Broken Kingdom: why people voted Leave

It is a divided city in a divided country, separated by a chasm of anger.


Billingsgate, India Docks and Limehouse are iconic names of London’s East End. These are some of the areas where German bombs fell in the Blitz of the Second World War and the community – the famous “East Enders” – were known for their unbreakable spirit. Now, most of the houses have gone from these neighbourhoods. Much of the area is taken up with bank headquarters, financial offices mixed with a few executive-style condominiums.

Go a little further along the Thames River and a visitor comes into the Upton Park district. This area is a few hundred yards and several cultural light years from the financial district. It is mostly made up of small, two-storey row houses and public council estates. Many of the houses and cars have Union Jack flags or the white Cross of Saint George hanging in their windows.

Saleem Naeem, an engineer who lives in the community, says, “This area was the first place of residence for many historical waves of immigrants. In the 19th century it was the Chinese, then there was a wave of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, then immigrants from the rest of the Commonwealth came here after the war. It is the place where every community arrives in this country.”

Despite its multicultural nature, it is one of the few districts in London to solidly vote Leave in last week’s referendum.

At the centre of the district is the statue of the iconic football star Sir Bobby Moore. He is holding up the 1966 World Cup – the year England won the tournament. Moore was the Captain and to the English of a certain age he is Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau combined: a tough, hard player with the manners of a gentleman.

Across the street from the statue is the Lahore Kebab. Its owner, Mohammed Usman, is proud to have voted to leave the European Union. He came to Britain twenty-four years before and has seen the community

“It is so dirty and violent now. These European immigrants come and they have no jobs. They just walk around the street drinking beer.”

Usman takes me outside and shows the phone booths covered with stickers placed there by prostitutes advertising their wares and the garages that were broken into, he claims, by homeless migrants. “Every street now has two or three of these places. Ten years ago, it was not like that…” He indicates the beer cans and excrement in the little square next to his restaurant. “The migrants come, and they are all young men,
they sit for hours and cause problems.”

Tom Wilson, who has known Usman since he first opened the shop agrees, “The vote to Leave wasn’t racism. It was about opportunity and sovereignty. Why should an unskilled European be allowed to come here when a
Pakistani doctor or engineer is turned away? We want sovereignty. We want decisions to be made in Westminster not Brussels. If we make mistakes, we make the mistakes not someone else.”

Saleem Naeem, who arrived in 1982, says that many of the people do not understand when they blame the recent migrants from Eastern Europe for the housing shortage, “It is not their fault. It is because in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s government made the local governments sell off their public housing. This created the shortage, not the recent migrants.”

Abel Chaudhry who drives a mini-cab in the area disagrees.

“I was going to vote *Remain*, then four days before the vote, a [migrant] man comes knocking at my door with three other people at 5 a.m. He says,‘We have nowhere to sleep, give us water or a cup of tea.’ I said, ‘No’ so he started swearing at meThis happens here all the time. In this neighbourhood, there are whole families sleeping under the bridges with their suitcases. They come here with no job and they want to get everything.”

“The Broken Kingdom”

Across London is the trendy area of Islington. It is the heart of the Labour Party vote. Its current leader Jeremy Corbyn lives here and Islington’s name is synonymous in the British media with a left-wing, liberal viewpoint.

Blighty Café is known as one of Islington’s top places for brunch. It is decorated with Battle of Britain memorabilia and model Spitfire and Messerschmitt planes hang from the ceiling. There are 1940s costumes and uniforms that customers are encouraged to wear to celebrate Britain’s’ ‘Finest Hour’.

If any place in London might be expected to be a bastion of Leave support it would be here. However, inside the Blighty there is a wave of angry disappointment from the staff. Marius Stankevicius from Lithuania, who works behind the counter says, “It was the saddest day of my recent life. Its going to be a Broken Kingdom, not a United Kingdom.”

With his blonde hair and gentle face Stankevicius has the look of a misplaced angel, however, he is incandescent with rage when he speaks of the referendum result: “I have been here for seven years. I have worked twelve hours a day. Now the British treat us like this? It is the end, I will go home. I don’t see the point of staying here in this country.”

A similar rage is felt across the country. Radio and television chat shows are filled with people expressing their rage at the referendum result. A petition on social media, ironically started by a Leave supporter, to repeal the referendum result has gained over 3.5 million signatures. More seriously a number of anti-migrant incidents have been reported, including one Muslim businesswomanin Wales who was told, “To pack her bags and go home.”

Do you think we’re thick?

A good example of the misunderstanding and rage on both sides came in the BBC Newsnight television program. The producers staged an interview with supporters from both sides. One young man from London spoke about the lack of understanding of the European Union.

A woman from Boston, Lincolnshire – called in the media ‘the most segregated in all of Britain’ – asked with a bemused expression, “Do you think all Leave voters are thick [stupid]?”

She spoke about the troubles in her community, where over 70% of the electorate voted to leave the European Union, explaining that in her neighbourhood medical clinics some essential services have been reduced because the money has to be spent on translators to help migrant workers receive medical attention and that it is difficult to get work at the local factories with competition from newly arrived workers willing to accept lower salaries.

“They are shooting themselves in the foot”

Steven Powell has been a Labour Party activist in Islington for over forty-years. During the coal strike of the 1980s, which also divided the country, Powell helped organise a concert at the Royal Albert Hall with a combined choir of South African and Welsh miners. It was a difficult time for the Labour Party but now Powell thinks this referendum may spell the end of his Party for the next ten years.

“The heartlands of Labour support has vanished in the last two referendum. We lost Scotland in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. After the vote, much of the Labour support in Scotland was absorbed by the
Scottish National Party. Now all the post-industrial areas of Wales and the North of England have been lost by Labour.”

He puts part of the blame for the Leave victory on, “They have a nostalgia for a Britain of yesteryear that never existed. They are bitter, I don’t blame them, but they picked the wrong target. The European Union was their best hope and now its gone.”

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