Why should anyone go to Stoke-on-Trent in a wet week in November? Two reasons. First, I was born there. Second, Stoke will have a significant say in Britain’s future next month even if Britain has never cared much for — or about — Stoke.
I have spent a large part of the past 40 years writing about Europe and European politics. I made a brief escape to write about the United States and American politics.
In those four decades, I parachuted metaphorically into scores of towns and cities in France and in almost every state in the US — from the gang-infested northern districts of Marseille to the urban deserts of an almost abandoned, downtown Detroit.
This time I had decided to parachute into my birthplace.
Stoke-on-Trent has become a symbol of left-behind Britain. It is the alleged ‘capital of Brexit’. It is one of the key battlegrounds in next month’s general election with two ‘Labour-Leaver’ marginal seats inside the city and one on its western edge.
Why, I wondered, has my home-town become so fiercely anti-EU? Stoke voted 69% vote for Leave in 2016, more than any other large UK town or city.
How would the people of Stoke resolve in the voting booths on 12 December the contradiction between their traditional support for Labour and their passion for Brexit? Would Stoke-on-Trent go Tory — the equivalent of Sevenoaks voting Labour?
My brother still works in the city. He lives in the beautiful Pennine hills just to the east, close to the village where we were brought up. I have often visited him since I left North Staffordshire but I have seldom explored the 21st century version of Stoke itself.
I was profoundly depressed by what I found.
Stoke is the victim of a triple economic crisis and a triple identity crisis. Its pottery, steel and coal-mining industries were among the earliest victims of the de-industrialisation of Britain which began under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The city’s public services have been hollowed out by the austerity drive of the past decade. Its town centres, stricken by the collapse of traditional shopping habits, range from the depressed to the derelict.
Stoke was never an elegant city. Topographically, it is not a city at all but a curving string of six connecting towns along the upper valley of the River Trent in the northern tip of Staffordshire.
If that sounds idyllic (and it might have been), you have to recall that those towns — Stoke-upon-Trent, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton and Longton — were among the first intensely industrialised settlements on earth. Coal was mined here from the middle ages. Josiah Wedgwood devised assembly line production of pottery here in the mid-18th century, 140 years before Henry Ford applied the idea to cars in Detroit.
Although the six towns bound themselves together as a city almost a century ago, they remain wary or jealous of one another. Stoke people cling to plural identities. They talk of “The Potteries”, rarely of Stoke-on-Trent.
The city has another permanent identity crisis. It is officially in the West Midlands, but it is culturally and economically more like industrial Lancashire or Yorkshire. North Staffs people have the warmth and openness of Lancastrians, the grit of Yorkshire people and the wit of Scousers.
Stoke falls outside the Government’s Northern Powerhouse project. It will be narrowly bypassed by the planned £88bn HS2 high-speed railway. An investigation into the booming cost of HS2 may axe the planned junction with the 19th-century route into Stoke-on-Trent.
Potteries people feel on the edge and in between — in the geographical heartland but, in some ways, isolated from the rest of Britain. Even the Stoke accent is unlike any other. I was pleased to discover that friends and strangers are still referred to as “duck”. “Ah yer aw-right duck?” — never “love” or “dear” or “pet” or “darling”.
Now a third identity crisis overlays the others. What is Stoke-on-Trent for in 2019?
Other northern and Midlands cities — Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool — have recreated themselves as hubs for financial and other services. Stoke, without the character of a “real” city, has been unable to compete. As one local businessman said to me: “Never mind financial services. We’ve hardly got any banks left.”
The Stoke-on-Trent that I knew in the 1960s and early 1970s was a hell-scape of slag heaps, steel furnaces, factory chimneys, bottle-shaped pottery kilns, jumbled terraces of red-brick houses, scraps of railways and bright green canals. And yet the city — on the days that you could see it — had a grandeur, a strength and a perverse beauty. Above all, it had a purpose and an identity.
The six towns were relatively busy and prosperous. The pottery industry was declining but still produced everything from fine Wedgwood and Doulton dinner services to cheap tea-cups and municipal urinals.
The re-born Stoke-on-Trent is cleaner and leafier. Old pits and slag heaps have been turned into beautiful parks or shiny shopping centres. New dual carriage-way roads (partly EU-funded) carve and weave between the towns. Whole sections of the city I remember have vanished — rebuilt or just abandoned.
More than ever, there is no “there” there in Stoke-on-Trent. The new Potteriescape has islands of beauty or energy. Overall, it is a dispiriting, characterless jumble. Imagine the ugliest part of any city — the most rumpled, outer-suburban edges of London or Paris or New York. In the “new” Stoke, that ragged fringe goes on for 36 square miles.
