Visit to a Small Country

Brexit Goes South

Standing on the white cliffs of Dover on a good day, you can look across the English Channel and just about see the French coast.

Anti-immigration protest, Dover.

It’s no coincidence that these cliffs are a part of the national mythology. All monuments on the coast either refer to the valiant struggle of World War Two or hark back to the Roman era and the Anglo-Saxons.

The white cliffs of Dover are England’s frontline with mainland Europe. But this is not just down to geography.

Dover Castle still has its guns pointed towards France for tourists to photograph. Meanwhile, the castle has an impressive trebuchet pointing inland towards the town.

It’s almost as if the past occupants expected a native uprising sooner or later.

It was in 2017 that some locals erected a gigantic effigy of Theresa May wearing a Union flag dress giving France two fingers. Somehow I doubt this structure was double-sided to make sure May was also giving the English the V sign.

Yet that is the tradition of English rulers since time immemorial.

The white cliffs of Dover, as beautiful as they are, as comforting as they might be to patriots, are a part of a worldview and not just the edge of an island-nation.

These cliffs are the first thing sea-faring migrants would see of England, including our ancestors the Anglo-Saxons.

It’s now the imaginary borderland for English nationalists who fantasise about dangerous foreign hordes reaching these shores in dinghies.

But this is also where the dreamscape ends.

London’s Backyard

There are many places in England that could be called ‘Brexit Country’.

The top of the league might be the North of England in most people’s minds. But the truth is that the South has been the driving force in the Leave coalition.

You might regard Kent as the true ‘Brexit Country’ not least because of the level of Leave support in the region. Out of all the places I’ve visited in Kent, all but one are majority Leave areas.

The first stop on my journey through Kent was Folkestone, where 61.6% of the voters backed Leave. I had planned to travel along the coast, passing through Dover and Ramsgate to Margate.

The first hotel I saw was a derelict building with a sign on it that read ‘Hotel Rhodesia’. It was an appropriately white-ish, almost cream building. This hotel’s heyday was at least over 40 years ago.

The harbour featured a Greek bus selling halloumi wraps, alongside stands selling mussels and coffee. The last stop on the harbour was a renovated lighthouse that had been turned into a champagne bar.

I found a watering hole and drank a cherry-flavoured beer as I sat in the sun. I overheard a woman in her thirties complaining bitterly about the proliferation of falafel in the area.

I wondered what indigenous cuisine had been squeezed out. Of course, she stressed she just wanted fish and chips and that her frustration was not xenophobic.

The harbour itself had been transformed in recent years to beautify the place. Looking around the town, I was glad to find that the gentrification of some parts of Folkestone had not driven out the local character and homogenised everything into chain shops.

Though I did get the impression that since Folkestone is just within reach of London, the town had received a lot more interest from Londoners than other, more run-down places on the coast.

It’s often talked about as if London has exported its hipsters to some parts of the Kent coast. This is very much overstated.

But the gentrification is coming – and with it, the latte liberals will soon form solid clusters and squeeze out the locals.

Brexit Town

Next stop was Dover, the borderland where over 62% of voters backed Leave. It seemed like a much more rundown place than Folkestone, but was probably less concerned about hiding its deprivation.

Naturally, the poverty of Dover meant people relied more on national symbols. Unlike London, where it’s very rare to see a Union flag, there seemed to be Union flags everywhere I went in Dover. Even if the flags were old, tattered and dirty, they were still out in public.

I didn’t see one foreign flag in the town. If not the Union flag, the St. George’s Cross would be flying or hanging. Sometimes you saw the St. George’s Cross with the Union flag in the upper-left corner – just to avoid any confusion.

On one street alone, I counted nine flags – exactly six Union flags and three England flags. Just around the corner, I found a Turkish restaurant where Crusaders had been carved into the walls and very haram angels had been drawn onto the ceiling.

I did wonder what the (presumably Muslim) owners thought of the artwork they put on the wall. Perhaps they found it deeply amusing or they just saw it as a way to reassure their customers. It could even be both.

The town itself has been a target for far-right anti-migrant activists. These people flood into Dover at certain times of the year to protest the arrival of refugees on boats. Of course, the psycho-geographic importance of the white cliffs is a crucial part of this.

