‘I Was Taken Along on the Ride’Fishing Merchant’s Regret at Voting Leave After Brexit Ruins his Business ‘Almost Overnight’
In an exclusive interview with Byline TV, Ian Perkes reveals why he would now vote differently in the EU Referendum if he could turn the clock back
Arriving in the Devon town of Brixham as Storm Christoph first begins to batter the UK, it’s hard not to notice the apposite weather. Painted rows of houses shrouded in mist stare bleakly out into the Channel, while below them a usually lively harbour sits eerily dormant, almost lifeless.
Ian Perkes, a fish merchant whose business relies almost entirely on exports to Europe, seems defeated as he meets us outside his office. We shelter under a canopy to record the interview set against the port’s usually busy courtyard. Today, there is barely anyone around. Like Ian, the port feels subdued.
Since the UK left the European Union with a last-minute trade deal in December, his business has been brought to its knees “almost overnight”. As of 20 January, when we interviewed Perkes, he has yet to send a consignment out to Europe – something he blames squarely on Brexit.
“If I could turn back the clock, would I have voted Leave? Of course not,” he says with a clarity that feels surprisingly honest. “I think me and many others have made a mistake.”
In terms of the value of the fish sold, the town is England’s largest fish market – and more than 70% of its fish is sold to Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain.
“The UK don’t want a lot of the fish we catch,” Perkes says, responding to calls for fisheries to prop up their collapsing revenues by selling their fish at home instead. “Forget the 100 tonne of cuttlefish landed in Brixham. 95,500 kilos of that are exported every week. You cannot sell cuttlefish in the UK.”
He says he has tried giving less popular species of fish to shops to try to promote them, but that the British public just aren’t biting.
Despite the outcry from the fisheries industry and an open letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice to “reconsider the arrangements being put in place” – which Perkes has signed – Boris Johnson has stood by his Brexit deal, telling UK fishermen to prepare for “El Dorado” in the coming months.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg assured fishing and export businesses that “the key is we’ve got our fish back, they’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it”.
Perkes is disappointed with the comments and says that the general mood in Brixham is one of disappointment. “Happy fish? Please,” he says “I don’t think there’s any room to make any jokes about the current situation.”
When asked how he felt about those at the forefront of the Brexit campaign in 2016, Perkes seems conflicted. He feels he was brainwashed and mentions the Vote Leave campaign’s red bus, with its pledge to spend £350 million on the NHS instead of “throwing it into Brussels”.
He sounds defeated as he talks about promises of “independence” and being in charge of one’s own “destiny”, and the idea that the EU would “rely on us” instead of the reverse, as many Brexit voters believed in 2016.
He is reluctant to criticise Nigel Farage, but laments the former UKIP leader’s silence on the matter in recent days. His conflicted feelings reflect a greater conflict within the Leave voter base. In 2018, Perkes confidently told PBS that for “the last 30 years, every fish here has sold”, branding the claim that fish might end up rotting in EU ports “a load of old tosh”.
But many who once championed Brexit as emphatically as Perkes did now find themselves forced to confront the reality. The lies and misinformation spread by those in power. It is clearly a complicated and taxing process and, while it’s tempting to say ‘I told you so’, Ian Perkes is clearly having to confront the difficulties of a crumbling worldview and cognitive dissonance.
“You’d have to ask him”, he says when asked why Farage has all but abandoned the cause of the UK fishing industry.
For four years, Brixham has been a resolutely pro-Brexit town. One resident told us that their desire for the UK to remain in the EU had led to social isolation and rejection by those who had previously been close friends.
“I was taken along on the ride we were all on,” Perkes laments before telling us that he and many others in Brixham would vote to remain in the EU if they could have their time again.
George Llewelyn is a producer at Byline TV