Hull has an image problem. Mention the city to a British person and they are likely to remember the time it was voted the country’s worst place to live, or remark upon its geographically awkward location on the River Humber. After Hull voted 68 percent in favour of leaving the European Union in June, its stock has fallen further among Remain-supporting metropolitan elites. But they should pay attention, because Hull tells an important story about a divided Britain.
Once a wealthy commercial port, the city’s history is one of recoveries and setbacks. It was bombed almost out of existence in the Second World War. Its pillar industry – fishing – collapsed in the 1970s. Thirty years later, the financial crisis hit, and trade finance dried up. Maritime decline is one reason that one in four residents over 16 is classed as economically inactive – compared to one in five in England – and Hull has been named one of three cities at most risk from food poverty.
The result is an entrenched feeling of isolation, and a sense that there isn’t enough to go around. Europe may not be the cause of the city’s problems, but it hasn’t visibly fixed them either. “Hull was always separate from everywhere else,” says a local woman passing through the city’s train station, in response to the question of what quitting the EU means for the city. “Brexit will be no different.” A male passer-by agrees: “Hull is a loser – a forgotten city.”
The odd thing, at least from talking to businessmen and local politicians, is that in a number of ways life in Hull is getting better. Next year, its residents – also known as Hullensians – will belong to the UK’s City of Culture, a title that brings plenty of roadworks, but also the possibility of cultural reinvention. Schools are improving, gradually. Hull snagged a place on the BBC’s national weather map in September, after at least three years of lobbying.
Even the jobless blight is easing. The crown jewel is a new wind-turbine blade factory built by German engineering company Siemens, backed by an investment of 310 million pounds, employing 1,000 people and managed, if further evidence of the benefits of globalisation were needed, by an Irishman. Business activity in the region significantly beat the national average in September, according to a regional purchasing manager survey conducted by Lloyds and Markit, driven by new orders. There’s even a thriving tech hub, C4DI, nurturing a small but growing community of hipsters and hackers. As a local political leader put it, “people are starting to feel like Hull can get things done”.
As such, voting for Brexit – as Hullensians did with a 63 percent turnout, almost 10 percentage points more than last year’s election, and with many voting for the first time – seems like precisely the wrong move, especially if it means Britain leaves the common market. Hull is perched on an enormous port that handles a quarter of the country’s dry bulk trade, much of whose volumes are passed to and from Europe. Locally founded global medical equipment maker Smith & Nephew generates more business in continental Europe than in the UK.
One reason is that, in Hull as in many places, the vote may not have actually been about Europe at all, but about protesting highly visible local divisions. A city-wide obsession is the rivalry between the central areas and the suburbs, inexplicably parcelled off into a separate county known as the East Riding of Yorkshire. A third of Hull’s workforce commutes in from these wealthier surrounding areas. East Hull had an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent at the end of June. In the nearby town of Beverley, it’s 2.2 percent. For many residents and local politicians it’s hard to see past those rifts – which increases the attractiveness of voting for something that is perceived to disadvantage the better-off.
Besides, Brexit may be a blessing before it turns into a curse. A cheaper pound may have pushed up petrol prices, but it has also increased the numbers of foreign tourists arriving at The Deep, the city’s giant aquarium – a former recipient of European funding. Siemens’ wind turbines are largely destined for British offshore wind farms, so selling into the European single market isn’t an issue for perhaps five years. If Brexit tips the UK economy into a period of slow growth, Hull will hurt the same as everywhere else. But when many residents feel they have for the first time been heard, the economic pains of a messy exit from Europe seem like an acceptable price to pay.
One good thing has come out of the EU referendum: politicians are being forced to pay closer attention to local and sub-local divisions – and listen to problems that previously got lost in the wider debate about globalisation. It won’t be a good outcome if this means Hull’s roughly 8.5 percent non-UK born population – less than the national average – gets roughly treated.
But read the signals shrewdly, and it may be possible to improve everyone’s lot, perhaps with more infrastructure spending, more money for services or just an acknowledgement that regions outside the capital need more attention. It’s not unthinkable that, if the debate over EU membership is reopened later, some city dwellers might then think differently. But even if it’s too late to stop the Brexit juggernaut, it’s still worth trying to stop the divisions from getting wider.