The far-right can organise anywhere, yet it chooses Dover for the symbolic value of taking a stand on the closest thing the UK has to a border with its European neighbours. Though I doubt the town has much time for such shenanigans, the narrative was strong.

When I went to the Dover Museum, I overheard a man talking about a refugee who had kidnapped a child and taken the kid with them across the English Channel. It sounded like another right-wing scare story.

Appropriately, the Dover Museum features an ancient boat used to cross the Channel over 3,500 years ago. I couldn’t look at it and help but think of the desperate people trying to get to British shores today.

There were a few signs of counterculture in Dover, however small and beleaguered, in the form of Extinction Rebellion posters, stickers from local anarchists and old punks and young goths hanging around town.

Graffiti artist Banksy had put up a mural in Dover back in May 2017. The mural consisted of the EU flag with a workman chipping away at one star with a hammer and chisel. It quickly became famous given the political climate in the UK.

Unfortunately, the mural has since been painted over because Historic England refused to grant it protected status. Even the Conservative MP and the local council were annoyed by this (at least in public).

However, part of the mural remains – just the man removing the star – while the EU flag has been ‘whited out’. Banksy himself thought this was strangely apt as the UK lurched towards the exit from Europe.

“I had planned that on the day of Brexit I was going to change the piece in Dover to this. But it seems they’ve painted over it,” the artist told his followers on Instagram.

“Never mind,” he said, adding, “I guess a big white flag says it just as well.”

Dover may be Brexit Town in appearance, but the 38% of voters who backed Remain, the people who supported the Banksy mural and the local XR branch are not an insignificant part of the town’s life.

Minorities, no matter how small can have a huge impact if they are organised and determined enough. It’s easy to imagine a culture war between young and old here. Maybe it has already begun and no one has noticed.

Walking up the Borderland

The next stop was Ramsgate, a town in South Thanet where the voters backed Leave by over 61%.

South Thanet was the seat that UKIP leader Nigel Farage tried in vain to win in 2015. He failed to break through despite the solid Leave support in the constituency. Though he may not have won the seat, Farage won the country a year later.

Four long years on, the UK is heading for the cliff edge at full speed. The Johnson government is keen not to appear soft to its Leave base and has torn up its own legal commitments to reassure the radicals.

I walked from Ramsgate to Margate with a dear friend of mine. We were amused to find ‘Black Lives Matter’ graffiti on the cold concrete of buildings we passed as we reached Botany Bay.

As we walked along the imaginary borderland, we crossed over from South Thanet to North Thanet. The Leave majority is even stronger here, rising to 65% despite the influx of liberal property-minded Londoners.

Much like Dover, there was a lot of patriotism on show in Margate. Union flags adorned beach huts and shops alike. I saw one disabled woman on a mobility scooter with a Union flag attached to it – it was bigger than her vehicle.

Yet there were signs of a counter-culture in Margate. One pizza shop had a sign outside telling potential customers that they weren’t allowed in if they had symptoms of COVID-19, racism, homophobia or sexism.

The Union flag was not the only flag around town. I was glad to see a few rainbow flags flying from the tops of houses in Cliftonville. But it would be naïve to assume these demure signs of progressivism are somehow incompatible with conservative values.

For starters, ‘conservatism’ is not much of a living thing in itself. Cultural conservatism is dead in Britain. The history of Toryism has always had a pragmatic side. Social liberalism is perfectly compatible with the free-market (despite what Americans may think).

The kind of disaster nationalism that drives Brexit is divorced from any living conservatism. This is despite the fact a big chunk of the Leave vote would prefer to return to an idealised version of 1950s Britain. The bitter truth (for them) is that the past cannot be resurrected.

Today’s nationalists are more likely to have liberal positions on social issues. Not least because they have all lived such values. It’s not likely you will find a British nationalist who hasn’t done drugs or had pre-marital sex.

It’s also the case that people who might be liberal or progressive on LGBT rights and women’s rights could be much more right-wing on immigration. Social attitudes in the UK have improved massively on gender and sexuality in the last 30 years.

