We live on a fault-line. Our ancient county is a strange mix of the old old and the new, sliced in half as it is by one of England’s most used highways - the road to the sunny South West. In reality, we are in the South Wet, but people’s imagination brings hoards down this way each summer, bank holiday or sunny weekend. That road is just over the hill from our apparently sleepy little town and when we walk ten minutes up to the ridge and in to the Elizabethan manorial estate limiting the town’s growth, if the wind is in the right direction, we can hear distant trucks, vans and cars speeding off to wherever they are heading.
Thankfully, few of these invading holiday makers whose fast ways and flashy money has dramatically changed Cornwall and swathes of Devon stop in Somerset, so this area retains as much of its charm, traditions and ways as modern life will allow. And this has meant that the coronavirus hasn’t had much affect thus far, we are still the least affected part of the UK. It also means that politics is still very rural, that tradition, what ever that might mean, holds solid, what our builders proudly call ‘working class British values’ hold fast.
These men voted for Brexit, as did most of the ‘trades folk’ I have talked to in the area. They dislike the EU for a string of reasons and site many injustices which affect them and all those they know. For example, take cheap labour flying in from Europe. “Corona-carriers, a whole plane-load of them, flew in last week to work the farms! No checks to see if they’re virus free. And they’re taking work we could do!” I admit that it is mad our government still dosen’t test incomers for this destructive virus, however, farmers have tried to entice locals to work for them, but have found us Brits have lost the skills, the habit and the resilience, whereas rural Pols, Rumanians and others work well and hard. It’s the same in the factories.
Ten minutes away in the small town of Chard, where in 1848 the world’s first ever mechanised flight took place (yes, totally unknown, but look it up), there are several thriving little factories producing internationally known goods. However, walk along the attractive high street with its medieval buildings and Elizabethan school, and you’ll hear as much Portugese, Polish and Rumanian as English being spoken. Taking turns to sleep in the same bed, each for eight hours, crammed together in cheap rentals, twenty EU workers can live incredibly cheaply and hence accept wages which haven’t risen in thirty years. A few years of this and the Europeans return to their cheaper homelands with enough raw money saved to buy houses. Brits, who live next door as single family units of two adults, who have to repay mortgages, simply can’t compete.
It is understandable that our delightful, ‘salt of the Earth’, incredibly kind builders voted for Boris, for Brexit and consequently hate the EU; they despise China for stealing our wealth and ideas. It sounds like English Trump-ism and they tell us Obama screwed up the US of A and that Trump is healing that wonderful country by barring immigrant labour, bringing back US factories, hence lowering unemployment from 9% to under 4%. I try, with my weak comprehension of American stats, to argue back, and we laugh as we contest.
These cheerful, hard-working guys are charging us £100 a day each and though some of these days have lasted nine hours, they don’t ask for more. They really are the ‘salt of the Earth’, but they say they’ve been badly treated by successive governments. Listening to them, I get it. Factory owners, who need to compete with China’s low wages, take advantage, hire cheap EU workers, undercutting local wages, destabilising everything.
And being in the South West, fishing is a huge issue. When Britain joined the EU, France insisted we hand over rights to fish in most of our territorial waters. This means our huge fleets, at that time Europe’s largest, were cut up, sold as scrap metal. Today French and Spanish boats are allowed to take more ‘British’ fish than our own ships and because these waters are not their own, they have raped our inshore seas, devastating fish stocks. This and all these total injustices, our builders argue, ought to be resolved by Brexit. Digesting these complex ‘affronts’, I now understand why the majority of Brits voted out of Europe. I also see that such 'right-wing' views can, if we are careful to control a desire for rampant profit, create a more nature-friendly environment.
My own unjust eviction by the French authorities hardly tainted my pro-EU attitude, but witnessing the dire situation here in rural Britain, has. A compromise needs to be found. A place half way between our current EU position and total independence. Boris needs be fair to local fishermen, to builders, factory and farm workers, but he also needs to retain those EU people who don’t work for far less than half of what a local can afford to ask. We need those skilled and inspired EU citizens. We can’t become Trump-land. We need to contest globalisation, to source locally, to rebuild our local economies. This would be less environmentally destructive - we must find a way to live with nature, to live lightly.