Empire Coast

Dorset is for Tories

Walking along the Esplanade in Weymouth, it’s easy to forget that Bibby Stockholm is anchored just off Portland Port.

Just call it a prison barge. Bibby Stockholm (R), Portland.

The glorified prison barge has become the symbol of Tory immigration policy.

We’re supposed to believe the barge is a humane way of managing the inflow of asylum seekers. Before it was closed due to a legionella outbreak, the Bibby Stockholm was talked up as if it was a five-star hotel on-sea, complete with a gym and flat-screen TVs.

The spectacle is supposed to serve as a deterrent to people desperate enough to try and cross the English Channel in a dinghy. The truth is that Home Secretary Suella Braverman came up with the vessel to boost her position among Tory party members.

Bibby Stockholm was never meant to ‘solve’ the so-called small boats crisis. The Home Office has deliberately mismanaged immigration policy, first moving refugees to hotels and then arguing this is too luxurious.

So, another ship of the government’s choosing was picked for headlines. The decision was no accident. It meant to keep asylum seekers symbolically at sea, albeit under government control, in a UK port. The Bibby Stockholm’s inability to go anywhere is precisely the point.

Still, even for its supporters, the concept is prone to reproach. A floating prison, it must be a source of unease for locals, especially those prone to nimbyism. The problem isn’t the barge but the location. They fear it will undermine the value of their home.

Meanwhile, some people see it as a ‘soft touch’ solution to the boat crossings. “We should be helping our own first,” they say after voting Tory for a decade.

“Why can’t we just send them back to where they came from?” they ask. “They shouldn’t even be here. They’re only coming here because we’re a soft touch.”

The myth that the United Kingdom is the only country taking in asylum seekers persists despite all evidence. Particularly compared to France and Germany. The fact is we should be preparing to take in many more since the climate crisis is only going to send more packing.

Many have welcomed Ukrainians to Britain with open arms. The same cannot be said for Afghans and Syrians, who are seen as a potential terror threat. The fact that Ukrainians are nominally white and European hardly merits discussion.

Net migration to the UK has reached an all-time high because the economy faces a desperate labour shortage post-pandemic and post-Brexit. Never mind the grim reality of an ageing population and a declining workforce.

Bibby Stockholm should be seen as a symbol of systemic failure, not an aberration. The UK is a country where nothing seems to work anymore. Everything is broken and battered, but god forbid we ask how we got here.

The Politics of Seaside Decay

A gaudy King George III statue stands at the Esplanade intersection and the local fun fair. A lion on one side, a unicorn on the other. As Americans know him, Mad King George used to come to Weymouth on doctor’s orders to take in the sea air.

A local orchestra would perform God Save the King as he rode into town in his carriage with his bathing machine. The bathing machine, a strange wooden contraption, would be wheeled into the sea to allow the king to take a dip.

We don’t know if King George pissed in the sea, but it may be a safe bet.

All British seaside towns are culturally kitsch. Weymouth represents a certain set of histories. Patriotic bunting and royalist symbolism dominate alongside ice cream stalls and chip shops.

Local restaurants and even hotels carry names with colonial references. The Gurkha is a South Asian restaurant floating in the harbour, while Peking Town is one of the few Chinese restaurants on the Esplanade.

There is even the Lawrence of Arabia Hotel, themed on Lawrence Olivier’s sterling performance as TE Lawrence. Weymouth’s only connection to the real Lawrence is that the man spent his last years at Clouds Hill cottage near Wareham, Dorset.

The architecture of the Esplanade is a combination of Victorian transplants and 1930s nautical constructs, but the back streets are a mix of old and new.

Facades for the tourists conceal social deprivation and despair.

Once a global empire, Britain is now just another mid-sized power in an uncertain world. Weymouth is full of reminders of the past with its royal and imperial connections. It was also a military outpost built from the days of Napoleon to the end of the Victorian era.

Later, the D-Day invasion of Normandy was partly launched from here. You can still see the navy passing by the coast today.

The south coast of England can be seen as a frontier – both real and imaginary – with continental Europe. This is very true in a place like Weymouth, even though the channel is much wider here than further east.

Weymouth and Portland have a combined population of 65,000 people. It’s a small, fragile economy, highly dependent on the service sector and seasonal tourism.

