Travels Through Brexit Britain

Possible delays and no return ticket

By Rodney JeffersonRodney Jefferson and Ed KiernanEd Kiernan
November 22, 2016

On a packed train trundling through the English Midlands, Stuart Harrison crammed his tall frame into a window seat and contemplated the tough journey ahead.

His country is about to start separating from the European Union, whose tariff-free borders and internal immigration policies it has shared since 1973. Like his train ride, one leg of a 14-hour route from northeastern Scotland to the southwestern tip of England, the journey will be long and uncomfortable. And in his view, it’s a one-way ticket.

“I think it was a mistake, but going over it again is pointless and you’d probably get the same result,” Harrison, 46, said on his way home to the city of Exeter in the southwest. “Something that’s protracted doesn’t help anybody.”

The vote has fractured Britain and the acrimony might only be beginning. The Supreme Court will decide in coming weeks whether Parliament needs to ratify the process, backed by 52 percent of voters last June. Passengers who voted to stay and to go, interviewed along the route of the Cross Country service from Aberdeen to Penzance, were unanimous about one thing: there’s no going back.

This even though some said they were already experiencing the effect of the 16 percent decline in the pound against the dollar and 10 percent slide versus the euro since the vote. Harrison, who manages clinical risks for the National Health Service and voted not to leave, said the cost of his supplies at work were rising. Others spoke of higher prices for holidays on the continent, or more expensive groceries, or future hikes in energy bills.

...going over it again is pointless...—Stuart Harrison
Before and After

The almost 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) trip mirrored a similar journey a reporter and a video journalist took in April. Roving along the longest single railway journey in Britain down to the English region of Cornwall, they found passengers with strong opinions about leaving the free-trade bloc, and others who said they knew little about the issue. This time, they found travelers, whether hurt, disappointed, satisfied or hopeful, all resigned to their fate.

“It was very emotional, like a Trump versus Hillary thing,” said Nimesh Dave, 19, a film and television student at Warwick University who was two seats down from Harrison and was headed to Cheltenham Spa. He wasn’t the only passenger to compare Britain’s often nasty campaign with the U.S. presidential election before Donald Trump’s Brexit-style upending of the political order. “But going back would be a weak move.”

Enough Politics

Boarding the train in Aberdeen at 8:20 a.m. on her way to Dundee, June Petrie said she voted to stay in the 28-nation EU, rejecting the anti-immigration concerns that drove some “Leave” voters. Now, she’s concerned about the anti-foreigner comments she hears and what she’s bequeathing to her two adult children. One has a son and the other is pregnant. Then there’s the cost: on her vacation in Spain her spending money dried up when usually she has some left over, she said.

A “Yes” supporter in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, she expects to enter the ballot booth again in the not-too-distant future to decide Scotland’s fate. The pro-EU, nationalist government in Edinburgh has said Brexit means another vote is highly probable.

“People need to sit down and take a breath and let’s watch what happens first before making decisions,” said Petrie, 46, an operations manager for a private health contractor. “Who knows, leaving the EU might turn out to be a fantastic decision. Right now, we can only see negative aspects.”


As Petrie stepped off, looking forward to her wedding next week and a now-pricier honeymoon in New York, Brian Howman, 53, took her seat at Dundee. He was returning home to Cheshire via Edinburgh for his father’s funeral.

A former senior lecturer in social sciences at University of Chester, he also voted in favor of Scottish independence and against Brexit. He’s worried about losing EU-mandated protections of employment rights because of some “cockeyed idea that somehow they were gaining some liberty or freedom.”

I stood by my principles and we lost.—Brian Howman

He’s not entirely convinced Brexit will happen, but thinks the country is tired of political campaigns.

“I stood by my principles and we lost,” said Howman, who wrote his doctoral thesis about abolitionists in northwest England. As for another Scottish independence referendum, “whether the country as a whole has the stamina, the willingness to go through that again, I don’t know,” he said.

All Change

Also boarding the train at Dundee, was “Leave” voter Andy Howson. The 27-year-old engineer, who works for a company making valves for the oil and gas industry, said he’d seen a positive effect of the pound’s post-referendum nosedive: His employer has been in financial difficulty because of the decline in the oil industry due to falling prices, but a weaker currency might make his job more secure. “Our exports suddenly look a bit cheaper on the global market and that’s good for us,” he said.

Why had he voted for Brexit? “Change is interesting.”

