Brexitland-on-Sea Is Far From Pessimistic
Do Britain’s coastal towns simmer with resentment? It’s a claim put forward by Owen Jones in the Guardian after visiting South Thanet, yet as a resident of that constituency I would say seaside areas contain much more complicated situations. Like many other coastal communities, South Thanet in Kent did vote to leave in the EU referendum, but summarising that decision as a statement of no confidence in the status quo is like painting the Guardian as entirely staffed by liberal elites who are out of touch with the rest of the country. Whilst the sweeping generalisation may be easily drawn and appear vaguely accurate as a simple snapshot without context, the stereotype rendered is far from reality and can feel a little insulting.
Thanet — or Brexitland-on-Sea as Owen Jones referred to it — is not just a place of insecure, low-skilled jobs; there is not a shortage of good quality, affordable housing; and whilst there may be some of the highest rates of poverty in Britain there is also affluence and a strong sense of community. The cross-section of employment in the area ranges from retail and industrial to corporate and conglomerate, with a recent surge in independent businesses and a relatively short commute to the capital, making it an attractive location for Londoners. House prices have risen locally by around 19% in the last two years — yet are still vastly more affordable than most of the South East — whilst rent has remained fairly consistent for nearly a decade. Even with the advent of cheap flights, Thanet still boasts a successful tourism industry. It is not just surviving, it sets an example of how to sustain as an area. Yes, there are problems, but that is true of anywhere; just throw a pin at a map for comparable statistics.
Dreamland in Margate — which, incidentally, is in North Thanet, a constituency represented by Sir Roger Gale MP who campaigned for Remain during the referendum — may be struggling, but to compare it to its “heyday” is both ignorant and foolish. The new iteration of the park is a young business; it has not been developed over a century, but instead is just a few years into its life. Seeing as how more than half of businesses fail in the first three years, and most will not break even during that period, it should be commended, not ridiculed. Along with the Turner Contemporary, a world-class art gallery partially-funded by the EU (and also in North Thanet), an increased drive in culture has heralded an influx of Londoners moving to Margate for a more relaxed and free lifestyle than the capital can offer.
Thanet is not in a state of decline, but quite the opposite. The wonderful architecture, rich cultural heritage, and surrounding beaches all contribute to an area of interest and inspiration. Festivals and events happen year-round, with all kinds of occasions being celebrated almost constantly, from Broadstairs Folk Week to Ramsgate Regatta to Margate Soul Weekend. To say there is “nothing to do” is woefully misleading.
UKIP have repeatedly targeted South Thanet, seeing it as an opportunity to cash in on a jaded and disintegrating former seaside getaway, but they too failed to understand the area. On the surface, to some, it may appear that way, but underneath Thanet is a complete contradiction that somehow not only survives, but thrives. An anti-establishment punk attitude, conservative values, a liberal outlook and an island mentality of protecting your own, all sit juxtaposed.
To understand South Thanet’s reaction to the 2015 general election, and the EU referendum, you need to look at the previous MPs. Steve Ladyman held the seat for Labour during the Tony Blair years, and after the country was plunged into the now infamous recession the local populace lost faith in Labour. Conservative candidate Laura Sandys was then elected and brought fairly liberal politics with her. She did a lot of good in the area, without any major gaffs, and convinced the electorate that the Conservatives could be of benefit once again, as they had been some years prior, however she declined to run in 2015. At this point the Conservatives had a decision: nominate another liberal Conservative who will put the community first and continue making a positive change in the district, or try to out-UKIP UKIP. Unfortunately, they chose the latter, and former Ukipper Craig Mackinlay got the nod. When faced with a decision of the current UKIP leader, who would only work part-time for the constituency and had alienated a lot of the locals by assuming we would fall for his “man of the people” rhetoric, or a former member of that same party with staunchly Conservative views, the public did what they felt was best for the area by choosing the Tories. Labour had run a candidate in his 20s with no real-world experience, and the only other real contender seemed to be Al Murray.
Thanet District Council was the first UKIP-led council in the country, but this was due to a lack of investment in campaigning by the other parties combined with outlandish and almost-immediately broken promises from the successful candidates. All the money went on preventing Farage from gaining the seat; a hardly surprising but somewhat short-sighted strategy. If the right candidates had been chosen, the result would have been much different.
It is true that the Conservatives brought in a ‘battle-bus’ to the area, but so did Labour; they all knocked on my door: people who had been briefed that morning with no local knowledge and a bullet-point list of issues to talk about just trying to force their literature on me. The Labour representative I spoke to agreed that their own candidate was young and inexperienced. The entire Conservative campaign was based on recent headlines from the local papers, rather than any kind of local awareness, and not through lack of support from the sitting MP which was offered but allegedly ignored. The Conservative campaign may now be caught up in the expenses scandal, but Farage and UKIP are also no strangers to that kind of controversy.
When the EU referendum came about, both the council and the South Thanet MP campaigned for Leave. Lies were peddled about NHS funding and all the rest, and people believed it. Thanet is an island, split off from the mainland by marshes, and that mind-set persists. Word-of-mouth is given more attention than the media; personal recommendations carry more weight than facts or official communications. That is how the campaign worked: not by bulletins or billboards or battle-buses, but by belief and bias. Remain did not stand a chance.
Thanet is not fuelled by a toxic pessimism, but rather an optimism. Those that live here do so because it is an interesting and pleasant area, and although a minority will complain about it, the majority see it as its own little land and take pride in their home. Voting to leave the EU might not have been the ideal decision, but for many there wasn’t even a choice, and both those that agree and disagree with the outcome are looking for the positives in what is to follow. For every unemployed, bigoted, racist fool that is willing to give a quote to a newspaper about “immigrants” and “taking back control” there are plenty who work hard and care for their community; people of all backgrounds and classes who strive for unity instead of division, even if it is only on this little isle. We have had money ploughed into the area and we get plenty of attention. Whether someone outside is listening or not, the people of Thanet listen to each other, even if we do not always see eye-to-eye, and that is what community is all about.
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician.