Choke Point

Patrick Cockburn reports from Dover

Dover is popular with reporters on the prowl for Brexit stories. Border Force patrol ships – decked out with high-tech radar sensors and painted navy grey – hug the White Cliffs in pursuit of dinghies carrying immigrants from France: a defiant image of Britain repelling an external threat. From the top of one of the hills overlooking the town you look down on the Eastern Docks, where ten thousand lorries stream in and out every day, along with the hordes of cars and caravans and passengers on foot transported on P&O ferries to and from Calais. The Port of Dover is the UK’s closest point of connection to the continent beyond, just 21 miles away: £122 billion in imports and exports pass through here every year. Big container ships, heading north or south, stand out against the French coast. Nicolas Deshayes – an artist who lives on the hill, just below Henry II’s magnificent 12th-century castle, the largest in England – revels in the spectacle of choreographed movement. He makes works that reference water: vast bodies of it, along with drains, pipes and other signs of liquid urban flow. ‘I like the energy here,’ he says. ‘I like the flux of the trucks and the people coming in and out of the boats.’

Earlier this year, as Theresa May’s government pushed to persuade people to back her EU withdrawal agreement, Dover was held up to illustrate the chaos that might follow from a no-deal Brexit. With no one sure of what customs papers to sign, lorries on their way to the port would be held up in endless queues, affecting the whole county of Kent. The possibility was floated that Manston Airport, an old RAF base, could be requisitioned as a lorry park in order to ease congestion. Even now, a single accident on the motorway down from London can cause a tailback that takes hours to clear. Operation Yellowhammer, the no-deal contingency plan commissioned after Boris Johnson took office, assumed waiting times as long as two and a half days as a result of new documentation requirements for which the majority of HGV operators would be unprepared. Even tiny additional processing delays would cause a significant knock-on effect. They would also put unbearable pressure on the town of Dover itself, whose streets are already clogged up for a large part of every week. In this worst-case scenario, it was vaguely suggested that freight could be diverted to other ports. But Dover is hard to avoid: it’s a choke point for the British economy.

The town is constrained by its peculiar geography: its forty thousand inhabitants are squeezed into a steep-sided narrow valley that cuts through the chalk of the White Cliffs. It is only as it reaches the sea that the valley opens out, with the giant docks to the left and right. Philip Hutton, an architectural historian, thinks Dover’s layout makes it look like ‘a hammerhead shark’: that long tapering stretch inland, and then the massively spread-out head of the port areas facing the sea. It’s a town that invites this sort of bird’s-eye view, from one of the summits behind it: to the left, Castle Hill; to the right, the Western Heights, crowned with a Napoleonic-era brick citadel and littered with abandoned gun emplacements from both world wars. Seen from this height, the transport network below looks fragile and easily fractured. Hundreds of white container lorries are parked at angles along the arm of the ramshackle Western Docks; a £250 million ‘revival project’ is underway, but a plan that promises shops, cafés and restaurants lining the waterfront – ‘Destination Dover’ – doesn’t allocate space for any more vehicles. The landscape here is dotted with monuments to Channel voyages of the past. Marooned in the middle of the tarmac is the Lord Warden Hotel, once a luxury palazzo where wealthy 19th-century passengers arriving on the Pullman used to stay on their way to France; it was requisitioned by the navy during the Second World War and has housed a set of offices for freight forwarding agents ever since.

Dover’s port – which handles 12 million passengers, three million lorries and two million cars a year – is still a money-generating machine. But all this energy and sense of purpose seems barely to touch the town, where there is a pervasive feeling of marginalisation – of having been ‘left behind’. The separation between town and port is physical as well as psychological: the A20 dual carriageway, built in the 1970s, runs along the coastline and residents must pass through a dank underpass to reach the harbour’s beach. ‘People feel angry with the port because it is rich and they are poor,’ says Joanna Jones, co-founder of Dover Arts Development. She suspects that the ease with which local people used to be able to find steady jobs may have sapped their spirit of entrepreneurship. Twenty years ago, Dover was still a reasonably thriving industrial and garrison town. Until 2000, it was home to a large paper factory, and as late as 2006 a battalion of the Parachute Regiment was based in a barracks on the edge of town. For years, locals could find work as wardens in the borstal housed in the citadel on the Western Heights, but in 2002 the borstal was turned into an immigration removal centre and in 2015 that too closed down. Aside from the shipping companies – which rely almost exclusively on foreign crews – there are no major employers left.

It seems strange that Dover can’t profit more from its history as ‘the gateway to England’. An endless stream of coaches takes tourists to the castle. But few are tempted to visit the town museum, where an expertly crafted 3500-year-old Bronze Age boat is on display, or the Maison Dieu, an extraordinary medieval hospice, restored by the great Victorian architect William Burges, which turns out to be open only on Wednesdays. To take in the impressive view from the Western Heights, visitors must first locate a narrow path leading from a nondescript car park to a disused gun platform; they don’t do so in droves. There are some specialist attractions: Channel swimmers train in the inner harbour and set off for France from Shakespeare Beach; fishing enthusiasts come to town to enjoy the catch from Admiralty Pier. But a few shops selling fishing tackle don’t do much for the town’s economy.

