The town wanting to have its fishcake and eat it
Many in Grimsby voted Leave to revive its fishing heritage. So why are locals now seeking an exemption from Brexit for its seafood industry? ANTHONY CLAVANE reports
There are some fantastic bargains on offer at Fred's Fisheries. Cod, sea bass and small haddocks to name but three. Lovely fresh fish sold by a traditional fishmonger in a town which once boasted the world's greatest fishing fleet.
All, however, is not well in the beleaguered port of Grimsby.
'I think a lot of things like this will go up when Brexit goes through,' grumbles Len Arnold, an eighty-something Grimbarian who decides, in the end, on a nice bit of haddock. His wife Joan explains that it's tasty, easy to cook and, at the moment, good value. 'I don't think prices will go up all that much,' she counters. 'But if they do, well, if you want it (leaving the EU) you've got to pay for it. Anyway, we haven't got long to live have we? So it won't matter to us.'
'It's a struggle,' admits Adam Gladding after serving the Arnolds. The 30-year-old fish merchant, whose father Dave bought the Freeman Street market stall three years ago, is a Brexiteer – but is beginning to get cold feet.
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'People were not really aware of what was going to happen,' he says. 'We are still unsure. Perhaps in 18 months it will do us good. Suddenly we'll get our own waters back and do our own fishing. That's what they say, anyway, but I don't know. If you lose this it won't come back. Any extra on importing fish would have a knock-on-effect. I don't think we can cope with it.'
Last week a local delegation of food chiefs went to Westminster to bend the Government's ear about the impact a Hard Brexit would have on the area. Grimsby's days as a major seaport are long gone and today huge quantities of fish – an estimated 90% – are imported from Iceland and Norway. The delegation warned that import tariffs, delays in deliveries and a shortfall of foreign labour would cause great harm to their industry.
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So, now they tell us.
North East Lincolnshire is one of the most Eurosceptic regions in Britain. An overwhelming majority of its constituents – 71.45% – voted last year to Leave. For decades, many of them have blamed Brussels for the decimation of the fishing heartland.
According to this narrative, expounded with great gusto by the likes of David Davis and Michael Gove during the referendum campaign – the former visited Grimsby for a Vote Leave flotilla along the Humber – Westminster politicians sacrificed our traditional waters on the altar of their self-indulgent Europhilia.
In a further satirical twist to the story, the recent delegation to Westminster came up with a cunning plan. It urged the EU to give their port special free trade status after the breakup. A Brexemption, if you will.
Talking about wanting to have your fishcake and eat it.
The plan provoked, it is reasonable to say, a fair bit of mocking in the Twittersphere. TV physicist Brian Cox asked for an exemption for the whole of the UK. 'If Grimsby get it, can I have an exemption from Brexit too please?' asked author Emma Kennedy. Another Remainer posted: 'The approach they are taking is: Grimsby voted for it. Grimsby agrees with it. Everywhere should take the consequences.... except Grimsby.'
'I'm in favour of a free trade deal,' says Adam, at Fred's Fisheries. 'We need something. I'm sure the big companies would feel they'd be able to carry on but small businesses wouldn't
be worth doing any more.' In fact, the big seafood processing companies, like Youngs and the Saucy Fish Company, are also worried about Brexit. Their main concerns are the high tariffs which will be slapped on their products, their access to fresh fish and their ability to attract workers from outside the UK – around 25% of their workforce. According to Seafood Grimsby & Humber spokesman Simon Dwyer, who was part of the delegation: 'It could harm our seafood processing industry. Even if fishermen take home larger catches (after the abolition of Common Fisheries Policy quotas), even if they can catch a bit more haddock and a bit more cod and sell it in Grimsby to be processed, the additional tonnage from the North Sea is unlikely to help the large companies.
'Let's face facts. Grimsby imports seafood from all over the world. Trade is important to us. We are driven by trade and trading relationships. With Brexit we might have a few more tranches of fish bobbing in, but most will still be imports. We've had a whinge and a moan about it, but now we need to get on to the front foot. We can take advantage and make things better – instead of doom and gloom.'
But is a free trade deal between the region and the EU really a goer? 'If you don't ask,' he replies, 'you don't get.'
Back at the Freeman Street market, the Mayor of North East Lincolnshire, Ron Shepherd has popped in to Fred's Fisheries and has been chatting to Adam.
Ron remembers Fred's when the stall was run by Stephen Parkinson, whose family owned it for 60 years, and reminisces about the golden age when hundreds of trawlers lined the docks and the fleet could have stretched a mile out to sea.
'I could climb from ship to ship to ship. That will never come back, though, because the infrastructure has changed. The fishing industry is not coming back. Brexit will have nothing to do with that. We are still a gateway to Europe, even though we're leaving the EU. We're seeing more and more people come from outside the UK and we accept them with open arms.'
The mayor is in favour of an exemption 'as a stand-alone agreement, like with farming. If it's meant as a trade deal for North East Lincolnshire I would be in favour of that to project jobs and investment. We need to ensure the government is aware how much we rely on trading with the European Union. We rely on imports.'
Ron goes back to the market's seminar room where a remembrance service has just taken place. A few local dignitaries are discussing the short film The Grimsby Chums, a heartbreaking story about the young men who fought at the Battle of the Somme at a time when their town was 'the busiest fishing port in the world'.
