“Refugees think England’s a good place to come,” Joan, a woman in her fifties, told me, “because they think everything will be laid on a plate for them, but we don’t have anything ourselves”.
We were at the bus stop opposite the Silksworth Sports Centre on the edge of Sunderland on a cold, grey afternoon in November 2016. Four months earlier, the results of the European Union referendum vote in Sunderland had been announced at the sports centre across the road. The result had sent shockwaves across the country, and signalled to the world that Britain was likely to vote to leave. A new political era for the UK seemed to have begun and Sunderland felt like a fitting place for me to start a journey around the country trying to make sense of what was going on.
“Doctors and hospitals and schools – there’s no room,” Joan went on, the lines of time evident on her face. “It’s no wonder our country can’t cope because there’s that many people came here.”
As her bus arrived, I asked how she responded to the argument that if the economy deteriorated as a result of Brexit, there might be even less money for services like hospitals and schools.
“We cannae be any worse off than we are now,” she said, slowly boarding the bus.
She took a seat next to a woman reading the Daily Mail. ‘Enemies of the People’ read the front-page headline alongside photos of the High Court judges who had ruled that a vote in Parliament was needed before Theresa May could trigger Article 50. The headline seemed symptomatic of troubled nation facing problems not just from outside, but also from within. Five years earlier, in another period of national soul-searching, I had travelled around the UK in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, speaking to people from all walks of life about what was going on. It wasn’t a perfect study but it had helped me to identify some of the underlying issues the country faced and to think about how they might be addressed. I decided to take a similar approach to exploring the UK after the Brexit vote: I knew this would mean talking to people I disagreed with and articulating divisions which I wished didn’t exist, but I also knew that if divisions were ignored and people’s feelings discounted, there was little chance of solving Britain’s problems. This is the story of my journey.
1 – Immigration and integration in Sunderland
2 – Sovereignty, free movement and religion in Darlington
3 – Economic and social liberalism in Westminster
4 – Nationalism and patriotism in Wembley
5 – Power, prestige and service in Whitehall
6 – Nostalgia, change and political correctness in Blackpool
7 – Education, empire and loyalty in Poulton
8 – Cultural security and Britishness in Preston
9 – Community, faith and values in Blackburn
10 – Austerity, solidarity and sharing in Liverpool
11 – Cohesion, insecurity and a sense of home in Treforest
12 – Looking after our own in Welshpool
13 – Cultural heritage and national identity in Aberystwyth
14 – Upholding shared values in Richmond
15 – Civic nationalism, monarchy and history in Scotland
16 – Reconciliation and looking forward in Northern Ireland