A troubled future for Dover and its environs has been part of the picture painted to illustrate the calamities that may flow from Brexit, but many in the town believe that they are already the victims of an ongoing, cumulative disaster. As Judith Lee, a social worker, puts it, ‘there is no money being invested here, no jobs and no industry.’ Her caseload includes more and more people with such desperate problems as eviction, homelessness, domestic violence and debt. ‘Ten years ago, I could have done something for them, but not now. I increasingly meet people suffering from chronic anxiety because they can see no way out of their troubles.’ Her colleague John Stiles recently found he had no way to help a 28-year-old woman and her two children who were sleeping rough outside the railway station at Walmer, just down the coast. ‘She has mental health problems,’ Stiles said, ‘and her landlord had evicted her on the grounds that she was disruptive.’ In previous times, the council would have found her another place to live but here – as across the UK – local government cuts mean that excuses will be found. The argument in her case was that she had ‘intentionally made herself homeless’, so the council had no duty to rehouse her.

Dover’s problems are reflected in any number of other coastal towns, from Hartlepool to Hastings, but here the grandeur of the setting makes them somehow more striking. The architectural legacy of the town’s past prosperity makes its present appearance deceptive: fine-looking houses rise on the hillside above Dover Priory station but inside they are divided up into bedsits and small apartments for rent. Elsewhere gentrification is underway: vastly inflated London house prices have propelled an influx of house-buyers to towns all over eastern Kent, attracted by fast rail links to the capital. Dover’s late Georgian houses, once lived in by military officers, sea captains and port officials, are becoming a magnet for out of town buyers, putting prices beyond the reach of local people. The old Buckland paper mill is today a construction site, to be turned into a collection of four hundred luxury homes. ‘Dover is a bit like a severed arm of London,’ Philip Hutton says. ‘It is like Notting Hill was thirty years ago.’

In the 2016 referendum a significant majority in Dover – 62 per cent – voted Leave. As in so many places in England and Wales, anger over austerity played its part in anti-government sentiment, with NHS cuts, school closures and reduced bus services diagnosed as particular causes of local discontent. I was told again and again that the overwhelming Brexit vote in poorer districts was primarily a ‘cry of rage’ by the ‘left-behinds’ and the ‘left-outs’ – a way of ‘giving the establishment a bloody nose’. This thesis is supported by studies of voting patterns in 2016, but what’s surprising is that three years later attitudes haven’t changed, despite the mountain of evidence that it is deprived working-class areas that will suffer most from leaving the EU. Michelle Dorrell, a Labour councillor in Folkestone, eight miles from Dover, represents a ward in which child poverty is 32 per cent. She is shocked to find ‘working-class people idolising Jacob Rees-Mogg because he is supposedly standing up for them’. The real issues facing her ward, she feels, are the lack of affordable housing and secure employment, along with the introduction of Universal Credit (‘I call it universal suffering’). She believes that the faith expressed in arch-Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage is driven by a generalised and deep-seated xenophobia: ‘It’s always easy to blame Johnny Foreigner.’

A local trade union leader agreed, arguing that the promise of Leave was sold to the people of Dover ‘on one subject and one subject only: immigration’. The landing of small boats carrying immigrants from France, often referred to locally as ‘boat people’, has been highly publicised. ‘People don’t seem to talk about the NHS, education or jobs,’ says Greg Patton, a former prison officer who once worked for the Dover borstal. ‘Instead, they go on and on about the latest news about illegal migrants landing on the beaches.’ The number of arrivals has been on the rise – an average of eight people per day when once it was two – but it’s hardly the mass influx that the coverage suggests. The daily tally of those intercepted by the Border Force – 92 is the record for a single day – leads the news in much of the local media and often gets a mention in the national press. Pictures of people struggling through the surf, wrapped in dark clothing to avoid detection, convey a sense of menace – as if these sodden and frightened refugees were the outriders of some invading fleet.

Charlotte Cornell, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Dover and Deal, is frustrated by the media’s focus on what it calls the ‘migrant crisis’ at the expense of any other issue. ‘One journalist seems to be camped out on the cliffs and writes about nothing else.’ She says the fear that Dover is being inundated with immigrants is illusory and that the new arrivals have no intention of staying in the area: they press on to London, where jobs are available and it is easy to blend in. She thinks that the language used to talk about the ‘boat people’ is ‘disgusting’, and that ‘warspeak’ from Downing Street – ‘Do or die, as if it was D-Day’ – is a deliberate attempt to ramp up xenophobic fears. Could this violent rhetoric about immigrants turn into real violence? Or has the violence already begun? She mentioned the case of Daniel Ezzedine, a 17-year-old Lebanese German who was on a school trip to Canterbury, 15 miles north-west of Dover, on 6 June this year. He was attacked in the city centre by a gang of young men; beaten half to death, he spent weeks in a coma from which he has now emerged, though he still can’t speak. The attack led to an anti-racist demonstration in Canterbury and an increasing concern that Brexit rhetoric has fuelled and legitimised racism.

