Castle Point, Essex, ENGLAND—Looking out from the crest of Sandpit Hill, no obstacle stands between the ruins of a 13th-century castle and the Thames estuary which stretches out to the horizon, before flowing into the Channel and out towards mainland Europe.
This is England’s frontier country.
The scene was immortalized in oil by John Constable, who stood on these bluffs in 1814. More than a century later, Sandpit Hill was a vital part of London’s Second World War “Shield of Steel” with four anti-aircraft guns stationed here to repel Luftwaffe raids sweeping in from Europe.
“You look over and there are the ruins of Hadleigh Castle—looking out—guarding the estuary from invasion,” Rebecca Hall, the local member of Parliament, told The Daily Beast. “In Essex, you find a self-sufficient, resilient attitude. We can overcome a bit of adversity—people do not think we are weak, little England.”
Hall contends this attitude helps to explain why the Essex coast was one of the driving forces of Brexit and why its people are steeled and ready for the rocky road ahead.
In last summer’s referendum on membership of the European Union, the voters of Castle Point registered the third highest level of support for leaving. The only two towns with a higher vote share were fundamentally affected by a sudden influx of immigrants who came to work in Lincolnshire’s produce picking and packing industry.
Here in Essex—fewer than 40 miles East of Westminster—immigration is low and Brexit was an overwhelmingly political choice. In Castle Point, there was a Brexit landslide—sweeping 72.7 percent of the vote.
Prime Minister Theresa May will formally enact the will of Castle Point—and of a majority of the British people—by triggering Britain’s exit from the European Union on Wednesday.
Announcing that Britain will leave the EU is one thing. Negotiating the terms of that exit are quite another, and may prove crucial in shaping the economic and political fallout from a momentous and historic decision.
Amid predictions of instability, Britons from all sections of society and age groups now say they are increasingly pessimistic about the economic impact of Brexit; Leave campaigners admit an apparent pledge of £350 million-a-week in additional health-service funding will not happen; and the Brexit minister has conceded that immigration levels could go up in the years after Britain’s exit from the European Union.
None of that appears to have deterred the defiant residents of Canvey Island—home to Castle Point’s faded seafront esplanade.
Shane Parkin, 36, was sitting in the lunchtime gloom of his deserted amusement arcade. In the back corner of the room, more than a dozen broken machines had been pushed together, including Namco’s Crisis Zone and a one-armed bandit based on the Austin Powers franchise that was set in London’s swinging sixties, its bright lights now extinguished.
Parkin, whose family has owned the parade of arcades since 1962, admits these are tough times for an industry reliant on the spending power of visitors, but he remains unbowed by the prospect of further economic misery.
“I think it’s scaremongering. I’m not worried at all,” he said. “I voted ‘Out’ because I think Great Britain should be Great Britain.”
Besides, he could see an upside to the economic turmoil. The collapse of the value of the pound since the Brexit vote has made foreign travel prohibitively expensive for some British families. “If people are worried about going abroad they might stay here and spend some money,” he said.
Chas Mumford, a Conservative councilor, was the Vote Leave campaign coordinator for Castle Point, and he said the area was dominated by sole traders, sub-contractors and independent businessmen—“I don't want to say ‘White Van Man’—but it's very much self-starters that kind of demographic.” Are there a lot of immigrants in his district? “Only if you class people who've moved down from London,” he joked.
Mumford told The Daily Beast that the fallout from the shock Brexit vote had been hard on those at the vanguard of the movement. “I must admit there does seem to be an emerging theme from a lot of people who voted for Remain who would wish to condemn and paint into a corner people who voted to Leave as kind of racists or xenophobic or whatever and I find that insulting to say the least.”
Back out on the seafront, Alan Freeman, 55, was sitting in a white plastic chair on the front soaking up some early spring sunshine in a blue sleeveless top.
He agreed with Parkin that economic damage was a price worth paying to withdraw from the European Union, which had forced Britain to accept the free movement of people. “I’m from Barking [in East London],” he told The Daily Beast. “If I went back to Barking now, I’d be the only white man there.”
The builder sees Canvey Island and the Essex Riviera as the last vestige of an earlier England, which he hopes Brexit is going to preserve even if “there will be hard times ahead.”
“Even now Sadiq Khan is saying we should have different rules in London let the foreign workers in, but that’s why he’s mayor; there’s no white English left. You get past Romford [halfway to London] and you run out of white British. Go to Illford [on the outskirts of London] and they look at me [as the one who doesn’t belong],” he said.
Freeman is what you might call ‘core Brexit.’ He even went to see Nigel Farage, who was leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) at the time, speak during the campaign. Farage is now best known for cozying up to President Trump and putting Britain down on Fox News.
The core Brexiters alone—who would put up with any economic damage in exchange for British sovereignty—were never going to be enough to win the referendum. Members of all the major parties came together to form an anti-EU coalition that had to try and convince waverers that the predictions of economic doom were exaggerated and make the case that Britain’s independence was more important in the long-term.
Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only Member of Parliament until he quit the party last weekend, even decided that the controversial Farage must be diluted within his own party if the Leave campaign was going to win over a majority of the country.
In the years before the referendum, which Farage had helped push David Cameron into granting, the controversial leader had become the face of Brexit but repelled as many Britons as he attracted.
“It’s no secret,” Carswell explained to The Daily Beast. “Nigel stood for election 6, maybe 7 times….Imagine you’re a congressman running for a district in the States and you tried to get elected to Congress 6 or 7 times. You probably wouldn’t be allowed to dominate the news coverage of America’s relations with the rest of the world.”