Most people in South Dorset vote Tory, and local MP Richard Drax is perched comfortably over the constituency. His vote share reached 58% in 2019. Even with the follies of this government, he has little to fear in this blue county.

The last time South Dorset had a Labour MP was in 2010, when Jim Knight was ousted. Knight was first elected in 2001 on a very slim majority. He was a machine man who voted loyally for Blair’s war in Iraq and anything else the whips asked of him.

So even when Knight was ejected from Weymouth, New Labour saw to it his lack of individuality would be rewarded.

Gordon Brown made sure Knight got a life peerage. And so, Baron Knight of Weymouth still casts a vote on legislation today.

Patronage is the name of the game in British politics. The House of Lords is the House of Cronies. Whether the people of Weymouth like it or not, Jim Knight still has his say.

However, South Dorset has only had one other Labour MP – Guy Barnett – elected in 1962 and kicked out in 1964.

Before the area was Tory, it was a Liberal stronghold. Since the strange death of Liberal England, the Labour Party has been the official opposition.

There is little space for the class politics of organised labour here because the economy was never dominated by an industrial manufacturing base.

Even a high level of poverty and deprivation isn’t enough to make Weymouth support social democratic policies.

This is the kind of town Labour politicians ignore because they don’t see any chance of ever winning here. But South-west England is forgotten by Westminster.

All districts of Dorset voted to Leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

Weymouth and Portland had the strongest Leave majority of the county, with 61% of voters backing Brexit. The turnout was 75%.

Still, the two are at odds with each other. The people of Weymouth seem to look down on those living in Portland.

Or, as one young man put it: “Fuck Portland!”

It reminded me of Bolsover’s strange rivalry with Shirebrook, or ‘Shitbrook’ as some call it.

The nearest enemy is always another town just down the road.

Enter the Drax

Conservative MP Richard Drax has represented South Dorset for more than a decade.

Drax is the kind of rich guy who parks his Land Rover across two disabled parking spots during an election campaign.

With a net worth estimated at £150 million, Richard Drax was one of the Conservative lawmakers to vote against gay marriage in 2013.

He also supported Brexit in 2016 and opposed the Windsor Framework despite backing Boris Johnson.

Harrow-educated Drax had the foresight to endorse Johnson for Tory leader again in October 2022.

This was just after Liz Truss fell at record-breaking speed. Drax supported Truss, too and Suella Braverman before her.

Although he was born with a quadruple-barrel surname, Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax prefers a shorter surname.

A surname with two barrels may be posh, but a name with four is ridiculous.

As part of his modernisation efforts, David Cameron asked some Tory candidates to take shorter names to appear more ‘common’ (some would say ‘normal’).

A small number of them, notably Annunziata Rees-Mogg, rejected this suggestion.

Of course, modernisation was just marketing. Richard Drax wouldn’t have the fortune he has today without centuries of brutal exploitation, and a name change will never make up for that.

When his father died in 2017, Drax inherited the family’s 250-hectare estate in Saint George, Barbados. Drax Hall Estate dates back to the 1650s when James Drax built an empire based on slavery.

The Drax family gave up their slaves when Britain abolished the trade in 1833 – albeit by paying massive compensation (some would say ‘reparations’) to the slaveholders.

Previously, the family had plantations across the Caribbean but downsized over time.

In exchange for freeing 189 slaves, the Drax family received around £4,300 in compensation. That amounts to about £260,000 today on top of 200 years of profiteering.

An estimated 30,000 people died on Drax-owned plantations over two centuries.

The Slave Compensation Act of 1837 paid out the equivalent of £16.5 billion in compensation to slaveholders. This vast sum amounted to around 40% of the government’s budget at the time.

So, the British government ‘parked’ the cost as debt, which wasn’t paid off until 2015.

Barbadian campaigners have demanded Drax hand over the estate as part of reparations for his family’s past role in the slave trade.

Naturally, the South Dorset MP still owns the Jacobean estate in Saint George.

Richard Drax may be the best man to represent Weymouth. The link to slavery is appropriate for a constituency connected with empire, where prison barges for foreigners are anchored.

Photograph courtesy of Tim Green. Published under a Creative Commons license.