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Will Self in Stoke – a liberal in leave land

Illustration by Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

WILL SELF visits Leave stronghold Stoke and finds more apathy than zealotry.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Ten percent of British banks’ assets have been transferred to continental institutions, and the estimation is that this will result in a whopping 1% off the tax base for the coming fiscal year. Money is haemorrhaging out of the country. A friend travelling from Paris on Thursday was held up at the Gare du Nord by French customs and immigration officials making additional passport checks – and she was also asked whether she was carrying any large amounts of currency. When she returned to Paris yesterday, the delays at St Pancras for the Eurostar service had reached three hours, because the French officials had gone on strike – presumably fed up with the extra work involved in just these preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit.

Strange days, indeed – and I feel it, awakening in the pre-dawn to revisit the sensation I had on the morning of June 24, 2016. I’d fallen asleep around 2am, after the result had come in from Sunderland, realising there’d been a swing to the Leave side, and a cursory dip in Radio 4’s aural amniotic fluid confirmed that Leave had won.

Shortly after that my four children called, in succession, oldest-to-youngest. Two of them were in tears – I reassured them that, no, a Brexit Britain would not be an isolated and totalitarian regime, with compulsory cricket-playing and warm-beer-drinking, but it was hard to convince. It felt like a sucker-punch – the referendum result – as if some demiurge had feinted at reality itself, then punched the world full in its face. And it’s this shock that I think has contributed to the national paralysis ever since: the Remainers were so shocked they’d lost they couldn’t get their shit together to devise an appropriate response – whether tactical, strategic, or even ideological. While the Leavers were, as we know, equally caught unawares, having given absolutely no thought to how they would bring about this vast constitutional change without severely damaging the country, and its citizens.

They’re still at it today, with sands of time coursing towards entropy-for-all. Writing in the Telegraph this morning, Boris Johnson bemerdes the European Union negotiators yet again, flinging C-words in their faces: ‘It is safe to say that for much of the past 46 years the EU has treated the political anxieties of the UK government with a condescension bordering on contempt […] all too often we are simply patted on the head, like some half-witted child, and told to run along.’

Here’s the victimology Fintan O’Toole writes about still in full spate – it would be farcically funny if it weren’t so fucking tragic: even at this, the eleventh hour, senior British politicians are still – like half-witted children, no less – trying to blame the European Union for a situation entirely of their own devising.

What the Brexiteers should have done if they’d wanted to carry the country with them properly would’ve been a commitment to the reinvigoration of civic society in Britain; by which I mean properly addressing of the democratic deficit in our own country. Without this, the fantasy of the so-called ‘Mother of Parliaments’ ‘taking back control’ from Brussels remained just that. What about Scottish independence? What about the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland? What about the bizarre melange of proportional representation and first-past-the-post in our domestic elections, which, I’d argue, has confused the electorate as to whether they live in a representative or a direct democracy? (Something its legislators seem equally confused about – especially those on the Labour benches, facing the possibility of deselection by the Momentum party-within-a-party.) And of course, what about the widening gap between rich and poor that May swore she’d address when she entered No.10.

I remember walking over Westminster Bridge around that time, and running into a group of men from the north-east, who were down in London for a sports fixture of some sort. Recognising me from ‘off the telly’, they immediately wanted to engage in a Brexit debate. Their arguments were the familiar – and wholly understandable – ones: the south-east got all the spoils – the north remained despoiled, taking back control would mean, they hoped, an end to this – the key point being that they had exercised their democratic rights, and now government would have to respond.

I wonder how these valiant chaps would’ve felt if they’d heard my conversation with the barmaid in the Clayhanger Bar in the North Stafford Hotel, immediately outside Stoke-on-Trent station, where I stopped for a drink this afternoon, before catching the train back to the Smoke. Was she, I wondered, aware that Stoke had been the highest Leave-voting Labour constituency in the country? No, she was not. Had she voted in the referendum herself? No, she had not – indeed, she’d never voted in any election; ‘What’s the point,’ she declaimed with a sort of Nietzschean will-to-ignorance, ‘I don’t understand it anyway, and besides, it doesn’t matter what the people say, the government does what it wants to.’

