As Brexit is triggered, the view from a city that voted to ‘Leave’

Today, the long awaited divorce talks between Britain and the EU officially began. But while ‘Brexit’ is often framed in terms of anger, the experience in Hull shows that hope is part of the equation too. 

The sculpture ‘Blade,’ a nod to a Siemens factory in Hull, England, helped kick off the town’s designation as the UK City of Culture 2017.

This city on the North Sea, which everyone knows simply as Hull, has borne its fair share of insults over the years. “Dull in Hull,” to name just one, sums up the kind of mood that foretold the British vote to leave the European Union, which nearly 68 percent of Hull did.

Except that Hull, which has long fixed its gaze on its days as a fishing powerhouse, is oozing with optimism today. “Change is happening” is the new byword, painted across the brick walls of the city’s former warehouses. It’s the UK City of Culture 2017, derelict buildings and dry docks are being refurbished, and a major wind turbine factory is on the rise. “The planets have never been more aligned,” says David Keel, chair of C4DI, a new incubator and co-working space in the waterside Fruit Market district.

Going against the dominant narrative that “Brexit” towns are depressed and in deep regret, Hull has turned toward a hopeful future – for some because of Brexit, for others despite it.

As Article 50 is triggered by British Prime Minister Theresa May on March 29, officially beginning Britain’s divorce from the EU, Britons and their EU counterparts are nervous about facing an unprecedented challenge with huge economic and political implications, including the integrity of the United Kingdom. But expectations in this city are bubbling.

To understand the optimism, Simon Lee, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Hull who is writing a book called “The State of England: The Nation We’re In,” says it’s important to recognize the motivation behind Brexit here as the ultimate protest of a city forgotten and left to feed on its maritime past. And Hull’s experience is a lesson in the defeating power of nostalgia and how towns that have been left behind by the political and economic forces of the 21st century are struggling for economic and cultural redemption.

“Hull has not yet found a replacement identity,” says Professor Lee.

Now the question, he says, is whether the City of Culture designation, and some of Hull’s other signs of economic and cultural renewal, will engender a new identity for the city. Some say they believe the outcome of the EU referendum might have been different had regeneration come earlier.

Big investments

In early January, a 75-meter (82-yard) wind turbine blade slashed Hull’s Queen Victoria Square in half. The “Blade” was one of the first art installations to kick off the UK City of Culture celebration, but it’s also a nod to what is equally significant for Hull: a £310 million ($385 million) Siemens turbine blade factory that’s created 1,000 jobs and could help position Hull’s offshore wind industry as a global player in renewable energy.

It’s one of several major investments to come to Hull in the past five years, and it marks a pivot for a city that was voted one of England’s “worst places to live” in 2003. In March, The Sunday Times named it one of the best places to live in the UK.

The turnabout has led to some head-scratching over why Hull voted to “Leave” the EU with one of the country’s highest percentages – as well as whether timing made a difference.

Catchy phrases that underline the optimism in Hull, England, greet visitors at the train station.

Immigration played its role here, as it did everywhere in Britain. Bypassed by some of the earlier post-colonial waves of migration, Hull saw its share of Eastern Europeans swell after the 2004 enlargement of the EU. And residents grumble about their fears that wages and the quality of education are going down because of it.

But a bigger factor was an anti-establishment protest in a place that saw its livelihood lost over the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s with Iceland. That killed off its deep-sea fishing industry in the North Sea, right as Britain joined the EU and became subject to the bloc’s common fisheries policy. For 40 years, the city has been managing a declining economy with the perception that neither Westminster nor Brussels cared.

Hull sits at the end of the train line. Poet Philip Larkin once said it was a place that only traveling salesmen or relatives would visit, recounts Russ Litten, a contemporary author and poet, during a walk around the marina on a recent day.

Coming from a family of fishermen who spent their lives on trawlers, Mr. Litten taps the psyche of the people in works like “My People Come From the Sea,” a poem set to electronic music. Hull is both a fiercely proud town – almost everyone tells visitors about its refusal to allow King Charles I through the city’s Beverley Gate in 1642, the starting point of the English civil war – and a forgotten place. It was one of the most bombed cities of World War II, but residents lament that hardly anyone knows that. It’s made them a stubborn and contrarian lot, says Litten. “If you give them a binary choice, Hull people will always vote no. They’ll say, ‘The answer is no; now what’s the question?’ ” he says.

Inequality and well-being

Despite rejuvenation, both cultural and economic, official unemployment levels for Hull in September 2016 were nearly double those of Britain overall, while 12.5 percent of the population has no vocational or academic qualifications, compared with 8.6 percent for the national average. It also has fewer people with the highest qualifications: 22 percent compared with 37 percent nationally. “There is a disconnect between regenerating buildings and the regeneration of the population,” says Lee.

Such disparities are getting another look in the face of Brexit. New research that Annie Quick of the New Economics Foundation in London helped conduct on inequality and well-being shows that while average well-being within a community did not predict the number of people who voted to leave the EU, high well-being inequality did. Hull is on the top 10 list of well-being inequality.

