In Sunderland, in the northeast of England, few people want to talk about Brexit. “If I hear another word about it I’ll scream,” says one woman while another tells me, “We are heartily sick of it.”
And who could blame them? Nearly three and a half years after Britain voted, narrowly, to leave the European Union, the subject has gridlocked politics, bitterly divided the country, and consumed the media, and yet is no closer to being resolved. Parliament set Britain’s EU departure in motion by triggering the necessary regulation, Article 50, in March 2017, but since then has not agreed on how to leave. Brexit bills proposed by former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May saw historically large defeats, with both pro-Leave and pro-Remain MPs rejecting them. Her successor, Boris Johnson, who took over with declarations of “do or die” by the end of October, got a more extreme Brexit bill through the first stage of approval in October. But he withdrew it when Parliament asked to have a look at the details. Having broken his promise, he was forced to ask the EU for an extension of the deadline. Now Britain is heading into a December election—for the first time in decades, and the third election since 2015.
It is striking that, despite the delays and political chaos, despite the broken promises of the Leave campaign, the crashed pound, the departing businesses, and the stark economic warnings—including from the government itself—the country is still divided. It doesn’t seem as though many minds have changed, in either direction. A poll of polls does show that, since 2017, those who favor Remain are in the lead, at some 53 percent. But that shift is in large part about demographic change: Young people are far more likely to vote Remain, and there are now more of them eligible to vote. Leave voters are changing their minds, but not at a pace that would show a sizable shift: The current Remain lead is not dissimilar to that during the months leading up to the 2016 referendum. That said, one thing a majority of 57 percent does now agree on is that the referendum should never have been held in the first place.
Sunderland was the first to declare for Brexit, by large majorities, in 2016’s referendum. This spawned a slew of articles on the city, seen as emblematic of a Brexit vote in anger, a kick against the establishment from left-behind areas of the country—though a national number-crunch would show that Brexit was won by middle-class voters in the south of England. But the northeast represents key parts of British manufacturing, particularly automobiles, and with six ports facing the EU, this region does around 60 percent of its trade with Europe. It stands to lose the most in a Brexit deal in which the UK diverges from the EU, because of the resulting tariffs and because of the delays that extra paperwork would have on highly finessed, just-in-time businesses. Goods can crisscross Europe several times before they become finished products—and currently require no paperwork aside from an invoice to do so.
In Sunderland, a huge Nissan plant alone employs 7,000 people, with some 30,000–40,000 more in the supply chain. This plant is surrounded by supply companies, categorized into three tiers, with each tier making the components that feed into the next and eventually ending up on the Nissan production line, where two cars are assembled each minute. Some 70 percent of them are destined for the EU. “It’s a really well-oiled machine that has taken 30 years to build up,” says James Ramsbottom, chief executive at the North East England Chamber of Commerce. This business organization, alongside the nationwide British Chamber of Commerce, trade unions, local politicians, and various manufacturing and automotive industry bodies, has been pointing to the risks of leaving the EU on a hard deal or no deal, as well as the damage already done. Some companies report that regular advance orders have now stopped (because who can guarantee what costs will be and how long things will take?). Plans have stalled and investments have dried up amid the uncertainty. Ramsbottom says one company recently told him they’d lost a significant part of the business to Turkey, now seen as a more stable trading partner than Britain. Automotive industry contracts in particular can have a lead time of years, so the impact of decisions made now has yet to hit. And that’s before we consider the upwards of £600 million allocated by the EU to the northeast through various funding schemes—some of which is evident at Sunderland port, which bears a sign saying infrastructure improvements were partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund.
