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Britain prepares for Brexit: Theresa May loses popularity in Maidenhead as dabble over deal shifts gear from economic to identity crisis

Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series of reports on Brexit from the UK, leading up to the EU elections on 23 May. It will relay voices of everyday British folk on the coming departure from Europe.


Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: A crisis, by definition, needs to be of short duration to retain its power of urgency: the sense of impending, onrushing disaster. A prolonged “crisis” distributes its focus, widening its scope and opening new pain centres in the body politic.

The Brexit story, which has now played out for a full three years since the 2016 referendum to leave, has thrown up many new questions about British politics and identity. It is now not just about staying or leaving the European Union “with or without a deal”: It is about race, climate change, equal opportunity, inclusivity, religious equality, fair wages and ethnicity.

 Britain prepares for Brexit: Theresa May loses popularity in Maidenhead as dabble over deal shifts gear from economic to identity crisis

File photo of UK prime minister Theresa May. AP

In sum, everything that goes into the idea of a modern British identity. Brexit has, over these three years, snowballed to become an existential question confronting the United Kingdom.

With less than a fortnight to go for the EU elections, both the Conservative and Labour parties — each of which expected to leave the EU before the elections — seem wildly unprepared. And at just the wrong time. This vote to elect British Members to the European Parliament is being seen as the second referendum on Brexit by the media. Across England and Wales, with growing desperation for an end to uncertainty, there is also a grim optimism now becoming apparent in the public mood. This optimism is based on the realisation that the politicians at Westminster are simply unequal to the task, and the people need to be heard from again. Maybe this EU Parliament vote will send a strong message that will impel the politicians to act.

Both major parties have already had a taste of this raw public mood. Both are smarting from a drubbing at the civic elections held earlier this month. Smaller parties gained at their expense. Recent opinion polls have shown Nigel Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party to be the most popular with voters.

About 25 miles from London, in the safe Conservative seat Maidenhead in England, the anger against the chaos in Parliament caused the vote to split in the civic elections, setting alarm bells ringing in Westminster. Picturesque Maidenhead is Prime Minister Theresa May’s constituency.

“It is no more about Tory and Labour,” said local Brexit Party candidate Peter Wiltshire. “The people voted for Brexit, and it is false to claim that they did not understand what they were voting for.” Wiltshire, who is the 10th candidate from South East England, sees no need for a second referendum. His party boss Nigel Farage seems to be riding on a wave of popular anger against both parties that is being felt across England and Wales.

Campaigning to Remain, just adjacent to the Brexit Party candidate at the town square, is Nigel. Like most others interviewed for this story, he was unwilling to give his last name. He is part of a local citizen’s group, “Maidenhead for EU”. A cosmopolitan computer programmer volunteering his time with a band of others, he feels a mission to stop Brexit. “It is deeply personal to me," says Nigel, whose girlfriend is from an EU nation. “I want to stop this nonsense from happening.”

Walker Jr, a black Englishman from Maidenhead, tempers his disenchantment with the Tories. “Theresa May did get a Brexit vote through Parliament,” he says, adding, “But it is time for her to leave because she is unable to get people to agree on terms of the exit. It is time for someone else to lead.”

Reports of an imminent resignation by May have now started to appear in the mainstream press. Her government has been holding talks with Labour for a deal on terms to leave the EU, an unpopular move with Tory backbenchers. One of these leaders at the centre of a push for a leadership change revealed that May had agreed to a meeting with backbenchers. But before the story could get too far, like many times in the past, she set another deadline. 10 Downing Street announced that Tory-Labour deal will be voted on in early-June. This will be Mrs May’s fourth vote. Three others failed.

However, no one except the political press tracks these developments any more. Most people across England and Wales have simply given up on these daily twists and turns.

In Coerleon, a historic town in South Wales, 23-year-old Ellispugh, a classic Welsh name he explains, had voted to stay. But he feels the issue has got so convoluted that he is not sure where he stands now. “It has been three years, it has been so hard to leave, caused so much stress and trouble that it may be better to just stay.” Many others seem to share this sentiment which is almost like vacillation, especially when probed deeper. Too much time and too many points of view have distorted the picture in the minds of many citizens.

However, some faultlines have emerged. A clear divide seems to exist among the more cosmopolitan elites and rural tradespeople. Where once they met around a common British identity, that is becoming much more elusive because being British is now so much more complicated.

For city-dwellers or the younger generation in small towns, the decision to leave EU seems linked to racism and becoming insulated from a rapidly changing outside world. Matthew, a white 22-year-old in Maidenhead who confesses to his lack of knowledge of economic issues, is certain about one thing: “It seems to be racist, isn’t it? To want a lot of people from other places living here to up and leave? We have to be more open. We have to change with the times.” His younger female companion nods in agreement.

But just as the dominant British identity forged well over a thousand years of history is starting to fade, long dormant ethnic identities are getting a chance to emerge. The decline of “old” Britain began after WWII and the unravelling of the Empire, but the devolution of power to the regions in the late-1990s set the ball rolling farther.

All three ethnicities other than the English — the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish — have their own languages, but only since 1997 have they had much say in their own affairs.

Today, these emerging regional differences are complicating British identity.

Added to the mix are immigrants from former colonies in Asia and Africa. British Muslim communities from Pakistan and Egypt among others are publicly dealing with old questions about religious freedom and “Islamophobia”. Immigrant British Muslims are forging their own path amid the rising concern over extremism and terrorist attacks. A popular talk show host on the London radio station LBC recently mused about “religious blasphemy being a duty” in certain situations.

But even mainstream Christianity is not spared in the great churning of the ethnic pot. Differing Christian roots that were held down by the largely a-religious English till World War II, are yielding new fruit. The English version of Christianity is no longer the dominant thread. The Reform Protestant Scottish take their religion much more seriously. The Scottish version of Christianity was originally quite monastic and severe. In fact, some Scottish religious influence was carried to America in the form of Calvinism and formed part of the founding American philosophy. The Catholicism of the Irish of Northern Ireland is much more central to life. The Irish are also known to have a rich religious national tradition.

At a cafe in Heresford, a town more to the north than Coerleon in Wales, bus conductor Glyn throws up his hands. “I don’t know what is happening. Can’t make sense of it. I still don’t know how it is all going to affect me. No one told me.”

Sean, an Englishman landscaper who is working in Wales says he also does not have an opinion: “A mess, isn’t it?” Sean says many Eastern European in the trade such as bricklayers and masons have left because of fear of Brexit. But does that not mean more jobs for the locals? He is not sure, or unwilling to take sides.

Back in May’s constituency Maidenhead, Mark, a regular customer at the Maiden’s Head bar is far more nuanced. A British Special Operations veteran who was wounded during his six years in Afghanistan is willing to concede that there are two sides to the argument. “On the cultural side, I don’t want Britain to be cut off. To be inviting, to be multicultural is to be more in tune with the times.” But, he says, there is less money to go around because jobs are going to immigrants who work cheaper.

Mark, who works as an electrician, says Britain should stand up for her sovereignty. “We once owned three-quarters of the world, and freely gave it back,” he says, pointing out that veterans are being passed over for welfare in favour of immigrants.

Antony, who serves at the bar, takes refuge in black humour. “Maybe if I leave the UK and come back in as an immigrant, my government will help me more,” he says.

An American politician once famously said that no good crisis should go to waste. If the churning helps a clearer idea of British identity, the Brexit crisis won’t have been wasted.

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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 16:19:18 IST