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There is certainly a connection between the two. On a train between Dover and Canterbury, I spoke to a man from Sheffield who was checking his phone to scroll through the latest news from Parliament. He said that efforts to delay Brexit were undemocratic and that he had personally witnessed an elderly woman wearing a Leave badge being pushed to the ground by four Remainers in Canterbury. (I don’t believe this and nobody else had heard of the incident.) He said Slovakian Roma immigrants had taken over a whole district in Sheffield and that he had seen pictures of dead rats on their streets. He thought Jeremy Corbyn should be shot. It’s menacing stuff – but verbal violence doesn’t necessarily translate into the real thing. Slovakian Roma came to Dover in the 1990s, leading to friction with long-term residents who complained that their children were disadvantaged because teachers had to spend much of their time teaching Slovakian children English. Seeking to exploit this tension, far right groups held a number of rallies in Dover over the following years, in the hope of detonating an anti-immigrant explosion. A degree of antipathy towards foreign arrivals is still evident in town – just look at some of the graffiti – but the full-on war the far right agitated for never happened.

There have been a number of reports of anti-immigrant vigilantes operating on the beaches along this stretch of the Kent coast. A man who lives in Greatstone, between New Romney and Dungeness, said that he has watched anti-immigrant patrols ‘waiting to push boats back into the water’. These patrols may be run by a group called South East Coastal Defence, which operates between Deal and Dungeness and is said to have about forty members. Many of its recruits are from outside the area: Glen Saffer, for example, who comes from Norwich, 170 miles to the north, and denies he belongs to the extreme right (he cut his ties with the Islamophobic EDL because it had been ‘infiltrated by extremists’). SECD reportedly plans to have two activists in every coastal town and village where ‘boat people’ might potentially land.

Despite the occasional alarming story – in one case a group of Greek tourists were harassed in Dover’s port by anti-immigrant activists in the mistaken belief that they were newly arrived migrants – such vigilantism is clearly a marginal activity. One local politician told me that going door to door she found that overall hostility towards immigrants was abating: people are increasingly aware that ‘many of them are doctors, teachers and care workers.’ But there may be another reason for the decline of vocal racism: those who used to express anti-immigrant sentiment now feel that a fiercely pro-Brexit government is fighting their battle for them. One of Priti Patel’s first acts on being appointed home secretary in August was to declare that she was giving her department 72 hours to come up with a plan to stop migrants crossing the Channel – a blatant piece of grandstanding, since if any such plan were feasible it would already have been implemented.

Dover is on the Brexit frontline and may benefit from the emphasis laid in the past year on the potential for chaos in the port. A government that plays down the adverse consequences of leaving the EU has a strong incentive to prevent upsets where they will be most visible. If nothing too calamitous happens in the first few days after the new customs and regulatory barriers between Britain and the EU are introduced, that ‘success story’ could be used to discredit predictions of long-term economic damage. In the absence of clarity concerning the outcomes of Brexit, private companies in the area that specialise in helping clients cope with customs clearance and other regulations have delayed recruiting more staff until they are certain that their expertise is going to be in demand. But some are more upbeat. Alan Tomlinson, a customs clearance agent, foresees a remunerative silver lining for himself post-Brexit. He voted Remain, but recalls what happened after the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993: with the introduction of open borders, nearly all the clearance companies collapsed; his was one of the few that survived. He stands to benefit when trade barriers go up again: ‘For me as a businessman, it is a fantastic opportunity.’ He thinks much of what he has heard about British trade being strangled is scaremongering: ‘I can’t personally see something happening that is going to generate enough panic to make the UK come to a standstill.’

With a general election inevitable in the not too distant future, Dover will be a signal case. The parliamentary constituency, unlike most of Tory Kent, was held by Labour between 1997 and 2010; it is on the list of seats the party needs to win back if it is to form the next government. Whether it can do so – the Liberal Democratic vote is traditionally low – will depend on the answer to questions that are being asked across England and Wales: will former Labour voters who supported Leave switch to the Conservatives or the Brexit Party; will middle-class Conservative voters who supported Remain go the other way? But in Dover and Deal the outcome of the election will also be determined by a factor unique to the constituency: on 6 September, the sitting Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke, appeared in court to deny three charges of sexual assault, with a crown court trial due next June. He has been suspended from the party whip, though the local Conservative Association has stood by him. This leaves Charlotte Cornell, Labour’s candidate, in the dark about who her opponent will be, and about how much of the Tory vote will be snapped up by the Brexit Party.

A little while ago, I asked a friend who lives in the area to describe the local mood. He said it was hovering ‘between anger and apathy’. Dover, as much as anywhere in Britain, shows why a majority of voters in 2016 chose to leave the EU, despite the obvious economic advantages of membership for the country as a whole. Squeezed into a small gap in the White Cliffs is a pair of irreconcilable worlds. On the one hand, a port whose efficiency is a monument to the benefits of a customs union and single market. On the other, a moribund town whose residents have seen employment opportunities slowly shrivel since Britain’s accession to the EU in 1973. Brexit may not do them any good, but what they have now seems hardly worth defending.