Mon 1 March 2021

Newcastle resident Molly Greeves’ take on how people in the north east feel about the decision to leave the EU three years on.

Over the past three years, the topic of Brexit has escalated from common to unavoidable and nowhere is this truer than in the north east of England.

With Brexit threatening less jobs and a worse economy, is the region still finished with the EU?

Since the 2016 referendum, the north-east has often been viewed as “Leave Central” as all areas except one voted to leave the EU, most by a large margin. In the one area where the Remain vote triumphed – Newcastle-upon-Tyne – they did so by a mere 1%.

The Brexit Party may have thrived in the European elections, but even in the area that is supposedly obsessed with Brexit, people are flying the EU flag.

But, while the Leave campaign may have won in the north-east, criticism by Remainers towards the north shows a huge amount of snobbery. Many southerners used the referendum to confirm their prejudices, with terms such as “uneducated” and “left behind” being used to describe the northern pro-Brexit population. 

These claims are not only derogatory, they also neglect the fact that that the poster boys of Brexit, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, are two privately educated men from wealthy areas of London. The north east, on the other hand, has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK. After visiting Newcastle, one of the north east’s wealthiest areas last year, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Phillip Alston described a “social calamity”, where more people are visiting food banks, homelessness has increased, and libraries have been closed in record numbers.

Considering this, it’s no surprise that the north-east embraced the idea of a drastic change. The Leave campaign, which blamed the effects of austerity on the EU, was bound to be successful in this region. The possibility of Brexit threatening jobs and the single market was viewed as scaremongering, a tactic to reinforce the status quo. Leave’s false promise of a better NHS, an “easy” trade deal with the EU and a place in the single market provided an alternative to a system that wasn’t working in the north-east.

But, a lot has been revealed since 2016. Research shows that the north-east will be hit hard by Brexit, with the Confederation of British Industry stating that a no-deal could result the gross value added decreasing to 10.5% by 2034. The north east is the only region in the UK to consistently export more than it imports, and 60% of those exports currently go to the EU.

Whether the region’s support for Brexit has dwindled in light of this research is debatable. If the European election results are a litmus test, it’s fair to say that many north-east citizens still believe in Brexit as Farage’s party won the most votes in every area. 

Despite this, the region’s reputation as “Leave Central” is still too simplistic.

The Remain vote was split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Change UK and those votes combined made up more of the north-east’s votes than those won by the Brexit Party. Hundreds of citizens in the region continue to express their desire to remain in the EU, whether that’s by attending People’s Vote rallies in Sunderland or throwing milkshakes at Farage in Newcastle. Louise Brown, founder of the pro-EU group North East for Europe, claims that people tell her they have changed their minds about Brexit “on the streets [of the north-east] at every event”.

The Brexit Party may have thrived in the European elections, but even in the area that is supposedly obsessed with Brexit, people are flying the EU flag. The deal that the north-east was promised turned out to be a fantasy, but they were right to want a change, even if it shouldn’t be this one.

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