But if the message about manufacturing in the northeast is being heard, it is often not believed. In a retail park near the Sunderland Nissan plant, a lunchtime destination for workers in the plant and its supply chain, passers-by are skeptical. One 53-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, says she “just wants Brexit done. My partner works in Nissan and he wants it done”—echoing the words used by the government to push through a deal. Brexit, she says, will mean the UK can “start making our own laws, look after our own nation, get trade back and our industry back.” She considers any losses in the automotive industry to be about sector changes, such as people switching to diesel and electric cars, but that “the papers are blaming it all on Brexit.” And she says the nation has not left the EU because politicians are blocking it. “They are not listening; they are twisting things,” she says. “They need to stop treating people as ignorant and start crediting them with some intelligence.” Nigel, a 52-year-old who works in the car industry, says the issue is a “big farce,” adding that politicians haven’t delivered Brexit because they “don’t trust what people voted for and don’t think we’re good enough.” Like others, Nigel says that the German car industry is more reliant on Britain than vice versa, meaning Britain has the upper hand. “Who needs who?” he says. “Let’s just leave on no deal and sort it out later.”
This is in part the effect of Leavers in chief claiming every negative statement as part of “project fear”—a Remain campaign to put people off the Brexit cause. Business organizations in the region say this has deterred companies from speaking out, since those who do face negative press and attacks. Companies are, as one organization’s policy adviser put it, “reluctant to put their brand above the parapet and get shot down.” For the Remainer Now campaign, which shares stories of Leave-turned-Remain voters with the slogan “It’s ok to change your mind,” the reluctance to listen to economic warnings can also be a reaction to being so frequently dismissed as ignorant. Andy, 43, who voted to Leave but now campaigns with the Remainer Now group, says, “It’s echo chambers—people get stuck in them and then others are calling them stupid and insulting them, which never works. So people dig in.”
Another factor is that it has become such a strong identity question—of people’s values but also of how people see the UK in relation to the rest of the world. Jude Kirton-Darling, a Labour Member of the European Parliament, says: “The Brexit campaign tapped into a very deep seam around how people perceive the UK, and that’s never really been addressed.… We don’t realize how interdependent we are with our neighbors and how much our voice and strength in the world is because we are in a union with our neighbors. We underestimate that. We don’t have any discussion of it in the national dialogue.” It’s a complicated issue, requiring a reckoning with the legacy of empire and colonialism, as well as of the impact of Britain’s own free-market economics—instead of which the political conversation has been a rehash of the same Leave/Remain arguments over Brexit for the past three years.
Meanwhile, MPs who are trying to represent constituents in Leave areas while communicating the risks of leaving are witnessing the same entrenchment. Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, explains that since the 2016 referendum, she has asked constituents for their views. She voted to trigger Article 50, while constantly making locals aware they could let her know if they’d changed their minds. At every significant juncture—after reports that the Leave campaign broke electoral laws when the government’s bleak Brexit impact assessments emerged, when manufacturing bodies warned about the negative consequences of leaving the customs union, when the usually reticent Nissan warned, in October, that No Deal would make its European operation “unsustainable”—Hodgson wondered if the e-mails and phone calls would start coming. “But no. Nothing,” she says. “If anything, the rhetoric has hardened.” Hodgson describes the paradox of some Leave voters putting their faith in pro-Brexit politicians. “On this issue they will trust them, but not on anything else, not on social policy, the welfare state, the NHS—and the future of all of that depends on Brexit.”
None of the hardships or inequalities that fueled Brexit more than three years ago have disappeared, because politically little has happened apart from Brexit—which, of course, also hasn’t happened. In a region that has for decades felt ignored and has borne austerity cuts on top of the ravages of a neoliberal economy, there is a sense that Brexit is one more issue about which people’s voices aren’t being heard—some of those I spoke with in Sunderland said they would not vote in anything again. This is being fueled by Leave advocates, many of whom now cite the fact that people voted for it as the chief reason Brexit should happen. It’s another bit of the picture that shifted for Andy, from Remainer Now, when he changed his mind about voting to Leave. “I’d seen a democratic vote carried out and I didn’t want to see my vote overturned,” he says. “But then actually, thinking about it, did I win? What did I win?”