Britain May be Yearning for a Country That Never Was

Photos by Emilio Morenatti

Across Britain, from dilapidated Welsh coal mining towns to English beach resorts frozen in time, people say they voted to leave the European Union and plunge into the unknown to get their country back.

But which country is that, exactly? Could their stinging blow to the European project have stemmed from a yearning for a Britain that never really existed?

On a rare blue-sky day in Great Yarmouth, a quintessentially English seaside resort with squeaky-floored hotels and screeching seagulls, the mostly elderly people strolling along the beach longed for a bygone era. 

Not just in this declining coastal town but throughout the United Kingdom, they said, the sense of community that once glued the country together had been shattered. They blamed politicians, bankers, foreigners, European bureaucrats and even political correctness.

Yvonne Pycroft, a 69-year-old with purple highlights in her white hair, summed up the feelings of many “leave” voters when she said she’s not sure Britain will be better off outside the European Union, “but what we had I didn’t like so we’re just taking a gamble. I’m just hoping it will change for the better.”

In the Working Men’s club of Haltwhistle, a quaint countryside village whose claim to fame is being the geographical midpoint of Britain, gray-haired men agreed their country was better off before it joined the EU in 1973. Except for Dryden Smith, the oldest man in the club and one of the few who said they voted “remain.” With gleaming badges on his blazer, he said the quality of life has improved greatly since he was young.

“I’m 81 years old now. I’m looked after left, right and center. And I can’t ask for more,” he said, hands trembling. “I come out here and enjoy my whisky. Bring my wife out with us. And we just have a good time. Before that, we couldn’t because we hadn’t the money.”

“Leave” voters, many of them pensioners, told Associated Press journalists on a road trip across Britain last week they were sick and tired of being told what to do by Brussels. But besides the free movement of people, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of European migrant workers coming to Britain, they struggled to find examples of how the EU has encroached on their lives.

They still enjoy many of Britain’s unique features, such as paying with pounds rather than euros, the currency of 19 EU members, driving on the left side of the road and using electricity plugs with three pins instead of two, the norm in most of Europe.

In Wales, more than 52 percent of the electorate voted out despite getting more money back from the EU than they put in. Jenny Hughes, an education consultant in the town of Pontypridd, said it reminded her of a scene in the 1979 Monty Python comedy film “Life of Brian,” where occupied Judeans ask “what have the Romans done for us?” except improve sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public order and roads.

“They say this is a chance to have a go at (Conservative Prime Minister David) Cameron, this is a chance to have a go at the bankers,” Hughes said. “They are voting against immigration, they are voting against the establishment.”

Except in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which voted to remain, people in deprived former coal, steel and shipbuilding towns admitted they voted “leave” without having a clear idea of the potential economic consequences. Their decision, they said, was fueled by a feeling of being ignored and abandoned even by Labour, the traditional party of the working class, and this was their chance to make their voices heard.

In Great Yarmouth, Pycroft said she would like Britain to return to the days when children could play conkers, a traditional school yard game with chestnuts that some schools have reportedly banned for safety reasons, and people didn’t get offended by nursery rhymes.

“We’re not allowed to say ‘baa-baa black sheep anymore,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Having a pint on the beachfront promenade, Sean Sutton and Maria Atkins, both 46-year-old leave voters, said they didn’t think they were glorifying the past.

“We were the best country in the world for making steel and producing coal and everything and it’s all gone now,” Sutton said, sunglasses perched on his shaved head.

Heavy industry jobs that gave people an income and sense of identity have been sent overseas, while migrant workers are bringing down the pay for remaining jobs in Britain, he said.

Gone, too, he added, is the community spirit whereby “you can leave your back door open if you want. You can go to the shops without being scared of being mugged or anything like that. And that’s what Britain’s got to go back to.”

Several studies have shown crime levels are declining in Britain and other Western European countries. Figures from the EU’s official statistics agency show England saw an 18-percent drop in violent crimes recorded by police between 2002 and 2012.

Still, Atkins said people aren’t treating each other the way they used to. Manners and respect for the elderly has gone “out the window,” she said. Sutton agreed, saying migrants were partly to blame.

“They won’t open doors for you,” he said. “I was brought up to open doors for people and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Some of them just barge past you.”

Great Yarmouth was among several areas in eastern England where more than 70 percent voted “leave.” Like many English seaside resorts it started stagnating when package tours to Spain became affordable in the 1970s. It’s now struggling with unemployment, low education levels and high rates of teenage pregnancy.

In Peterborough, an eastern city with a high rate of immigration, the “leave” side got 61 percent. Mike Bullock said he voted “leave” partly because of the loneliness he had felt as the only Englishman working in a packing factory.

“All the rest of them spoke either Lithuanian or Polish,” he said. “If there wasn’t anybody else available, anybody who spoke English, I used to go have my tea break on my own.”

In a market stall in the city, 67-year-old Bruce Johnson also complained about immigration and said he wanted his country back from a “faceless group of diplomats” in Brussels. Asked whether he could think of anything Britain had gained from its EU membership, he paused for a second.

“I’m trying to think of something,” he said. “I don’t think it has.”

Behind him a jukebox was playing “Land of Hope and Glory,” viewed by many as England’s unofficial national anthem.


Text from the AP news story, Britain may be yearning for a country that never was, by Karl Ritter.


AP journalist David Keyton contributed to this report.


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