On the brink of Brexit, voters reflect: ‘I feel more strongly now. Let’s get out’

Erica Buist


18th March 2017

I moved to Bearwood in Smethwick in the hot summer of 1976. We were moving up, leaving behind the sixth floor of a block on the sprawling Lee Bank council estate for a house and garden in a “safer” area with large parks and better schools, a few miles from Birmingham. I grew up there in the 70s and 80s, when there was optimism about our future.

The colour bar experienced by a first generation of immigrants in the 60s, in some shops and the bingo hall, had been replaced by our own “Why would I want to go there anyway?” bar. The days when a Conservative party candidate could run, and win (in 1964) on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour” seemed distant. My mother is Jamaican and, like many of my generation, I failed the Norman Tebbit test completely.

I didn’t support any England team. I would rehearse long debates about how I might reject a for the England rugby team, even if my ability meant that call would never come. Jamaica was great for holidays, but didn’t feel like home: everyone there called me “English”.

So while I was always a Smethwick boy, I can still pinpoint the moment I first felt British: in 1992, when Linford Christie won the 100m at the Barcelona Olympics, this most Jamaican of men running around the track with the British flag. We had grown up hearing songs like “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack” what Christie’s gesture said was, “I’m British: deal with it. ” A mistrust of foreigners has been singled out as the driving force behind last year’s vote to leave Europe.

But why did places where more than 50% of the population have recent origins outside the UK vote for a policy of exclusion? Smethwick is in many ways typical of the radical changes to Britain’s racial demographic since the second world war: in the 50s and 60s, Commonwealth citizens from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean emigrated here to alleviate job shortages, particularly in the NHS and transport. A large number of Sikhs moved from the Punjab to work in Smethwick’s foundries. Later waves of immigration brought asylum seekers, students and workers from around the world.

When I was growing up, my white British friends liked the same music, played the same games and ate the same food as we did. We knew people who joined groups but the various gangs were largely multiracial, affiliated to the area more than anything else — a loose “Smethwick posse”. There would be running battles with skinheads from Quinton and beyond I can’t remember a Saturday night that was not punctuated by someone being glassed or having a pool cue wrapped around their head.

Today Smethwick is home to a more diverse range of communities. It is still a relatively cheap place to live, so new arrivals often start off here. You will see Eritrean church services in Victoria Park, eastern European supermarkets on Cape Hill, a Ghanaian wedding at the community centre, alongside the more established Sikh temples and African Caribbean churches.

Speaking to Smethwick friends from white British and immigrant backgrounds, you hear support for Brexit from a diverse range of perspectives: there is the “Fortress Europe” argument (people of Commonwealth origin not being able to move to the UK, because preference is given to EU citizens) British Asian shopkeepers who don’t like the Polish shops stealing business an objection to the Thatcherite capitalist structure enshrined in the EU. Underlying all these things is a powerful revolt against what is perceived to be a political elite. None of the or immigrants I met on a recent visit to Smethwick thought Nigel Farage would deliver a harmonious society founded on principles of social justice.

But the supposed social justice champions, Labour, today have far less connection to the people they seek to represent than they once did. Today’s politicians speak relentlessly about “engaging” and “understanding” these alienated “communities”. But even their use of the word “community” is loaded — often based on race or religion or class, as if there were no diversity of opinion among them.

What does the future hold for Smethwick in a Britain? My more pessimistic side worries that inequality will increase, as the fight for a share of an ever smaller pie is orchestrated by a privileged few who use alienation, fear and loathing to divide and rule. But a bigger part of me is optimistic: a younger generation has always found ways of creating new relationships with other people, be they Italian, Irish, Ghanaian, Nigerian or Indian. It might feel claustrophobic at this moment in time, and Smethwick will struggle with the macro issues.

But there are enough people there with goodwill, who want to come together, who will want to get on with it. Hamish Crooks, My little boy and I moved here from Birmingham in 2009. I had separated from his father, and when I got here we didn’t know anybody.

Smethwick is an interesting area because the diversity works really well. Everyone seems to get on where we live. But there are some negative aspects of multiculturalism.

For example, there is no butcher around here, and I don’t want to eat halal meat because they don’t always stun the animal before they kill it — I feel it’s a bit cruel. I’ve had a row a few times with shops advertising places to rent, with signs saying “Indian family wanted”. I said, “You do know that’s illegal, don’t you?” I remember when they used to have signs up saying “No Irish, no blacks”.

