Brexit in Blairland: How Tony Blair’s heartland lost its faith in Europe
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Tony Blair is Brexit's most eloquent critic, but does his controversial legacy prevent him making a full impact? ANTHONY CLAVANE went to his former constituency – a Leave stronghold – to find out
Everyone I speak to in Sedgefield seems to remember exactly what they were doing on Friday, November 21, 2003. It was a memorable day in the life of the picturesque, usually tranquil, County Durham market town.
Some villagers were in the Dun Cow Inn as George W Bush opened the door to be greeted by their MP, Tony Blair, with the words: 'Welcome to my local'. The regulars cheered loudly as the two politicians sat down to eat fish and chips together.
Others tell stories about being stopped by one of the 1,300 officers on duty that day – at an estimated cost of £1 million, it was the biggest security operation the area had ever seen – being interviewed by Special Branch or seeing friends' unattended cars being towed away. 'The police went off with my wheelie bin,' says Keith, whose wife helped select the young Blair as Labour candidate back in the early 1980s.
A man in his late 20s, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers waving an American flag when Bush visited his community college. The president signed a baseball and jokingly asked a pupil: 'Got any complaints about the school?' 'No,' the headteacher quickly interjected.
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Happy days. No complaints about a prestigious visit from the leader of the free world, about Sedgefield once again gaining global recognition as the PM's powerhouse, about the two powerful politicians discussing their plans for the post-Cold War world order as Dubya dipped his chips into a big dollop of tomato ketchup.
This was eight months after Blair had sent British troops to join the US-led invasion of Iraq, six months after Bush had declared victory – and a month before Saddam Hussein was captured.
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True, there were a number of protesters on the village green, parked behind three ranks of crowd barriers, inviting Bush to 'Gan Yem' – go home – as he pulled up in his armoured Chevrolet to enjoy a pub lunch at the prime minister's favourite watering hole. But, after six years of New Labour, the modernisation project was in full swing, with stuffy old Britain being transformed into a more go-ahead world power and Blair on course to winning a historic third term in government.
Fourteen years on it is hard to find anyone who has a good word to say about the once-iconic figure who put their market town on the map. Apart from the man in his 20s, who describes himself as a 'shy Blairite' – hence the wish for anonymity. 'This is a strong Leave area,' he informs me. 'But there is a lot of appreciation for what he did. Especially in terms of regeneration. And, I am told, there used to be a lot of pride that he was prime minister. To me, his message on Europe is bang on – but I think he's tainted by his role in the Iraq invasion and stance on immigration.'
As someone who supports his call for a re-think on Brexit, and after spending a day chatting to some of his former constituents, I reckon the shy Blairite might have a point.
The message is good, but the messenger has become tarnished. Alastair Campbell, Blair's right-hand man throughout most of his premiership and New European editor-at-large, was asked in the Guardian whether his old boss realised he was toxic. 'Oh, for sure, for sure,' he replied, although the former Downing Street director of communications went on to argue that the great persuader still had enough credibility to induce the British public to reconsider their out vote.
Victoria Wise, enjoying an afternoon cuppa with her mother Susan in the cafe opposite the green, is not so sure.
'Why has he lost support here?' she muses. 'Well, there's lots of things that have happened since he was prime minister. The Iraq investigation for one thing.
'You never know the full story. But if someone tells you there are weapons of mass destruction, well you have to act. And America has to act. But after the Iraq investigation, well, people may think there is an element of distrust after that.'
The triumphalism of 2003 has given way to the cynicism of 2018. For some, embitterment towards the New Labour era, symbolised by the Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq, was one of the factors which helped create the conditions for Britain leaving the EU. The £11.8bn conflict led to the deaths of 179 British troops and more than 150,000 Iraqis and left the region in chaos and despair.
Campbell has been honest enough to admit that the toxic legacy of the Blair years, particularly a failure to respond to growing concerns over immigration, sowed the seeds of the Leave vote. In this very newspaper, he coined the memorable phrase 'tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit'. One of those causes was surely disillusionment, in Labour's provincial heartlands, with a political class which has allowed itself to be caricatured as an out-of-touch metropolitan elite.
The iconic seat of Sedgefield, the epicentre of the party's north-east powerbase, has been Labour since 1935, achieving a 25,000 majority at the height of its popularity. From 1983, when Blair won 47.6% of the vote in the face of Margaret Thatcher's first landslide victory, to last June's election – when Phil Wilson took a 53.4% share of the poll – it has remained a socialist stronghold.
A collection of former mining villages and windswept urban and rural towns, the winding gear that once dominated the skyline is long gone. Like most of its de-industrialised neighbouring seats, it voted overwhelmingly for Brexit; almost 60% gave the thumbs down to EU membership, reflecting the overall trend across the region.
Given the squeeze on living standards, the brutal effects of austerity and a sense that the north gets a raw deal from Westminster and Brussels, Victoria is not at all surprised she was – and remains – in a minority on Europe.
'Politicians have let us down in this area,' she declares. 'They (the Leavers) stuck two fingers up to the establishment. The Leave vote didn't amaze me.
'It wasn't about Europe, I feel. It was about this area not being supported by the south. We are almost second-class citizens. And I think that vote came from that. There was an element of Europe being seen to have control, to the disadvantage of the north.'
