver to gauge the mood. He is reluctant to give his own opinion, but says the vast majority of his passengers favour Brexit, most of them on the grounds of immigration.

So how much immigration has Carlisle experienced? In 2013, the Oxford University Migration Observatory suggested the number of foreign-born citizens in the city had more than doubled since 2001. The actual numbers are comparatively low, but Carlisle is less used to immigration than cities such as Bradford, Birmingham and London and may feel threatened by cultural shifts such as the Polish aisle in the supermarket and the opening of Turkish barber shops.

In a nearby betting shop – where the national odds on a win for Leave have shortened markedly in recent weeks – some complain Polish people are workshy, spending all their time drinking and gambling. At the same time, they insist they are taking British jobs.

The longer I stay, the more the Leave narrative seems to have been adopted as the city’s mantra. There is a yearning for a time when Britain was “great”, and a belief that Brexit will enhance its power and status.

“Immigration is not a huge problem in Carlisle right now. But look how much it has gone up in the last five years,” says another man. “Once they pull the borders down, Albania doesn’t have anything to offer, so they’re all going to come here too.”

“I think we should definitely get out of the EU,” agrees Harold Eilbeck, a former Eddie Stobart lorry driver. “Up here in Cumbria, we feel neglected – Westminster just looks after its own and its decisions are overruled by Europe. At least if we came out, we would be able to govern ourselves.”

This is not to suggest there are no dissenting views; sitting on a wall outside the cathedral, I meet Amy Bradley and Emma Cairns, both 19 and studying health and social care at Carlisle College. Bradley plans to vote to leave and Cairns to stay.

“The people I have talked to about it say back when Britain wasn’t in the EU it was a more respected country – and we controlled who came in and out,” says Bradley. “I think leaving it would gain that respect back.” Cairns says she believes staying in would be better for the economy. “I took that from my parents and they’re both Scottish,” she says.

At a newsagent’s shop, copies of the News & Star have been selling fast. But owner Billy Atkinson does not agree with Story that Brexit would be for the best. “There’s a lot of reasons I want to stay in the EU,” he says. “I like the free movement – I have worked in countries all over Europe and I find the people fantastic.”

Atkinson is not convinced the Leave campaign is as dominant as it seems. “It’s a bit like Scotland’s referendum – the people who want out are the most vociferous,” he says.

Forty minutes down the road in Keswick, in the heart of the Lake District, radios have been propped up on market stalls, so the cheers of England fans compete with the chatter of day-trippers and the shouts from Vote Leave campaigners who are handing out leaflets and stickers.

Stanyer is there along with fellow Ukip member Michael Pye, who stood unsuccessfully as crime commissioner, and two young activists, Oliver Coulson, 18, who supports the Conservatives, and Harry Edwards, 16, who supports Labour. Coulson and Edwards are friends and agree on Europe despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum. They believe leaving the EU would allow millions of pounds to be reinvested in local hospitals and flood prevention schemes.

As predicted by Stanyer, the Leave campaigners are mostly well received by passers-by, with many shouting supportive messages or stopping to chat. Others, though, stare straight ahead and one yells: “Stop looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses.”

Stanyer says Cumbrians’ distance from Westminster makes them more conscious of the democratic deficit inherent in the current system and that businesses are being hamstrung by EU regulation.

There is nowhere with a keener nose for a democratic deficit than Scotland; and yet, in George Square, there is much more positivity towards the EU. Time and again, I hear the claim that Leave campaign is peddling misinformation and there is a greater distaste for leading Leave figures such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Retired sales engineer Edward McGhie grew up in the Gorbals and says the EU has brought us relative peace and stability. “It took us a fight to get in. We had to wait until de Gaulle popped his clogs and now this lot want to leave based on what I think are spurious scare immigration stories. Well, the Gorbals was an area of immigration; we were used to the Irish, then Jews, then the Pakistanis, the Indians. They came, they improved themselves, they left or they stayed – what’s the problem with immigration now?”

McGhie is also sceptical that Brexit would open up new trading opportunities. “Europe is a big market – why would we want to leave it?” he says. “Some people talk as if we still have a Commonwealth in the way we used to – countries to ship goods out to. That doesn’t exist any more. It vanished in the Sixties. And America puts up barriers to trade. It banned British beef products. Why are we pursuing Boris Johnson’s line of ‘We can trade with the Commonwealth, we can trade with America’?”

Not everyone in Glasgow is so enthusiastic about the EU. Retired clothing technician Andy Hughes can barely contain his anger as he launches into a familiar tirade about the squandered millions, benefit-scrounging foreigners and out-of-touch politicians

But most people – even those who have not yet made up their minds – are more measured in their approach. “I don’t think leaving would bring the kind of Doomsday scenario that is being suggested, or that we would all be unemployed if we left,” says Kevin Quinn. “It’s just there would be practical considerations. For example, you have to think about the anti-Trade Union Bill that’s being brought through Westminster. Just now we have some protection, but what would happen in the event of Brexit?”

As for immigration, he says it’s not an issue. “There are a lot of stories out there about them being a drain on resources; at the same time, they fill jobs, they pay taxes and they do probably contribute more than they collectively get.”

Thomas McGilp, who works for the Communication Workers Union, also worries Brexit might lead to the eroding of employment rights, while Ythan Sawers, a 20-year-old computer games development student, sees staying in as the safer option.

Further separating the people of Carlisle and Glasgow is their belief that the other side is guilty of inconsistency. Those south of the Border can’t understand how people in Scotland can support independence and yet want to stay in the EU. At the same time, many Scots are aggrieved that Brexit politicians who based their Better Together arguments on the benefits of staying in the EU now want to leave it.

Carlisle and Glasgow are two cities with much in common; both bristle with history, both were impacted by the loss of heavy industry, both have areas of multiple deprivation; and yet politically they are worlds apart. In the European referendum – as in the Euro 2016 tournament – they appear to be supporting different teams. With a flurry of polls now putting the Leave campaign ahead, it may be Carlisle that has backed the winner.