The same cannot be blithely said about attitudes to immigration. The word ‘immigration’ has been sullied by years of propaganda. Even ‘asylum seekers’ have become synonymous with a host of racist fantasies.

I passed two churches in Margate. One in Cliftonville had been converted to Coptic Christianity, the other one had been converted into a mosque.

I’m sure both conversions were a source of irritation for certain people in town. But it won’t be Coptic Christians getting the hate here.

Passing the Coptic Church, I noticed the local Labour office in Cliftonville still had the same New Labour stylised rose for its logo. I don’t know what the state of the local Labour Party is like, but I imagined they still pined for the early Blair years.

Even still, the Tory Leave coalition still holds in these parts despite the presence of more open and progressive people – who don’t live in fear of migrants violating everything they hold dear.

But nothing stays the same forever.

Forever Blue

Much of Kent has always been blue. However, this is not to say the place does not have anything of more interest to it. This is a product of local contradictions rather than an innate part of local culture.

Like so much of England outside London, Kent has a small and fragile economy with little industry where unions could organise and build. Nevertheless, the region has its own radical heritage and history of working-class politics.

In the 17th Century, East Kent was a hotbed of radicalism during the English Civil War. The True Levellers, also known as the Diggers, were active across South-East England including Kent.

The Levellers believed equality and democracy were the natural order, not monarchy and class deference.

Many Northern English people prefer to think they have a monopoly on working-class politics in the UK. The possibility that the English Revolution was a Southern phenomenon is not particularly convenient.

The mining communities of Kent were comparably smaller than such places. Yet the level of participation was on par if not higher.

Just under 96% of miners in Kent took part in the 1984-85 strike. This level of participation was third to South Wales (99%) and Yorkshire (97%), but only just greater than North-East England (95.6%) and Scotland (93%).

It would be tempting to see Kent as quasi-pastoral, where farmers and retirees predominate, a natural hinterland of Toryism. But this view would exclude the fact that there was ever a working-class toiling in mines or that the same class now toils in shops, bars and hotels.

Agriculture and industry have been in decline in Kent for the last 30 years, while the services sector has grown to more than 70% of the local economy. This shift has no doubt had a dire effect on the place, as it has across the country.

As blue as Kent is, there is one outlier: Canterbury has gone Remain and even gone red.

Not only did Canterbury vote Remain by more than 54% in 2016. The area went Labour for the first time in its entire history in 2017. Furthermore, the 2019 election saw Labour consolidate its base of support in Canterbury.

Some observers put this down to the large student population and a growing settlement of Londoners, who moved to the area to get a better quality of life.

Middle-class Londoners have colonised Whitstable and imported their own extortionate living standards to a town with plenty of poverty.

A friend of mine living in Whitstable complained to me about the influx of eejits devouring oysters and driving up rents.

My mind turned to Hunter S Thompson’s proposal to rename Aspen ‘Fat City’ to stop tourism from destroying the town.

I proposed they rename Whitstable ‘Shit Town’ to scare away the middle classes. It’s probably too late.

It can’t all be down to Londoners and students though. There are places in Kent that are closer to London and not all students vote where they study. There must be something that’s changed in Canterbury itself.

I remember canvassing in Canterbury in 2019. It was one of the most upbeat and friendly places I went to during the campaign.

We were low on posters because most houses seemed to want one. The local party seemed lively and welcomed me with open arms.

Activists explained to me that they were not too happy with MP Rosie Duffield, who was prone to attacking Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter. It was another case of Labour flying in a ‘reliable candidate’ over the heads of local party members.

It’s the same old Tammany Hall story. The rank and file membership might want a left-wing MP, but they are stuck with what they got from Labour HQ. So the best Canterbury Labour can get is an MP fixated on cracking down on young people using laughing gas.

‘Labour against balloons’ is not a revolutionary slogan. Fortunately, the town may have seen a permanent change. This will mean its politics are different for years, possibly decades to come.

I reflected on this as I boarded the train back to London. Kent may be Brexit Country, its borderland imaginary and real. But it’s not immune to change.

The future may be very different whether the local Conservative clubs like it or not.

Photograph courtesy of Alisdare Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.