Since the referendum in June 2016, there have been numerous analyses of the most powerful predictors (and explanations) for the 'leave' vote. The top contenders have been authoritarian personality, level of education and skills, and location (which includes recent immigration increases). (1) While the explanatory power of such analyses rests on statistically valid correlations based on large data samples, the data itself does not offer deeper insight into the social meaning of the vote: what actually factored in the formation of countless political judgements. The narratives and calculations, hopes and fears that produced it cannot be captured through statistics. While many careful reflections about the historical trajectory of Brexit and its meaning for the future social and political order of the UK have appeared, these reflections often take a rather abstract view of what is at stake. (2) Here, I offer an interpretation of the social meanings of the vote, based on listening to the narratives and experiences of some of those who cast it. Using the methodology of ethnographically inspired 'opportunistic conversations', I spoke with the residents of Great Yarmouth, a coastal town where 71.5 per cent of residents voted to leave the EU. (3) Here, I offer my own reflections on what that vote expressed.
These conversations are one element of what could be called a 'diagnostic' approach to interpreting politics. A diagnostic approach requires starting from the political 'plain'--from the cues that citizens offer about what they view as issues of concern. Listening to how they frame these issues enables the construction of complex and comprehensive problematisations, connecting them to larger social schemas and resources that people use in order to perform their identities: as inhabitants of Great Yarmouth, as women of colour, as immigrants, as working or middle-class. The political diagnostician has the task of providing orientation, connecting these observations from the political plain with other interpretations based on cultural and social theory and large scale empirical research. (4)
A town in decline?
Great Yarmouth sits between the North Sea and the river Yare, which leads into the Norfolk Broads. Granted a royal charter in 1208, Great Yarmouth boasts a history as a major fishing port and market town. Since the mid-eighteenth century it has attracted visitors to its beach and seaside attractions. Today, Great Yarmouth carries the reputation of a traditional English seaside resort town caught in a decades-long decline, with little prospect for recovery. Its leave vote seemed to bolster this reputation. When visiting Great Yarmouth, I started to doubt the accuracy of this representation. The picture that emerged was far more complex. The seafront was relatively busy, as were the areas around the main shopping streets in the city centre. The number of empty storefronts seemed comparatively moderate. Given the parlous national economic situation, it was not surprising to find many buildings in relatively bad states of repair in the residential area between the High Street and the seafront. These areas of relative deprivation, however, were offset by the sheer number of businesses on the seafront, and the well-kept hotels, B&Bs and other businesses on the fringes of the city centre.
There were a range of buildings across the city that were mementos of a postmodern future that has not yet arrived, including a number of superstores and leisure centres. Yet if one compared the care taken in preserving and presenting the Fishermen's Hospital, an early eighteenth century almshouse for 'decayed fishermen', to recent social investment-related buildings, e.g. EnterpriseGY (which is in the style of a struggling nightclub) or the Job Centre Plus, the lack of pride in the latter was obvious. While this relationship to functional buildings was somewhat to be expected, the cultural diversity I witnessed was surprising, giving the lie to metropolitan representations of the provincial 'white working...