“And there might be people who say perhaps that candidate didn’t have the qualities that were taken to win in a congressional district. The idea that somehow you could leave it to that candidate to try and win a referendum involving a vote of the entire adult population of the country would strike most people as not a good option.”
Carswell left UKIP last weekend, just days before May is expected to formally trigger Brexit, which he called “our Fourth of July.”
“Job done,” he quipped of his decision to leave. “Or as they say in American, Mission accomplished.”
Perhaps that was an unfortunate choice of words since President George W. Bush used the phrase to describe Iraq when there were years of work left to do in a conflict which is arguably still playing out in disastrous fashion.
Speaking earlier at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, Carswell said there would be virtually no chance of a successful Brexit negotiation if the deal was to be struck by people like Farage.
“But it’s not. It’s going to be between grown-ups,” he said.
Carswell later insisted to The Daily Beast that he had intended no slight against his former colleague.
Speaking at the same event across the Channel in Brussels, former Swedish prime minister and European diplomat Carl Bildt was skeptical about Britain’s short-term economic prospects. "You say that you're going to catch up and be a global titan. I wish you do. But it's going to take quite some time,” he said.
If no deal is struck between Britain and the remaining EU nations, it will fall into a no-man’s land in which relationships with trading blocs around the world will have to be negotiated on an ad hoc basis.
Despite the uncertainty, Carswell insists that Britain will be left with more funding to pay for its own social safety net. “Once we’ve left the EU, we will have gross about £20 billion, net about £11 billion to spend on our priorities,” he said. “We will see an increase in spending on healthcare.”
“My seven-year old will have a much better life if we are outside the European Union,” he concluded.
He also insists Britain will be able to choose who comes here, despite issues like a soft border between Ireland and the British-administered North. “There’s going to be a reduction in net migration to the U.K. If we leave the EU, we can have a reduction and control from where migrants come,” he said.
The central thrust of Carswell’s anit-EU vision, he says, is positive and global. “It was embracing globalization and change rather than repudiating it. It is the antithesis of angry nativism,” he said. He has released a book explaining that in detail called, Rebel, How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy.
That positive message certainly did make it through to many voters in Britain.
On Canvey Island, Susan Roberts, 59, who works as a secretary, laid out an optimistic vision of Britain outside the European Union.
“We’ve got a lot of brains in this country so there’s no reason we can’t make a go of it,” she told The Daily Beast.
She hadn’t believed any of the Leave campaign’s promises anyway so she wasn’t surprised that the terrain had shifted in the nine months since Britain voted to leave.
“They was all lying: ‘In’ was lying. ‘Out’ was lying,” she said.
One of her main motivations for voting Brexit was to tell the political elites that they had lost touch with the country.
“I think it’s shaken up all the governments—they realized they’re not reaching a whole lot of the population. They might realize they do have to answer to us now. “
It was only when the prospect of every resident being a few thousand pounds worse off that her enthusiasm suddenly dimmed. Would she swap a direct financial hit for everyone in the U.K. for the sake of sovereignty?
“That’s not fair for me to say. So, I don’t know. Not everyone can afford that,” she said, quietly. “My son was horrified I voted ‘Out’—we can’t talk about it anymore.”
Certainly there remains a generational gap. Older voters were far more likely to back Brexit last June.
Lucy Haswell, 24, a nurse, who was enjoying a picnic with a friend, admitted that she had been annoyed when an older generation had decided to risk her economic future. “We’re in a place where money is a bit more important. For younger people money is tighter,” she said.
Roberts, who was wearing a blue and white striped Breton-style top, was more forgiving about the risks. She said the Leave side had not prepared detailed policies for post-Brexit Britain because they genuinely didn’t believe they could win.
Rebecca Hall, Roberts’ MP, who campaigned to Leave the EU, admits the result was a seismic shock even to those who had spent years advocating it. “After the referendum I was pinching myself in disbelief, the fact that Leave won the referendum has almost sunk in properly now,” she said.
Like Carswell, Hall is happy that negotiations for what comes next are in the hands of the no-nonsense Conservative prime minister, Theresa May.
“I've always said there's potential for there to be a bumpy ride but in ten years’ time,” she said. “I have absolutely no doubt we will look back and think ‘Thank God for that.’ This is not an issue you can worry about the shorter term, you have to think about the long term.”
Hall was speaking by phone from her Parliamentary office in Westminster. Up in the hills of her district, the view commemorated by Constable has now been complimented by a mountain biking track that was built for the 2012 Olympics, and is now open to the public, as part of the Olympic legacy.
Standing at the top of a small loop of track with his young son in matching helmet and elbow pads was Ben Carver, 42, a freelance trainer and lecturer.
His take on the magnificent scenery was a little different. “We’re looking at a castle that isn’t there anymore. These people are all dead.” he said, in exasperation. “People are subscribing to a vision of Britain that no longer exists. Net curtains, plates of biscuits and hanging baskets.”
It must be said there are still plenty of hanging baskets and net curtains on Canvey Island. One 50-foot tower of Hadleigh Castle is also still standing at almost its full height. One side has crumbled away but the iron window panes are still in place.
James Stanley, a 25-year-old builder who has been struggling to find work of late, was sitting inside the ruins of the tower for a smoke as the sun began to set.
He isn’t worried about Brexit. He doesn’t have anything to lose.
“I don’t know a lot about politics, but you don’t know ‘til you try it,” he said. “It’s like that Trump in America. He just doesn’t care. Maybe it’ll work…”