During the Second World War, one tells me, fish and chips was the only food not rationed because of the dangers faced by trawlermen at sea.
I grab a few words with local Labour MP Melanie Onn, who is worried that the region will take a big hit on exiting the European Union. 'The big issue is delays,' she says. 'We have things imported, which are usually coming from northern Europe. Every time they stop at a border if there is a delay for paperwork it puts the goods in peril. They are perishable, they cannot wait for ever. Fish has a short shelf-life. It could destroy the quality of the food that we would then be eating as customers.'
Stephen White, the chairman of the Enrolled Freemen of Grimsby, disagrees. 'I think (a unique deal) is inconceivable,' he says. 'It's all out or all in. All or nothing. This is an opportunity here for entrepreneurs to thrive. There are too many scaremongers.'
His organisation is at the forefront of the Freeman Street regeneration scheme. More than £1 million has been invested in the indoor market, which is located next to the Fish Docks.
Down the road is the red-brick Dock Tower, built in 1852 to provide hydraulic power and modelled on the 14th-century Torre del Mangia in Siena. A reminder of longstanding continental connections? 'I was in favour of coming out of Europe,' Stephen tells me. 'We were hoodwinked into joining it. There'll be a bit of a bumpy ride, of course, in the short-term.'
Before leaving the market, I talk to Terry and Sue Pannell, the only Remainers I come across on my travels. 'I don't think anybody appreciated the difficulties,' says Sue. 'A lot of them wanted to get back to what they remembered. But I can't see there's any point going backwards when it's the young people who will be dealing with it in the future. The majority of the young want to staying because they are European.'
What about an exemption? 'Everyone else in the country will want one then,' chuckles Terry. 'They'll all say they are a special case.'
The couple, who are looking forward to singing Christmas carols down by the docks, are dismayed at the image Grimsby has down south. 'It's worlds apart,' sighs Sue. 'Mind you, we're in the Bach Choir, which is not a thing associated with the stereotype of this town.'
It is this stereotype which has undoubtedly contributed to the sense of feeling patronised, taken for granted, left behind. Locals feel they have been sneered at by broadsheet snobs, exploited by poverty-porn TV shows and ridiculed by Hollywood movie stars. The late AA Gill, Channel 4's Skint and Sacha Baron Cohen all agreed on one thing – it's grim in Grimsby.
To Gill, it was a byword for all that was crass in Broken Britain. Locals accused the Channel 4 documentary makers of demonising one of its most impoverished estates. And Cohen's portrayal of Nobby, a jobless layabout addicted to benefits, booze and hooliganism, might have flopped at the box office but his film – called Grimsby – left southern audiences in no doubt that the dilapidated port was a hotbed of drinking, drug dealing and all-round general depravity.
As shoppers in Freshney Place shopping centre, next to the railway station, confirmed, Brexit was a visceral reaction to neglect by a distant political establishment, to the economic anxiety caused by globalisation, the Cod Wars legacy and a sense that Westminster had sold them down the river to Brussels.
The economy might be stalling, and the government might be decaying, but like rust-belt Americans staying loyal to Donald Trump, support for Leave remains firm. Despite the President's disastrous record, he is still feeling the love from his core voters. 'His supporters,' noted the influential newsletter Politico 'are energised by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments.'
We Remainers might have decided that the wheels are coming off. And some Leavers might be expressing buyers' remorse. But in a region which has struggled since the dramatic decline of the fishing industry, and that is still feeling the anguish and isolation of post-industrial neglect, Brexit remains an important symbol of taking back control.
The utopian fantasy of becoming, in the Government's words, 'an independent coastal state on the day we leave the European Union' continues to hold sway. As does the bombastic claim, by fisheries minister George Eustice, that we will 're-establish national control (of our waters) for 200 nautical miles'.
'I think we should have our own rules and regulations and not let another country tell us what to do,' Janet Pickett tells me when I arrive at the shopping centre, passing the National Fishing Heritage Centre and the Ross Tiger – the last surviving old-style trawler – along the way.
Her granddaughter Hannah disagrees, but Janet insists the 26-year-old 'is too young to really understand it all.'
Terry and Wendy, a couple in their 70s, are desperate to turn the clock back. 'There used to be 400 trawlers,' remembers Terry. 'Now there's half a dozen. I think we can be a great fishing port again.'
Wendy, who used to work in the docks, says: 'I loved working down there. It was another little world. It would be nice if we could get our own fishing grounds back and do what we want instead of all them taking all our fish. All these foreigners are coming over here and taking all our houses. None of them work, but they've all got houses and money. We should stop them coming and living here. We've never had so much crime.'
Maureen Wood doesn't mind if food prices go up 'as long as we're out. Whatever the downside, it's better to come out. We can get our fishing rights back.' Fears about slow transit times and high tariffs are, she posits, 'a load of bullshit, scaremongering.'
An elderly man sitting next to her reveals he didn't vote. 'Why ever not?' she asks. 'I'm a Jehovah's Witness,' he replies. 'Do you remember the Lord's Prayer, where you pray for God's kingdom to come? That's the Government we want. That's going to solve all our problems.'
It appears the cunning plan by seafood chiefs to deliver Grimbarians from the evils of Brexit has fallen on deaf ears.
Anthony Clavane's Moving The Goalposts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Riverrun, is out in paperback this month
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