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Clacton: the birthplace of Brexit Nigel Farage wants to reform the seaside town

(Carl Court/Getty)


June 3, 2024   4 mins

Clacton-on-Sea is a funny old place. To reach it one has to drive through the smart commuter villages of the Tendring peninsula, the farthest extremity of north-east Essex, between Colchester and the North Sea. These villages have more than their share of big houses with big cars in the drive, grand late medieval churches and thriving agriculture. On the coast itself, just to the north of Clacton, is Frinton-on-Sea, a place so genteel that it only acquired a pub a few years ago, and when a fish and chip shop eventually opened there it was — presumably to reassure the locals — called The Nice Fish and Chip Shop. In the heart of the constituency Farage now seeks to win, it has a predominantly elderly profile: “Harwich for the Continent” the famous poster at Liverpool Street station used to read, referring to the port just outside the constituency. “And Frinton for the incontinent,” read the graffito.

Clacton, by contrast, has never been for the Continent. On the evening of Friday, 21 March 1969, Enoch Powell, the Godfather of Brexit, chose the even then mildly down-at-heel Essex seaside resort to make his first speech about why Britain should stay out of the Common Market. Powell had been sacked from the Conservative front bench 11 months earlier for making his “Rivers of Blood” speech about the dangers of mass immigration. Able at last to break free on other issues with which he disagreed with Ted Heath, he had joined Michael Foot to try to stop reform of the House of Lords (they succeeded), had railed against Heath’s naïve belief in a prices and incomes policy, continued to goad the party about its weakness on mass migration, but now fired an arrow closer than any other to Heath’s heart: rejecting his passion for British integration into a united Europe.

“Over the years since Powell spoke, Clacton has simply ossified, and then regressed.”

Powell announced “a unilateral declaration of independence”: he said “we do not need to be tied up with anybody
 We are not a drowning man clutching at a rope or screaming for someone to throw him a lifebelt.” That mindset was the foundation stone of an ideology that finally bore fruit on 23 June 2016, 18 years after Powell’s death, when the British people decided they had enough of the European Union. Around 70% of the Clacton constituency’s inhabitants voted for Brexit; and it is the only place ever to elect a UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, which it did at the 2015 election.

Some of Powell’s other warnings to the people of Clacton, and the United Kingdom, about the consequences of chucking in their lot with the European movement were welded into that ideology too. He said the Common Market “depended upon a series of complex, bureaucratic institutions not easy to reconcile with our own very different system of administration under parliamentary control”. He sought “a Europe of nations, of sovereign nations, the only Europe to which Britain, so long as she herself remains a nation, could belong”. His followers agreed. He sought the retention of sovereignty; once his advice was ignored, and Britain joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973, he sought its reclamation. So did those influenced by him who survived him: including Nigel Farage.

Over the years since Powell spoke, Clacton has simply ossified, and then regressed. The town has the highest proportion of economically inactive people in the United Kingdom: most seats have economic activity of 80% of people, Clacton has 51%. Its crime rate is higher and its disposable income per head far lower than those smart villages just a few miles away. Its public services are dismal. There is rough sleeping and the modern companion of poverty, drug abuse (with its attendant despair and desolation), infects the place. Jaywick, on the southern fringes, is regularly referred to as one of the most deprived areas in the country, and a visiting UN representative in 2018 was shocked by its “extreme poverty”. The incumbent MP, Giles Watling, admitted last autumn to The Guardian that he faced “an uphill battle”, not least because he is a Remainer.

If he thought that before Farage, whose public profile dwarfs Watling’s, changed his mind and decided to stand, one can only speculate how he feels now. He managed to secure a £20m levelling-up grant for the town, but that will butter few proverbial parsnips with an incipiently shirty electorate. With its shabby amusement arcades and general air of a place the 21st century has passed by, Clacton will require far more than money to put it right.

The cynical might suggest that Farage had been studying the vox pops that reveal numerous Clactonians as feeling betrayed by Brexit and seized his advantage. He too feels betrayed by it, as he said at his launch. Certainly, if there is any seat he can win, it is this one. It is not just because the place voted for Brexit, but because Farage has a direct line to the people who live there.

Even though he comes from Kent, he does indeed speak fluent Essex — as, in his more professorial way, did Enoch Powell 55 years ago. He knows how to press the buttons of promising to enforce borders, deregulate businesses, and improve public services by ramping up prosperity. The speeches he made last week, before re-designating himself as leader of Reform, covered all these topics, and will slot straight into his campaign on this strangely deprived part of the Essex coast.

When Powell spoke at Clacton, it was by chance: the local Conservative had invited him, and his long and unsuccessful campaign to become leader had reached the point where he decided to focus on Europe. Farage, by contrast, has chosen the place deliberately. As an ex-City boy he may have more in common with the people flaunting their wealth in the satellite villages, but he knows how to speak to the people of Clacton directly: as, doubtless, he will be doing any moment, in the local boozer.


Professor Simon Heffer is a historian and journalist


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Phil Day
Phil Day
21 days ago

Rearrange the following into a well known phrase – cat put a pidgeons amongst the.
Popcorn at the ready.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
21 days ago

A chancer and a clown. The good people of Clacton are welcome to him, should they not follow the example of the 7 other constituencies that have previously declined the opportunity to be represented by someone who couldn’t give a monkeys about them.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago

Why not throw your hat into the ring if you think you’re any better ?
At the moment, I’m assuming you have even less support than Nigel Farage. Show us your votes !

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
21 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Clacton? I think not, cherie…

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
21 days ago

Too working class?

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
7 days ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

Nobody works there

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
21 days ago

And don’t forget that Clacton is just down the street from “Secret Water” where the Swallows and Amazons met the Eels. Back in the day.
Look. I’m a Yank, but how come nobody mentioned Butlin’s Clacton Holiday Camp, that served British holiday-makers from 1938 to 1983.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
21 days ago

I’m so glad somebody mentioned Butlins! I went there in the early 70s at the age of 12 – Donny Osmond was no. 1 in the charts, and I fell in love with a dark-skinned beauty with an unintelligible accent (cockney).
It’s worth remembering that many are switching to Labour very reluctantly and would be more than happy to have a viable alternative. A party capable of doing anything about current immigration levels would be something.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago

Say what you like, but this is at least something that adds a little excitement and colour to the complete non-event election we’re about to suffer. Fake politicians, fake policies, fake media, …
Meanwhile, who can forget Matthew Parris’ patronising and dismissive 2014 Times article about Clacton and other left behind English towns in which he wrote off any hope for them and advised any aspirational young people there to move out. He then threw an almost decade long hissy fit about Brexit (which shows no signs of ever ending).

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
21 days ago

I wonder if the Conservatives will break election campaigning laws again to try and keep Farage out. I suspect not, as Sunak has more class in his little finger than the slimeball Cameron.

Pat Rowles
Pat Rowles
20 days ago

an incipiently shirty electorate

I misread that at first (there are a lot of t’s in the surrounding words)

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago

Yep. Clacton, the birthplace of Brexit and the deathbed of Britain. I can wait to visit for a seaside holiday. Should be a bundle of holiday fun

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago

The only thing Farage and brexit have brought to Clacton is tens of thousands of tons of raw sewage.