Ms. Quick says that more analysis needs to be done to fully understand the data, but the findings might be telling policymakers about the sentiments of feeling “left behind” that have become so prominent since the vote. “The experience of really struggling with your life, and being [further] down on the well-being scale in a community in which other people have a higher well-being, can really exacerbate that feeling of being left behind,” she says.

Yet at C4DI, where pop music pumps into the reception area, Mr. Keel wonders if Hull would have voted for Brexit – or at least with such a wide margin for Leave – had some of the current changes happened sooner or the vote later. “I think if the vote would have happened in a year’s time, there would have been a significantly increased awareness of the value of connecting to a wider world in Hull than there was when the vote took place,” he says.

The road ahead

Despite the official triggering of Article 50, Britain will remain in a state of prolonged expectation for the time being. It’s the beginning of a two-year negotiation that is expected to decide Britain’s future trading relationships, immigration policies, and budget obligations. No one knows if Brexit will ultimately be “hard” – meaning Britain loses access to the EU’s single market and ends free movement for EU nationals – or “soft,” and what that means for foreign investment and the economic outlook of the country.

Hull is polarized when it comes to those same questions.

For Tim Rix, the fifth-generation head of shipping company JR Rix & Sons, Brexit is Hull’s future. He has been a driving force in the revitalization of Hull, pushing for the Siemens factory, the City of Culture designation, and Brexit, he says in his office. It’s filled with replicas of the ships the company has employed since the 1800s, near the Hull River, which runs into the vast Humber Estuary.

Since the Brexit vote last June, businesses have seen only one direct effect, the devaluation of the pound. That’s been a boon for Mr. Rix, as well as local exporters. His ships, he says, whose services are bought in pounds, suddenly have become cheaper for the Continent. He believes the talk of a hard Brexit – kicking EU nationals out and leaving the EU’s single market – is just negotiation jostling for now, though he admits that a softer Brexit will probably anger those who based their vote on the immigration question. “But even if we have hard Brexit, we’ll clear the decks, we’ll sort ourselves out, and we’ll get on with it,” he says confidently.

Russ Litten voted for Britain to remain in the European Union, but he’s still upbeat about Hull’s future.

Ian Kelly, chief executive of the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce, which officially staked a neutral position on Brexit, says there are some concerns about labor shortages, especially for agricultural companies dependent on foreign labor.

There are other firms that believe Brexit will boost their fortunes. “There has been enormous sense of strong views on both sides. It’s the most striking and strong debate I’ve seen in politics in my lifetime. It is what we call here blowing off the fog on the Humber. It is a lot of emotion,” he says. But “the raw facts are ...– and I’m not saying it won’t move one way or another – the trading environment has not actually shifted as yet.”

Daren Hale, deputy leader of the Hull City Council, says he voted to “Remain” because he was worried about the Siemens investment. Even though the German company has committed to staying in Hull, he says his role now is to fight to protect the firm and the jobs it will create. “We’ve got a lot of reasons to be cheerful in Hull. So we’ve got to build on that and make sure people see that we don’t in a sense miss the boat when it comes to the debate on Brexit,” he says, “that we don’t allow borders to go up or tariffs to go up.” In other words, he’ll be fighting for a soft Brexit.

He says politicians have a challenge ahead of them. Residents haven’t always realized what sorts of funding the EU provides, such as a recent stand at a rugby field that is loved by the community and significantly funded by Brussels. In that case, as in many others, he admits that local leaders have been happy to take credit that the EU should have gotten.

A range of opinions

Lee says he fears Brexit will do little to nothing to address the issues people voted on, including desires for less migration and more attention for northern England. And he’s concerned that Brexit could turn the British economy into a deregulated, low-tax economy that could aggravate the north-south divide. “When people find out that Brexit is not the land of milk and honey and the streets aren’t paved in gold, there is going to be an almighty backlash against it,” he says.

A recent poll by Ipsos MORI indicates that 51 percent of Britons don’t have confidence in Ms. May’s ability to get a good deal for Britain in negotiations with Europe, compared with 44 percent who do.

Phil Fussey, who retired last year as a skipper on a crab and lobster boat, says he is in the latter group. He’s still so angry about the loss of the fishing industry that the return of control of British waters to him is worth the gamble. “I voted Leave on what they’ve done to our fishing industry. They sold us down the river from Day 1,” he says, standing at St. Andrew’s Dock, the old fishing quarter. He expects that with Brexit, Hull can start to rebuild some of the industry. “I’ll like to see waters from British fishermen coming back to the British fishermen,” he says.

He calls the triggering of Article 50 “party time.” James Chapman, a builder who chairs the UK Independence Party in Hull North, calls Brexit one of “the greatest experiences of my life.” “We fought the EU, the British government, and corporate business,” he says, “and we won.” He said he’d be going “right to the pub” upon the triggering of Article 50.

Kate Brown is there, too. But the waitress at the cozy Lion and Key is disappointed in the Brexit vote.

Still, she feels hopeful about the city’s future. She studied population and geography at university and isn’t sure how easy it will be to get a full-time job in Hull in that field, but she loves her life here, above all the cheap cost of living and the buzz. “It’s really hard to leave here,” she says. “My friends and I, we all love it.”

“And I don’t know,” she says, her eyes twinkling, “I feel like Brexit’s not even going to happen.”

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