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Postcards from the Red Wall: A Town with Contradictions

Graham Williamson visits Doncaster, which voted to Leave the EU by 69% in 2016, and welcomed a Conservative MP to one of its constituencies in the 2019 General Election.

Postcards from the Red Wall
A Town with Contradictions

Graham Williamson visits Doncaster, which voted to Leave the EU by 69% in 2016, and welcomed a Conservative MP in one of its constituencies in the 2019 General Election.

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“We both like old music, old furniture, with soul,” explains Petra, gesturing around Doncaster’s Back in Time cafe. The building was empty when she and her friend Michelle moved in, took out a loan and got legal guidance from a mentor. That impressed Petra. “In my country, you can get no help with these things.”

Both Petra and Michelle are from Slovakia. Petra came to the UK to learn the language; she already speaks Slovak, Czech and German. She’d worked a little as a translator, but lacked the qualifications to continue. Instead, she and Michelle opened Back in Time in July. It quickly found its regulars, who recently bought presents for Michelle when she went on maternity leave. 

It was one of those regulars who suggested Back in Time could hold meetings for EU citizens needing advice about their rights. The EU Cafe project was set up by the campaign group ‘Best for Doncaster’ and the immigration rights charity Settled. The first one was going to be held before COVID-19 hit; it will be rescheduled for later in the year.

Giulia Savini, vice-chair of Best for Doncaster, says that they aim to “create a friendly and welcoming environment and reach out to both EU citizens and pro-Europeans locally”. Settled will provide immigration advice and members of the group “will provide information, support and friendship to those who need it over a cup of tea or coffee”.

Petra is enthusiastic about the project, despite being concerned that some people might mistake the name of the EU Cafe project event for a description of Back in Time itself.  “I don’t want to label this cafe,” she says. “It’s for everyone.” If all you knew about Doncaster was its 69% Leave result in the 2016 EU Referendum, you might assume she was saying this to avoid a backlash. But I don’t think that’s true. 

For one thing, Back in Time – with its embroidered cushions and elderflower lemonade – is really quite English. It makes me wonder if our current culture war is between competing visions of the 1940s: the images of Churchill and Dunkirk that animate Brexiters versus the ration book chic that appeals to the austerity generation, and which Back in Time embodies.

“A Dreadful Hole”

Doncaster got its experiment with nationalist leadership out of its system a decade before the rest of the country. In 2009, Peter Davies, of the fringe hard-right English Democrats, was elected Mayor of Doncaster. He ran on a flashy, populist manifesto: Eurosceptic, anti-green, promising to de-fund Pride events and council translation services. 

Immediately after his election, he was interviewed on BBC Radio Sheffield, during which he admitted that he had no idea whether his flagship policies were possible. The interview was widely mocked, but politicians such as Davies thrive on media disapproval. What unseated him was an event of such gravity, it exposed the limits of his theatrical governing style. 

A month before Davies took office, two pre-teen children were abducted and tortured by two boys their own age in nearby Edlington. To locals, it recalled the previous deaths of seven children known to be at risk by social services. That scandal ended the career of Davies’s Labour predecessor Martin Winter, forced out of the party for refusing to take responsibility. 

There was, then, a guidebook on what not to do. Nevertheless, during the inquiry Davies picked an endless string of petty public feuds with council executives. When the final Audit Commission report into child services was published, he complained that it “painted the town as a dreadful hole” – suggesting that he had expected the official report into a terrible crime to double as a tourist brochure.

I did not find Doncaster a “dreadful hole”, but the town centre puzzled me. It has glass-fronted malls and health centres orbited by classic red-brick buildings. It has independent businesses with quirky fronts next to massive retail chains. There are brutalist flats of the kind that still exist in many towns, but they rarely look as unapologetic as Doncaster’s. Freshly painted, they look like the future again.

A friend of Petra’s walks in while I’m speaking to her and she asks for his views on Doncaster. “It’s a dump,” he replies, before delivering a well-rehearsed list of the town’s shortcomings. Contrary to Petra, he says that the council doesn’t support local businesses.

Doncaster seems content with its contradictions. Brexit remains popular and one of the area’s three electoral constituencies has a Conservative MP. But Labour’s Ros Jones replaced Davies in 2013 and was re-elected with a much increased majority. The English Democrats still field candidates, who usually lose their deposits.

Back in Time has a loyal enough clientele for Petra not to need a fall-back career – but, if she does, she is now fluent in English. When she first moved to Britain, Petra says she understood the language. Then she started to get the jokes. Now, she dreams in English.

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