My little boy is the only white English kid in his class, and they don’t celebrate any English things at all. They didn’t do anything for the Queen’s jubilee or birthday. I don’t mind him celebrating Jamaica Day or whatever I just wish they’d also incorporate English things.

On VE Day, I took him into Birmingham to see the celebrations, because he has to celebrate his history as well. But he is absolutely oblivious to the fact that other people are a different colour to him. I think children of his generation are integrating more.

A lot of immigrants here say they don’t want any more immigrants, but I haven’t heard many white people say they voted Brexit because of immigration. I don’t know whether it’s because they’re scared of being accused of being racist. I voted Brexit because of all the money that’s wasted on the EU.

I don’t think it will stop free movement and I don’t think it means we won’t have any trade I just think it means we’ll have a bit more control. A lot of people have had enough of MEPs making so much money and not doing anything. Who can name an MEP, really? We don’t seem to be getting any more rights out of it.

Why not trim off all that excess spending and use it on things we do need? There’s a crisis in social care, and health services are being cut the schools are constantly fighting cuts. When you read about Brexit in the paper, they say, “The people who voted for Brexit didn’t know what was going on. ” It’s hugely insulting to assume that just because we’re poor, we don’t read newspapers and we’re all thick.

They’ve got no concept of what it’s like to be poor, and how miserable people really are. I think it was a good result, and I think it taught the government to be careful what they wish for, because they did all this with no plan whatsoever they were so sure remain was going to win. It serves them right.

I’ve lived in Smethwick all my life. My parents came from north India so my dad could work in the foundry. They were invited over, just like the Europeans were.

I’ve never had an issue with anyone thinking I’m less British than they are. But when Punjabi people came here, they couldn’t speak English, so they were victimised. Once my dad took me for a drink in the local pub and this guy at the bar started talking to him inappropriately, saying, “Butbut dingding.

” I asked my dad, “Why does he do this?” and he said, “He’s been doing it for years, it’s not an issue. ” I took the guy aside and said, “Have you been taking the piss out of my dad for 20 years?” He said, “What do you mean? He never said anything. ” To this day that guy still buys me a drink in the pub, because he remembers that chat.

I changed the way he thought. Everybody I know voted leave. I voted leave because of my daughters, who are 12 and 15.

They go to a grammar school and they feel held back because the foreigners coming into the school don’t speak English well it makes the classes go slower. It was also because Polish people are cutting off my work. I’m a painter and decorator, and I’m not getting the rates I used to because the Polish people are undercutting us.

That’s the case generally in the building trade. But I’m angry that my parents voted out. I’m very bitter about that.

It’s the hypocrisy of it, because they came over from India and they had an opportunity to integrate — and they haven’t: my mum still barely speaks English. They’ve made lives and families for people like me, they worked hard everyone else is just trying to do the same as they did. I think the way the Sikh community voted was hypocritical.

Sometimes I regret voting Brexit. In hindsight, without a shadow of a doubt, we didn’t have enough information it was turned into an immigration issue, which it wasn’t, and as a whole we’re going to lose out. Other times, I stick by my decision.

I need to think about where my work’s coming from. I moved to Smethwick in 1976, looking for work. I also had a pen friend here.

We belonged to different divorced and separated clubs I was the of the one in Portsmouth where I lived, and they used to have a magazine and she advertised for a pen friend. We were writing for two years before I moved here. We married in 1977 and were together for 39 years.

She ended up having two major strokes, one of which should have killed her, but the hospital brought her round I got another nine months with her. Smethwick has changed a lot — much of the old industry has gone. There were dirty factories, steel works and car component workshops now they’re all new factories or houses, so in that way it’s better.

We’ve got more immigrants than whites. The shops are virtually all Asian, and the ones, like Woolworths and David Greig’s, are gone. It’s less British, because I’ve found, working with some of them, that half the Asians don’t want to mix.

A very nice lad used to sit with us during the tea break, and he came in one morning and told us that someone in the factory had told his dad he sat with us, and his father had said, “You are not to sit with them, you are to sit with your own people. ” It makes you feel, what’s wrong with us? I voted for Brexit because I think the common market has got out of hand. I think they waste an awful lot of money moving their offices once a month from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again.

What we’re paying them is unbelievable, billions a year, which would do our own health service and schools good. I’d like to see free movement from Europe cancelled. This country can’t keep on taking people the services can’t cope with the influx, and there are not enough houses.

When we won, I thought, “Great, let’s get on with it. ” I feel more strongly now. Let’s get out.