Average pay is 16% below the national average. House prices are half the national average. One of the town’s biggest employers is the international on-line betting giant Bet365, started in a Portakabin in Stoke by a local family in 2000. Betting shops, tattoo parlours and charity outlets fill many of the town centre slots.
I spoke to Wendy, aged 19, in a deserted Hanley town centre on a weekday morning. She was wearing a bright red hoodie and had a pink candy-floss hairdo. She is unemployed.
I said the town didn’t seem to be buzzing today.
“Buzzing? I don’t know what to say to you, duck. Hanley is never buzzing. If you’re young you’re just stuck, aren’t you? Only jobs are low-paying. You can’t afford to go out at night. You can’t even afford to bugger off and live somewhere else…”
Another man I met, Dave, 55, a former potter, now a part-time mechanic, said: “Stoke on Trent is a shit-hole. Once everyone knew someone in the pits or the pots. Now all we’ve got is students and care-workers.”
It’s not all grim. The new Staffordshire University, created from a polytechnic with EU regional development money, has gained a high reputation for information technology and film studies. A “ceramic valley” enterprise park (more EU money) is discovering, inter alia, new uses of specialised pottery in hi-tech industries.
The pottery industry — you are now supposed to say “ceramics” — is recovering but it has 6,000 jobs compared with 70,000 in the 1950s. Royal Doulton has shifted most of its production to Indonesia. Wedgwood ditto but some is returning. Spode has closed, though its name is still used.
The niche, innovative new pottery makers such as Emma Bridgewater and Portmeirion (incorporating Spode) are thriving. Ugly old Stoke still produces transcendentally beautiful things. The resurgent ceramics industry is, however, 50% dependent on exports to Europe.
Why, then, is Stoke, so apparently dependent on Europe, so anti-European?
I turned first to Phil Corrigan, the political correspondent for the excellent local daily newspaper, The Sentinel (one aspect of Stoke much improved since my day).
Corrigan said there was a sense of having being abandoned; a contempt for all the mainstream parties; a belief that, somehow, a Britain which “took control” of its own rules and laws would make a difference to Stoke-on-Trent. All government seems far away and indifferent. Brussels seems furthest away of all.
“There is an association in many people’s minds between the EU and UK membership since 1973, because of everything that has changed in Stoke since then — the decline of the pits and pots,” he said.
“European immigration is also a big, big issue. There is a resentment at new foreign faces and voices in a traditionally parochial place that’s long had a bit of migration but never very much.” Stoke is 95% white and English born.
The election will be a knife-edge in Stoke, he says. “Labour voters are disaffected and very pro-Brexit but they have an ancestral hatred of Tories. It will depend how many switch to the Brexit Party…”
“A large part of the population here is now completely walled off from politics. Turnout is amongst the lowest in the country.”
When the Tories captured Stoke South in 2017, it was the first Stoke seat to go anything but Labour for 80 years. Labour should hold Stoke Central this time, Corrigan believes, but they might lose Stoke North and Newcastle-under-Lyme, just to the west. If that trend was projected nationally it would easily be enough for a Johnson majority.
I attended a meeting of the Staffs4Europe group at a pub in a village just outside Stoke. Why was my home-town so anti-EU?
Liz Baker said: “The explanations have changed. In 2016 people would say ‘we’ve been neglected’, ‘cheated by them in London’ or ‘on the local council’. Or ‘we don’t like all the immigrants’. Or ‘we don’t like what the council has done with the buses’.”
“Now they say: ‘It’s about sovereignty and taking control of laws and trading freely with the world… They repeat what they’ve heard the politicians say on the telly.”
Her husband, Tony Rogers, said: “Voting Brexit was the first time they ‘won’ in their lives… They may not know what it means but they know they were on the winning side.”
Hanley, set on a hill above the other towns, emerged long ago as Stoke-on-Trent’s main shopping and entertainment centre. It has now been rebranded as the “City Centre” and “Cultural Quarter”.
It was in Hanley in 1964, aged 14, that I went to the Regent Theatre/Cinema to see an up-and-coming London rhythm and blues group. That band, The Rolling Stones, seem to have survived the past 55 years better than Hanley — although the Regent Theatre has been expanded and now attracts touring rep companies.
I stood outside the Regent and buttonholed the locals. How will Stoke vote? What about Brexit?
Many of my would-be victims, though very friendly in the Potteries way, told me they had not a scrap of interest in politics. “It bores me, duck. Can’t stand any of it.”
Almost all, I have solemnly to report, had no knowledge of the learned arguments about Brexit or Boris in the Twitter and media bubbles where I now live. There was hostility to all politicians; disdain (to put it kindly) for the Tories; but also a passionate distrust of the EU and dislike of “foreigners”.