Her 69-year-old mother voted to get out because she doesn't 'like Europe telling us what to do' – but admits Victoria's generation has a more positive view of the EU. 'There is an age gap,' she notes. 'But there was a clear vote. It's a long drawn out process. They should just get in with it and stop argy-barging. Mind you, I want to stay in the single market and customs union.'
Victoria, who is 44, says she 'can't remember what it was like before we joined. But that's all I've known. It was so difficult to make a decision.
'But I stood in the parish hall (voting booth) and it occurred to me that Blair had been the MP for Sedgefield for a long time. During that period of time when we had quite a number of ministers in parliament from this area – Blair, William Hague, Michael Fallon, Alan Milburn, David Miliband – they did nothing for the infrastructure and development of the north-east.
'The investment in this area per person versus the south east is ridiculously disproportionate. I felt that they didn't help us when they had the opportunity. But I can't see why it is going to help us leaving Europe.'
A retired gentleman sitting at the next table, who gives his name as Mr Clark, says: 'Blair is very toxic, especially since his Iraqi adventures. He should pipe down. I voted Leave and the second referendum idea is a nonsense.
'Working-class people in these areas are affected more than middle-class socialists in Islington and Hampstead. They can't get jobs. There's nothing wrong with Polish or Czechoslovak people whatsoever but we've got to control immigration.'
This is a striking view to hold, given the constituency is 97.4% white British.
Mr Clark recommends I drop in at the Dun Cow Inn, where there is a plaque commemorating Bush's visit. And sure enough, outside the gastropub is a sign bearing the legend: 'Sedgfield Heritage Trail. Rt Hon Charles Anthony Lynton Blair while touring his constituency welcomed the President of the USA George W Bush. Friday, November 21st, 2003.'
Inside, as well as remembering what they were doing on that day, everyone has a take on Blair's recent intervention on Brexit. There is a perception of their former MP as a permanently damaged figure. Some tell me he typifies the arrogant British elite at its worst.
Jim Jobes used to be a staunch Labourite. He thinks it is fashionable now to have a go at the man – 'somebody must have voted for him and he did me no harm' – but believes it is time to go quietly into retirement. Or, as Jim puts it, 'he wants to keep his mouth shut. He should just walk away. When it comes to the referendum I think he's a sore loser. What, is it best out of three now? Best out of five? Till they get the result they want?
'The hospital's not running as well as it should be because it's overrun. Too many are using it. I'm in favour of closing borders.'
His friend Paul, who came to the town from Sheffield in 1999, says: 'That's the elephant in the room, nobody is talking about immigration. I voted to stay. I've no allegiance to Blair. He's become one of the toffs. He's been long gone and no-one expected him to show his face back here ever again. Mind you, he came back once to donate his house in Trimdon to a youth organisation.'
The narrative in the Dun Cow Inn is that Brexit was, in part, a revolt against Blair's disastrous misjudgements. He misled us all and invaded Iraq. He flung open our borders. He let Gordon Brown's borrowing wreck the economy, triggering austerity.
Some acknowledge that he articulates the case against Theresa May's strategy more clearly than anyone else in British public life. His arguments can appear persuasive. But he is unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the Remain campaign.
Paul was unimpressed by last week's appearance on Radio 4's Today programme, praising John Humphrys attack dog approach towards Blair. 'I heard him on there and I was embarrassed for him. Humphrys tore him apart.
'And I'm a Remainer. I met him once. He was okay. I remember Pat Phoenix came here and backed him up when he first stood here. She was married to Tony Booth, Cherie Blair's father. And John Burton sometimes comes in here for lunch. He was his agent. He's a good man.
'[Blair] put the town on the map back then. But I think he's lost it, completely gone. If I was running the pro-EU campaign I wouldn't welcome him voicing an opinion. I'd rather have him voicing an opinion against me.'
Before I catch the bus back to Durham railway station I visit Sedgefield Social Club where Joe, who was a miner during the strike of 1984-5, reveals that he voted for Blair but now regrets it. 'He went into Iraq,' he says. 'I was in the miners strike. And I was in the forces. He did nowt for us. He wants to keep his trap shut. Does he not know what democracy means?
'Mind you, I have no time for Jeremy Corbyn. He speaks with forked tongue. To be honest with you, I wouldn't believe any politician.'
At the bus stop I take one last look at the village green, which I have been told is transformed every Shrove Tuesday into a battleground.
Thousands of people compete in a brutal football match, frantically chasing a tiny ball around all day. The losing team comes back every year, refusing to cowed into submission, determined to fight the good fight.
Like the Shy Blairite, I think our former prime minister – whose three administrations built new hospitals and schools, halved local unemployment and introduced the minimum wage – has several redeeming features. Any politician deemed by the Sun to be 'the most dangerous man in Britain' can't be all bad.
The Great Persuader, as he was once known, might not, as yet, have moved public opinion in favour of remaining in the EU – but at least he's standing up for what he believes in, refusing to be cowed by populist bullies, continuing to fight the anti-Brexit fight.
Anthony Clavane's Moving The Goalposts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Riverrun, is now out in paperback