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Regret takes hold in Brexit bastion

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Grays, in Essex across the Channel from Europe, was one of the most pro-Brexit areas of Britain in the 2016 referendum./AFP
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Jan 27, 2023 - 10:58 AM

Thurrock, United Kingdom — Grays, a town near London, voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. But three years after severing ties with the EU, some are feeling remorse as the country lurches from one crisis to another.

“I did vote Brexit, but I regret it,” said 42-year-old Maria Yvars, arguing she felt cheated by politicians.

“They didn’t give us the full facts… they told us things that were not true,” said the counsellor in the town 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of the British capital.

“Now, this country is like a ship without a captain,” she added after the ruling Conservative government deposed two prime ministers last year including Boris Johnson, who led the campaign to quit the European Union.

In the 2016 vote, 72.3 percent voted for Brexit in the Essex constituency of Thurrock, of which Grays is the largest town with around 75,000 people.

That was the fourth highest pro-Brexit vote out of 382 voting areas in Britain that backed the split.

Arch-eurosceptic Nigel Farage chose Thurrock as the backdrop to unveil his anti-EU manifesto for the general election of May 2015.

The post-industrial area, which has taken in many migrants from eastern Europe, also includes Tilbury, one of the country’s main container ports.

AFP reported from there in 2017, finding Brexiteers had little regret about their vote a year later. But the departure only took full effect at the end of January 2020.

Johnson had promised “sunlit uplands” for Britain. Instead it got Covid, and now a crippling cost-of-living crisis resulting from sky-high inflation.

Thurrock Council, the local authority, effectively went bankrupt in December after a series of disastrous investments.

In Grays’ pedestrianised town centre, one abandoned shop window reads “closed forever”.

Like many other high streets in Britain, the shops left are dominated by discount retailers offering £1 items, charity stores and bookmakers.


While the government attributes Britain’s economic malaise to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Brexit is increasingly being blamed for setting the country back after it cut off access to Europe’s single market across the Channel from Essex.

“Yes I voted for Brexit and I wish I hadn’t,” said another woman in her 50s, who wished to remain anonymous.

“Look at the country, it’s a disaster isn’t it?”, she added, explaining that most people she knows regret their Brexit vote.

Those who championed their Brexit vote were now “embarrassed”, even “ashamed”, added Yvars.

Support for Brexit across the nation has never been so low, according to a YouGov poll released in November.

Fewer than a third of Britons believe it was a good decision, with one in five Brexiteers changing their minds, according to the poll.

“What did the Brexiteers expect?” queried a Grays employee of the National Health Service (NHS) who wanted to remain in the EU. “We lost EU funding.”

Saving the NHS was a hallmark of Johnson’s Brexit campaign. Emblazoned on his red campaign bus was the message: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.”

Today, NHS workers including for the first time nurses have been striking in protest at government pay offers.

‘It will take time’ 

But Elaine Read, a 73-year-old woman who worked in finance in London, is not among the regretful contingent.

“I would probably vote again Brexit,” she said.

“We are an island, we’re isolationist. I felt we weren’t in control anymore. So many laws were overturned by Brussels.

“So much has happened that we haven’t had the chance to see all the benefits” of Brexit, she added.

The UK is the only G7 economy that has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic size in gross domestic product.

The UK government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that leaving the EU will reduce the size of the British economy by about four percent in the long run.

But neither Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government nor the opposition Labour party are promising any change of course, vowing instead to make Brexit work.

Ray Yates, a 70-year-old former dockworker, said the situation in Thurrock was “terrible” while stressing: “I still support Brexit.

“But it will take time — at least 10 years. And a new government.”

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