The Jeremy Kyle Show was beaming down emotional dysfunction from the corner of the room, but the barmaid wasn’t paying any attention to either this, or the political situation. Nevertheless, I found her position both intelligent and considered: ‘My dad’s always on to me to vote, and to take an interest, but I can’t be bothered – we don’t have any power really.’ And what were his politics? ‘He loves that Donald Trump man, and he keeps going on about what that bloke Enoch Powell said back in the day.’ So, I suppose he isn’t too keen on immigrants? ‘Oh, yes, he hates them.’ Do you think he knows what percentage of Stoke’s inhabitants are immigrants? ‘I doubt it, but he’d say there were too bloody many, however many it was.’

I told the barmaid that a mere 3.8% of Stoke’s population were born in another country (the same percentage that identify as being black or ethnic minority), but this didn’t seem to affect her one way or the other. In truth, I’d been wandering around Stoke for three hours by then, chatting to people along the way, but no one seemed that exercised about immigration, whether from the EU or anywhere else.

I got talking to an unemployed man called Bob outside the Central Library. Tall, rangy, greying and a little bit toothless, I assumed he was around my own age – but he turned out to be a decade younger. Bob had also been out of work for a decade, after being laid off by one of the big potteries. Did he think he’d ever work again? He hoped so. Was he aware of the Leave vote in Stoke? He was – and had voted to leave himself, but now felt he’d been ‘sold a pig in a poke’. Why had he voted Leave then? ‘It was about the money for me – they told us we were wasting all this dosh by giving it to Brussels, and that it’d be available for the NHS and to invest in jobs and stuff.’

Like a lot of people on benefits in the age of austerity, Bob had an acute understanding of how the system was working – and its absurdities. He wasn’t on Universal Credit yet himself, but he knew what the switchover from Jobseekers’ Allowance would entail: even less wiggle room, and more of the Catch-22 situations he already finds himself in: ‘They told me to go and sign on with this private agency. They said to me ‘we can’t give you a job unless you have a recent reference’, but when I asked them how to get a reference, they just said I should sign on with another agency, get a job through them, resign after a few months and bring their reference back. It’s fucking mad.’

Madder still were Faun and Sheena, who I found lurking behind St Mark’s, a big, gaunt, neo-Gothic church with an incongruously pink door. I’d gone in search of a priest, on the basis that any Church of England vicar is responsible for the whole flock – and in my experience, they usually do have their ear to the ground – but the pink door was locked, while on the ground beside it were Faun, Sheena and their crack pipe.

Once they’d established I wasn’t Old Bill, they companionably offered me a hit – but I declined. Sheena had a cotton wool pad taped over her eye and dyed red hair – Faun said she was ‘a prophet and a lyricist’, but speaking between little sips of crack smoke, a desperate tale emerged: she was ex-forces – she’d had a baby aborted three weeks past the legal limit. Did I think she should sue King’s Hospital in London? Her daughter would be 16 by now, if she’d lived…

With her vari-coloured skin – the make-up misapplied to cover skin eruptions and bruises – and her synthetic chain-store clothes looking oddly new, Faun was a plausible counterpart to the prime minister, who often appears in public looking dazed and wearing one of those dreadful Puffa-style coats, and who also hangs around churches in order to get her strong, pure hit of manifest-fucking- destiny.

But while May sounds like a stopped-political-clock, Faun slid from subject to subject with no apparent rationale – it was like listening to a radio when someone’s just twiddling the dial. I was a little shocked to see such blatant hard drug use on a chilly, sunny March day in the West Midlands – but not that surprised.

Stoke has one of the highest unemployment rates in England – on almost every road I walked down there were derelict buildings, while hand-lettered signs offered accommodation to rent, or for sale, suggesting a property market in which cash remains king.

