UK's most eurosceptic town awaits referendum with defiance

By AFP
Published: February 15, 2016
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PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS

CLACTON-ON-SEA, UNITED KINGDOM: Welcome to Clacton-on-Sea, known for its pier, beach and a reputation for being Britain’s most eurosceptic town where many residents are desperate to leave the European Union in an upcoming referendum.

With a large number of ageing, white, working-class voters, the seaside resort on England’s east coast, has Britain’s only MP from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).

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As a cold wind whipped along the grey North Sea coast, local residents were proud to share their thoughts on the EU.

“Rubbish. I’m English and not European,” said Fred Varley, 80, a former “jack of all trades” who, like many here, moved to the area from London after retiring.

“I believe Germany has tried in two world wars to overtake this country and they’ve failed and they’re doing it legally now through the European thing.”

Andy Smith, a 50-year-old furniture delivery man sitting in his white van between jobs, poured scorn on Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU to try and persuade voters to stay.

“We don’t need to renegotiate anything, we just need to get out,” he said, egged on by two colleagues sitting beside him. “Let’s go on our own, where we always have been”.

Matthew Goodwin, a Kent University politics professor and expert on euroscepticism, describes its key identifiers as “blue collar, grey hair, financially struggling and lacking qualifications”.

“Clacton is preparing to endorse Brexit,” he told AFP.

Opinion polls across Britain suggest a close race in the referendum, expected in June if Cameron can agree a reform package with other EU countries at a Brussels summit on Thursday and Friday.

The remain camp stands on 52 percent compared to 48 percent for those who want to leave, according to an average of recent polls by the What UK Thinks research project.

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For many in Clacton, the overwhelming concern is immigration.

Even immigrants like Mansoor Hosseini, a 28-year-old Kurd who works in a kebab shop, are worried about the number of eastern Europeans coming to Britain.

“Lots and lots of people are coming like Romanians, Polish. They come and take money from the government,” he said.

Many people struggle to find work in Clacton, where tourism has declined in recent decades as foreign holidays became more popular.

The town’s unemployment benefit claimant rate is in the top 20 percent in Britain and many jobs are seasonal.

The population of foreign-born residents is just over four percent, compared to an average of nearly 12 percent for Britain overall.

But locals complain of asylum seekers being sent to the area, where housing is relatively cheap, under a national scheme to relieve pressure on councils in areas like London.

Mohammad Javid Khan, a Pakistani-born UKIP councillor who represents part of the town on the local council, said it would be a “beautiful” thing if Britain left the EU.

“For God’s sake, please, this is a small island, there is limited space for us,” he said at the post office and convenience store which he runs.

“Of course we’re not denying the genuine people — doctors, nurses, engineers — they’re very welcome. But not the burdens who are coming here and signing on.”

This fear of “benefit scroungers” is key to Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate UK relations with the EU.

He is pushing for an “emergency brake” limiting welfare payments to migrants from the bloc.

While there are pro-EU voters in Clacton, even some of them tempered their support for the safety it provides with concern about migrants claiming benefits unfairly.

“Whatever way it goes, we’ve still got to stay in the EU and work out our problems,” said Tony Scattergood, 71, who is retired from the army.

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As for Clacton’s eurosceptics, they are likely to attract a lot more attention during the campaign as the leave side fights to ensure they put their votes where their mouths are.

“Turnout could make all the difference,” Goodwin wrote in a paper this month.

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