The train crossed into England at Berwick-upon-Tweed and sped toward Newcastle, in the heartland that embraced the Brexit campaign's message of controlling immigration, repatriating sovereignty and going it alone in trade deals. Voting results showed the proportion of europhiles was highest in Scotland, where every district chose to stay in the EU, and faded in the post-industrial English towns and rural shires removed from the economic powerhouse of London.

Our exports look a bit cheaper on the global market and that’s good for us.—Andy Howson

Moving south, the talk was of a speedier departure from the EU.

“We’ve managed on our own before,” said Derek Rooker, 66, who supplements his pension by delivering new cars to people across the country. “It’s going to take a while because the government is dragging its heels. When we were voting, I thought we were setting it into motion.”

Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron as prime minister after he quit in the wake of the shock referendum result, has vowed to uphold the will of the people; her slogan is “Brexit means Brexit.” She plans to give formal notice to leave the EU by invoking the legal process known as Article 50 by the end of March, and doesn’t expect judges to delay her timetable.

Blaming Brexit

Rooker said he hasn’t felt any impact from the vote so far, though his wife—a “Remain” supporter—complains about rising food prices.

Heading past Durham Cathedral and through Darlington, the home of the world’s first steam-powered passenger railway, one traveler certainly had taken a hit in the wallet.

Joanne Ormston, on her way to Birmingham, was “very upset” by the result. The 35-year-old had put her house in Sedgefield, a town in northeast England that was formerly Prime Minister Tony Blair’s electoral district, up for sale in the summer. Now, she’s having to lower the price by 40,000 pounds ($50,000) because it won’t sell in a regional market that a survey last month showed to be the most subdued outside London.

She said there shouldn’t have been a vote in the first place, and blamed the uncertainly over Britain’s future. Someone needs to have a vision for what Brexit will look like, she said.

It’s not about being right or wrong now...we need to be more pragmatic.—Joanne Ormston

“It’s not about being right or wrong now,” said Ormston, who is employed by a charity that recruits people who train social workers. “We need to be more pragmatic.”

Different Country?

As the train passed York Railway Museum, with its locomotives of Britain’s industrial heyday, Ruth Carter echoed the need to face up to the inevitable. A pensioner returning home to Sheffield, she decided at the last minute to vote to remain because she didn’t want to be associated with the anti-immigration argument.

Carter, 75, says she’s now waiting for May to tell her what the plan is. “I was absolutely astonished, but now let’s get on with it,” she said.

Further up the car and its blue and red velour seats, Paul Brady agreed. Likewise, he voted “Remain” but said it just needs to be done, whether it means what’s become known as “hard” Brexit—completely severing ties with EU institutions—or the “soft” version advocated by pro-EU British politicians that would see the U.K. retain access to the tariff-free European single market.

I was absolutely astonished, but now let’s get on with it.—Ruth Carter

“I woke up in a different country,” said Brady, 40, a management consultant for cyber security who was headed to Leeds. “We shouldn’t waste time and money trying to reverse the democratic process: do some practical things to reduce the impact.”

Angry Youth

The final four-hour stretch of the journey covered England’s southwest rural areas. They also wholeheartedly backed Brexit even though the poorest county, Cornwall, gets more funding from the EU than anywhere else in England per person. The train passengers also highlighted the age divide, with the referendum results showing younger voters more inclined to stick with the EU.

Boarding at St. Erth to get home to Penzance were Jess Osbaldeston, 25, and Reece Merrett, 22, who both work at the local Sainsbury supermarket. They couldn’t believe their fellow Cornish would vote to leave the EU given the money it gets. In terms of a speedy departure, Osbaldeston compared a “hard” Brexit with ripping off a Band-Aid.

“I have a massive conflict with democracy because it’s not what I wanted, but there’s no point in railing against it and trying to overturn it,” said Osbaldeston. “What’s the point of a vote if you’re not going to do it?”

Editor: Anne Swardson
Design & development: Chloe Whiteaker, Hayley Warren, Jeremy Diamond, Samuel Dodge, and Brittany Harris

SCOTLAND ENGLAND WALES Durham York Leeds Sheffield Cheltenham Spa Exeter St. Erth Penzance Birmingham Berwick- upon-Tweed Newcastle Edinburgh Dundee Aberdeen More than70% votedto remain Referendumvoting results More than70% voted to leave