The centre of Hanley (one of the six towns that make up the Stoke conurbation) was, however, neat enough, with handsome civic buildings from the 1960s and 1970s. The place felt operative yet hollowed out – a space defined by residual civic pride, rather than ongoing civic life. After I left Bob, outside the police cantonment, I popped into the library to use the bathroom, and found the gents equipped with ultraviolet lighting designed to frustrate addicts from finding a vein. Nice. A handsome building, the fiction section was pretty empty – of people, if not books. Not that the librarian thought there anything odd about this: ‘We’ve a Job Club upstairs where the computers are, so that’s where you’ll mostly find people.’ What about Brexit? Was he aware of Stoke’s uber-Leave status? I asked the librarian – who was in his early thirties and vaguely hip: ‘Yes, but to be frank I just don’t think about it much anymore; it’s been going on for too long, and it’s too, sort of, big…’

MORE – WILL SELF: The story behind my stand-off with Mark Francois

MORE – WILL SELF: A plague on both your houses… Bring out your dead

Outside, walking past the seated bronze of Arnold Bennett, the writer who immortalised Stoke in his Five Towns novels, I encountered an elderly Punjabi man in snowy-white shalwar kameez, with a flowing white beard. Anil was 75, and had been living in Stoke for many years – first he worked in the potteries, latterly in a pathology department at the hospital, where he was responsible for cutting up the corpses. He wrinkled his nose to show how distasteful this had been.

How had he voted in the referendum? To stay, of course: ‘That May woman has ballsed it up – she’s no bloody good.’ What about Labour, did he approve of Jeremy Corbyn? Yes, he did, although as to why exactly, he was hard-pressed to come up with an answer.

Yes, the politicians down in Westminster have been buzzing around like blue-arsed flies all day – the prime ministerial jet standing ready on the tarmac to fly the Balls-up Queen to another meeting with Barnier and Tusk. But up in Stoke it was all lack of business as usual: in the Corner Café there were hipster lightbulbs strung above a rough wooden counter with a Gaggia machine on it. Was this Stoke’s first hipster business? I asked the woman behind it, a little facetiously. She said this was their first day open, so she didn’t know.

Stoke had, according to her, competed to be a UK City of Culture for 2021 but lost out to Coventry. Still, here we were, in the so-called Cultural Quarter, and the council had apparently allocated the funds to install a fully-restored Supermarine Spitfire fighter in the gap between the Potteries Museum and the library.

My Americano drunk, I wandered round the Quarter, and found the same sort of culture you do in any depressed English town centre: pedestrian precincts lined with betting shops and charity ones. Outside a shuttered branch of World of Warcraft, a young man with a ginger beard was shouting belligerently into a mobile phone: ‘I don’t have time for this! I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!’ Look, I don’t want to make anything much out of my West Midlands tour d’horizon – in a way, I’d only gone up there to find out if, after the Francois ding-dong, I could still show my face in a heavily Vote Leave constituency without getting the head it’s attached to kicked in. I’ve been doing vox pops since Christ stopped at Eboli and asked the inhabitants about organised crime in the locale, and I know it’s at best a fatuous exercise – and at worse a factitious one.

Still, it did seem bizarre quite how apathetic the people I spoke to in Stoke were: the woman in the Corner Café had voted Leave – but apparently only because her former boss advised her to, and said that the boss of JCB, a big local business, had, in turn advised him to. I got a sense of our constitutional settlement being determined by a sort of ideological pyramid-selling scheme – and couldn’t forefend from observing that Anthony Bamford, the JCB chairman, is the head of a family with assets valued at £3.8 billion, who have made almost £10 million in political donations since 2001, almost all of it to the Tory Party. JCB is one of those proud British businesses incorporated on the continent for tax purposes. Fair enough, you might say, considering JCB Service do the largest proportion of their business there.

However, I don’t imagine the woman in the Corner Café in Stoke has the option to moor her yacht beside her seaside French mansion at Cabasson. Sir Anthony does, though.

• Will Self’s special edition of The New European is in shops now, and is also available to buy from our online shop.

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