Derek, 64, retired pottery worker: “I was for Brexit, still am. Not changed my mind a bit… I’ll tell you why. Too many foreigners. Sometimes you can can scarcely hear English spoken in Hanley these days… And now they say they’re bussing more up from London. They don’t want them down there. So they think we can have them.”
Sam, 60, café-owner: “They tell me that I’m in the cultural quarter of The Potteries. The bloody cultural quarter. Where do they think we are, bloody France? If I want to put tables outside and be continental, I have to pay bloody council £500 a year or summat. £500 a year? Might be worth it if we had summer all year but in Hanley it lasts only three weeks at most…”
Ron, 78, book-stall owner: “I voted for Brexit. There are too many foreigners here. It’s time we spent money on our own. They can come here and get benefits. That’s not right.” Will he vote Tory/Boris? “Like a friend of mine says, ‘I wouldn’t vote Tory so long as there’s hole in me bottom’.”
Janet, 84, retired office worker: “ I really don’t know what to tell you, duck. I’m sick of hearing about it. I wish it was over, one way or another. I voted to Remain. I just thought country had done OK since we joined. But now it’s all been such a mither, I don’t know. I’ve always been Labour. Do I want another referendum? Do I heck.”
I travelled two miles down Waterloo Road to Burslem, the so-called “mother town” of the Potteries – Josiah Wedgwood’s birthplace and the setting for Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns novels. Waterloo Road, incidentally, was immortalised by 1968 pop song of the same name written by two Stoke natives, Mike Deighan and Mike Wilsh.
Its refrain was: “You’ll find what you’re looking for on Waterloo Road…” You won’t any more, unless you want to place a bet or buy a second-hand exhaust for your car.
Of all the places I visited in Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem was the most distressing. I remembered a lively little town with grand 18th-century and 19th-century buildings. The buildings survive but are mostly empty. Burslem has become a ghost town since the Royal Doulton works closed in 2005. Most production has emigrated to Indonesia.
Tracy, 50, used to be a dipper in the Doulton works. She now runs the Upper Crust cafe.
“Almost the only other place still open now are a bridal shop and Walkers’ pies,” she said. “It’s so sad what’s happened to Burslem. People would come straight out of Doultons and into town centre. Now they go online if they can afford to shop at all…”
Tracy voted Brexit in 2016. Will she vote in the election? “Yes, probably Labour. Always been Labour here (Stoke North). Don’t like Boris. I can’t abide the way his hair is… Many folks here will go for Farage, not because they like him but just because of Brexit and because he’s not Labour or Tory…”
When we were about to leave Washington in 1992, my son, then two years old, gazed at his empty home and said: “Put it all back. I want it all back.”
That’s what I felt about Stoke-on-Trent. Put it all back. Put back the bottle kilns. Put back the slag heaps. Put back Shelton Bar steelworks. Put back the missing districts of terraced houses.
One of the many tragedies of Stoke is that it has been rebuilt for the 20th century, not the 21st. There is a tangle of new dual carriageways; the roads are still choked; but the town centres, even the new shopping centres, are empty. Public transport is poor. Why no light rail or tram system?
I’m a fairly convinced pro-European but I understand (I think) why Potteries people have a sense of loss and betrayal which pushed them to vote Brexit.
I’ve spent the past year covering the French gilets jaunes protests. In provincial France you hear the same mixture of sound arguments and exaggerated conspiracy theories. “All the life and energy and pride has been sucked from our provincial towns… All the good jobs and the investment goes to the big metropolitan areas…We are being cheated. We are being laughed at…”
Stoke’s vote for Brexit appears out of line if compared with other English cities (Manchester voted 39.6% to Leave, Liverpool 41.8%). It is explained by the fact that Stoke is not really a city. The Brexit vote in once proud, prosperous and independent towns on the edge of Midlands and northern conurbations — Wolverhampton, Bolton, Oldham, Rotherham — was in line with that in Stoke-on-Trent.
People in those towns also feel — rightly or wrongly — that they have lost out to or been robbed by London or bigger cities nearby which have successfully reinvented themselves for the 21st century. A vote against Europe was, whether consciously or not, a vote against a modern world which passed them by. Part of that modern world was membership of the EU.
I can understand Stoke’s Brexit vote. It’s harder to understand why people might vote Conservative. Arguably, the Tories — whether Margaret Thatcher or David Cameron — have brought more calamity to Stoke than the EU ever did.
On the other hand, you have also to remember the many decades in which Stoke council was run by Labour. (It is now a coalition of Tories and independents.) In those years, the city did some things right. It also lost its way amid allegations of cronyism and corruption.
The Stoke results will turn on a few hundred votes either way; Brexit will weigh heavily in Johnson’s favour. Leaving the EU may give Stoke’s Brexiteers their fleeting sense of “victory”. It is difficult to see why it should do anything to revive the fortunes of The Potteries.