A Journey to the Heart of Brexit Britain
The tour groups shuffle respectfully past the stone tomb. A dappled pink light shines in from two brand new stained glass windows. The final resting place of Richard the Third in Leicester’s cathedral has become an unlikely tourist attraction.
His remains, uncovered under a city car park, were reburied here with much pomp and ceremony last year. Now the stage villain king, killed at the Battle of Bosworth close to Leicester, has also been credited with the good luck enjoyed by the city’s football team this season.
The identity of a people and a place is defined by history. A medieval war for the English crown is seems very distant but the idea of Britishness and how that sits with membership of the European Union goes to the heart of the Brexit debate.
Voters in the UK will decide on June 23rd whether to stay in or leave the European Union. It’s a decision which will have consequences not only for the UK but for Ireland and for Europe. As part of our report for Prime Time broadcast on May 24th we travelled to Leicester, in the very heart of England’s East Midlands to gauge opinion on the referendum.
The Dean of Leicester Cathedral, David Monteith, hails from Fermanagh. He’s well used to what he calls ‘multiple identities.’ He’s an Irishman working in Britain. He lives in a city which is one of the most diverse in the UK.
Narborough Road, one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares, hosts 23 different nationalities. All of this, the Dean suggests, makes it easier to think about ‘the European question.’ Indeed, he points to the fleur-de-lis on the crest of King Richard’s tomb as evidence of the close connections between these islands and Europe.
But travel a few miles out of Leicester’s cosmopolitan hive of activity and you arrive in a different Britain.
At Melton Mowbray’s market, one of England’s oldest, the stalls sell Stilton cheese and pork pies. Both are local products, protected as it happens by the EU’s geographical product identifier system.
But if that was meant to make the locals more positively disposed towards Europe, it hasn’t.
Farmers are as divided as the general population, according to Matthew O’Callaghan, Chairman of the UK’s Protected Food Names Association. They recognise the value of subsidy payments from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. But some farmers also believe they are being held back by the EU.
A totally unscientific sample of people at the market, throws up a range of sceptical views on Europe. But there are also those who believe Britain’s place is inside Europe. Two themes keep emerging: sovereignty and migration.
The latest figures show that last year net migration into the UK reached 323,000. That’s almost double the 161,000 who came in 2000. The last big wave of migrants from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc has come in for particular attention during the referendum debate.
Back in Leicester we meet one of these recent immigrants, Pole Martin Lipinski. He and his partner Aga now run an award-winning bar in the city’s trendy West End. He talks about the impression some people have of people from the former East as ‘benefit cheats’ but strongly rejects such stereotypes. He says that if someone feels their job has been taken by an immigrant with little or poor English, they are probably not working hard enough.
Back in Leicester Cathedral, a side chapel is dedicated to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. Poppy wreaths adorn memorials to campaigns in Afghanistan 1878, South Africa 1899 and other far flung parts of an empire now gone. The regimental colours are adorned with the Hindoostan battle honour awarded for participation in the conquest of India.
Britain has changed. But by just how much, we’ll find out next month.