Brexit anniversary brings little cheer to Walsall

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“The people here are as adamant now as they were two years ago, probably more so: just get on with it – and a plague on all you politicians in London. “

Lee Jeavons is referring to the UK‘s chaotic approach to “Brexit” – the process of leaving the European Union – as the country marks the second anniversary of the historic vote to pull out of the bloc.

The no-nonsense Labour councillor’s sentiment expresses the frustration felt by many people in Walsall, which voted by an overwhelming 68 percent to quit the EU in a referendum two years ago this week.

But it also reflects continuing resentment about problems caused by a detached government whose policies some locals say have transformed the character of this town in central England – yet are unlikely to be resolved solely by Brexit.

People are taking stock of the divisions caused by the decision to pull out of the EU that marchers in London on Saturday seek to reverse, but in Walsall there are demands for concrete progress on withdrawal – soon.

Outside the town’s Park Place shopping centre, retired miner William Smith, 73, says: “We’re not leaving quick enough. But the people in the London bubble don’t give a damn.”

Conservative councillor Mike Bird, the de facto leader of Walsall council, is also impatient: “Disappointment and frustration are probably the two words I would use: we would have liked to have seen it happen quicker rather than be dragged out.”

Disappointment and frustration are probably the two words I would use

Mike Bird 

Frustration and discontent

It is not hard to see why the Brexit referendum offered residents of Walsall – a town engulfed by the West Midlands conurbation – an opportunity to register deeper discontent.

The borough has higher unemployment than the UK average, its population is ageing rapidly and also suffers from lower levels of educational attainment and poorer levels of health. Just before the referendum, Walsall ranked among the 10 most deprived areas in Britain.

Such social challenges provide the backdrop to negative – but often poorly informed – attitudes to immigration, which locals insist has strained public services.

Outside the discount “Poundland” store in the central shopping complex, retired Richard and Cathleen Walters, 74, blame distant governments for transforming the town’s character.

“There are far too many immigrants coming here and the politicians going on about the National Health Service (NHS) being overstretched blame us for being old – we have paid our social security contributions since we were 15,” says Richard.

Anger at immigration – an issue also at the heart of a political crisis within the wider EU – draws on populist notions commonly repeated in sections of the press.

Homeless Bill Grove, 32, who sleeps in a doorway of an empty Walsall store, fulminates: “I am angry about the fact that they come to this country and get whatever they want and then you’ve got the likes of me being left to rot at the side of the road.”

Yet to attribute unease about immigration to crude racism is mistaken – disillusionment extends beyond the white, ethnic “English” heartland.

Local Muslim Taslim Loonat, who voted to remain in the EU, says his elderly parents voted to leave based on a sense that they were not getting a fair deal in the provision of services after a lifetime of hard work.

“With the older generation, especially when they go to the doctor’s or try to get appointments at various places, they can’t – and they are kind of laying the blame on the ‘open door’ policy.”

Outside Walsall’s Job Centre, unemployed meat trader Mahmood Tahar, 34, a “Leave” voter, says: “I can remember when there weren’t so many Eastern Europeans here. You could walk into the doctor’s and they would give you an appointment the following week – now it is a month or six weeks.”

Taxi driver Waheed Hussain, 40 and originally from Pakistan, said there had been significant illegal immigration from all over the world, not just Europe.

“Every year I pay my taxes, and I try hard to be honest and follow the rules – but I have seen people claiming benefits and still working. There has been real abuse of the system.”

Every year I pay my taxes, and I try hard to be honest and follow the rules – but I have seen people claiming benefits and still working

Waheed Hussain 

The local Brexit effect

Another accusation frequently made on the streets of Walsall is that Britain has been a net contributor to the EU budget but gets little in return.

Bus driver Dean Childs, 36, says: “I voted out because I didn’t like the fact that unelected bureaucrats in Europe were dictating our laws.”

Politically, the cracks caused by Brexit across the political spectrum have been widened by the coverage of rightwing media, while liberal outlets play up links between Brexit campaigners and Russia.

The UK’s Conservative prime minister Theresa May has struggled to placate warring factions within her party while the opposition Labour party conceals its own deep divisions.

Walsall has not been immune to these tremors, with local Conservatives attributing recent triumphs at the polls – the election of an MP and gains in council seats – to Brexit.

There has been significant interest among economists in the West Midlands in finding a Brexit formula that does not damage well-established ties with Europe, which accounts for 42 percent of the region’s export market. Dire predictions about the potential regional impact of withdrawal surfaced earlier this year in a secret study released to MPs.

The news in April that Jaguar Land Rover would cut 1,000 local jobs – blamed in part on uncertainty caused by Brexit – highlight what is at stake. One local real estate agent points to the risk of plummeting property values.

In the main square, wheelchair user Andrew Milburn, 53, who voted “Remain”, fears uncertainty will harm his import and export business.

“People thought that if we leave it will be a better proposition but then they suddenly realised they would need new passports and would have to apply for visas when they travel.”

Street trader Andrew Logie, 42, regrets voting “Leave”, saying the cost of ribbons he imports has risen since the referendum.

“I thought it would be for the better but now, looking back, it could be for the worse. People are not spending – my earnings have been halved in the past year.”

The social impact of Brexit is hard to discern and although evidence suggests that hate crime surged in the UK following the referendum, multiculturalism in Walsall appears healthy.

However, negative feelings may be taking their toll on some European newcomers.

Hungarian Attila Kovacs, 28, a chef who has been in the UK for three years, says: “Maybe people think this is good for England, but I’m not so sure: many people come here to work, and what if that ends and they have to go home?”

It is hard to explain the apparent pressure caused by European migrants on public services – census data, albeit outdated, suggests that fewer than 2 percent of residents hail from the EU.

At the same time employers like the NHS will be hit if they leave.

Janet, 60, a cleaner at the sprawling modern Walsall Manor Hospital which employs many Europeans, says: “We are short of doctors and nurses already. If they leave, the hospital would suffer because the shortage would get even worse.”

Patient Frank Murray, 64, a semi-retired decorator with heart problems, voted ” Leave” and believes any money saved should go to the NHS.

“We managed before Europe, then joined it and paid a lot of money: why not give that to the NHS?”

Bus driver Dean Childs, 36, by the town’s main bus station [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

The new generation

Walsall’s residents illustrate the complex factors that lie behind Brexit – but also the divisions that withdrawal from the EU will bequeath to a new generation.

Outside Walsall College, those divisions are all too apparent among young people.

Public services student James, 17, says: “I feel we are giving too much money to the EU and they are not giving us anything back.”

Business student Mitchell Phillips, 16, says: “It’s not going to be a good thing: now some parts of the country won’t be able to import and we are going to be paying higher prices.”

Biology student Steven Green, 20, who voted “Leave”, says: “I especially don’t like the impact the EU has had on healthcare because we did a lot of research before we joined, and this has been cut back heavily.”

But the main challenge facing the young will be resolving the causes of problems in places like Walsall that have little to do with the EU.

Back in the town centre, Szymon Meller, 19, a dual Polish-British citizen whose family owns a restaurant, believes European migrants have been scapegoated for a host of other issues.

“There are a lot of hard-working European people here who put in the same effort and pay the same taxes as everyone else.”

Biology student Steven Green, 20, outside Walsall College [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

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