I’ve been living in Smethwick since 2002, when I migrated from Bangladesh to study for an MBA at Birmingham City University. After completing my MBA, I managed to secure a job. Now I’m living here happily with my wife and two children my son is nine and my daughter is seven.

Smethwick has become overpopulated and there are more new faces, with a slight increase in antisocial behaviour over the past few years the demand for housing has increased. I had heard about that campaign slogan [“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour” from the 1964 local election] and that Malcolm X came to visit the year after, which is amazing. But to be honest, I don’t think racial tension is a big issue now.

From my experience, people do understand others — their religions, their values, their cultural dimensions and characteristics. It could be an isolated judgment, but I haven’t seen the nasty side of community cohesion. People get along quite well, basically.

I felt Brexit was a protest vote, to show a lost trust in politics traditional politicians are failing to deliver. People feel European migrants are putting unnecessary, undue pressure on public services, the NHS, school places, housing, and that if we come out of Europe that will ease the pressure. These are the issues that people are fed up with.

I voted and actively campaigned to remain. I was really, really shattered by the result, because in the age of globalisation and connectivity, and at such a crucial time, this isn’t the right decision. It is going backwards, and it was not an informed decision.

The message we’re sending to the rest of the world is that we’re not open or collaborative. We don’t want to work with other people: we are detaching ourselves. Nine months on, I don’t feel any more positive.

I’ve given up on trying to give reasons to remain because I’m in the minority. But I know people who regret voting Brexit they justify it by saying the politicians misled them. I’ve lived here my whole life.

I was born in Hamble near Southampton, but my mother died having me, so I was brought here to live with my grandparents. Smethwick has changed enormously. My road used to be full of bank managers and teachers, and there were no foreign people of any description.

I remember seeing men wearing turbans for the first time when I was 10 or 11 and had taken my two cousins out for a walk. One of them said hello, and I said to my cousins, “Run!” because I had no idea: I’d never seen Sikh people before. My father was very racist but I’m definitely not.

The priest at my church is Nigerian and we have 22 other nationalities, people of all colours, shapes and sizes, and we all get on. The first foreigners who came were West Indians, and the others have come gradually. I consider them all friends.

A lady down the road, Surinder, and I were once opposite each other in the hospital and we’ve been firm friends ever since. She called me when I came out, asked how I was and said, “If you need anything at all, let me know and my family will get it for you. ” There are lots of kind people about.

I voted Brexit. I didn’t vote for us to go into Brussels I voted for the common market and I think we were cheated in that respect. We haven’t only got to trade with Europe, there’s a whole world we can deal with.

I’m looking forward to getting back to how we were: running our own farms, being able to look after ourselves. Perhaps I’m wrong but this is how I feel, that we weren’t told the full story back in 1975. We were just told it was good to be part of a common market we weren’t told they would be ruling us.

I’m not really into politics, but the vote happened and I get cross when they try to reverse it. Now I think: let’s just get on with it. I was born in London.

My parents were from Zimbabwe, although it was called Rhodesia at the time. We left the UK in 1977 to go to Nigeria. My dad was a civil engineer and had a job with the Nigerian government, building several highways.

Towards the end of 1982, we went to live in Zimbabwe. In 1995 I moved to Brighton, where I met my wife Catherine, and in 2008 we moved to Smethwick with our daughter. I wanted to study mental health nursing at Birmingham City University, but changed my mind after three weeks.

I didn’t think it was something I would cope with emotionally. In 2009 I started a course in International Business and Economics at Aston University instead. We had three other children (they are now eight, seven, four and two) and they all settled in school, so we stayed.

I’ve spent the majority of my life in this country, and I am British. The main change I’ve seen here is the people coming from Poland. I don’t think there’s a lot of tension between the different communities — everybody just gets on.

What I worry about is the segregation, these monocultural ghettos that are springing up: Pakistanis in one area, Polish people in another, white working class in another. It seems everybody is more comfortable with people who look the same as them, which is quite sad. Whether that’s a conscious thing or if it just happens naturally, I don’t know.

I was shocked by Brexit. I voted to remain. At university I learned to critically analyse things, and I was always arguing against the leave campaign’s points of view.

Usually when there’s an election, I stay up late to find out who my MP is going to be, but this time I was confident we would remain. It was a big surprise. When I spoke to some of the parents at my children’s school, most had voted to leave.

I was surprised and upset. My point of view hasn’t changed. It doesn’t make sense to me that people want to leave the biggest market, then try to negotiate a good deal within that market.

But I have accepted it. It’s democracy, right? • This project was created in partnership with Magnum Photos. For more pictures go to Magnum Photos .



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