Views of EU from the world's longest pleasure pier

By David Eades
Presenter, the World Tonight

  • Published
Ariel photo of Southend Pier after a fire in 2005.Image source, PA
Image caption,
Southend Pier, which was devastated by a fire in 2005, is the world's longest pleasure pier

If golf is a good walk spoiled, as famously suggested, then a march down Southend Pier is a good walk unspoiled.

For 1.34 miles there is pretty much nothing on the world's longest pleasure pier to distract you from simply walking, perhaps talking, and taking in the view across the Thames Estuary.

Politically, the view from Southend is clear according to pollsters YouGov, who have ranked the town the sixth most Eurosceptic place in Britain.

On the old-school pier, with its very Victorian and rather wonderful sense of dull correctness, I meet the only minister in the Foreign Office who is a "Brexiteer", James Duddridge.

Image caption,
James Duddridge has been MP for Rochford and Southend East since 2005

As the MP for Rochford and Southend East, and the man who took over from Sir Teddy Taylor, you can imagine he is a Eurosceptic to the core.

"We're quite an independent go-getting lot in Essex and we really don't see ourselves as being part of Europe," he says.

"We really want to just take back control of powers from what has been a 45-year European experiment."

Others in Southend have more tangible reasons to want to free themselves from the "shackles" of the EU.

Image caption,
Philip Miller runs Adventure Island amusement park in Southend, which has more than 40 rides and attractions

Philip Miller for one - he inherited Peter Pan's Playground from his parents and turned it into the Adventure Island amusement park that it is today.

But he does not believe he could do this if he had to start from scratch now.

"I felt I was conned in the first place when I voted to go in, because I thought it was about free trade.

"I didn't realise it was going to finish up as it is now. You've got masses of red tape for starters."

Polish workers

Mr Miller says he has not met anybody locally who is actually in favour of the UK staying in the EU.

"Even my own son, who's a bit of a leftie and went to university, wants to be out because he says he doesn't trust these nutty EU people with our armies."

Despite the town's supposed Euroscepticism, locals rub pretty well alongside thousands of Poles who live here, as well as many other nationalities.

Image caption,
Emilia moved from northern Poland 12 years ago

Emilia Kowakowska arrived with her father from northern Poland 12 years ago and has made her life here.

'I'm very anxious'

"I started as a glass cleaner and now I have four jobs," she tells me.

"If Britain votes to leave, I would have to change all my life and the life of my little one who is five and has just started school. I'm very anxious."

Britain's six most Eurosceptic boroughs, according to a Yougov survey:

  • Havering
  • Peterborough
  • Bracknell Forest
  • Blackpool
  • Blackburn with Darwen
  • Southend-on-Sea

And the six least Eurosceptic:

  • Ceredigion
  • Aberdeen City
  • Stirling
  • Lambeth
  • Camden
  • West Dunbartonshire

Emilia does have some support. Even though Southend has the fourth-highest concentration of over-65s in the UK, a group much more likely to vote to leave, there is one 68-year-old who actually wants more Europe, not less.

Wilko Johnson, founder member of the 70s rock band Dr Feelgood, is an "outsider" himself - he was actually born in Canvey Island 30 minutes away but could not keep away from the "big city" as they called Southend in those days.

Image caption,
Dr. Feelgood's Wilko Johnson wants to join the Euro

Wilko has never bothered to exercise his right to vote until now and he is pushing a message rarely heard in Southend, or anywhere else in the UK.

"I absolutely believe we should be closer even with Europe," he says.

"I believe there should be a common currency. I cannot understand people that are so crazy as to think that this country can survive isolated on its own outside Europe."

Other senior citizens are less zealous. One group I met were the unofficial Friends of Sopot - the coastal town in Poland which is twinned with Southend.

"The food is lovely, the pier is wonderful. It's just a lovely place to go," says Jeannie.

Image caption,
Maureen (pictured left) and Jeannie have both visited Poland

And it is a place which has changed the thinking of some of them, notably Maureen.

"Local people in Sopot are worried about house prices, taxes going up and their central government making decisions they are not happy about," she says.

So does that make her a supporter of EU membership? Yes, if you're Maureen. No if you're Jeannie.

Of course, it takes all sorts and generally Southend welcomes all sorts.

'Jolly British day out'

It makes me wonder what makes them quite so determinedly Eurosceptical - a feature of the east coast of England in general, along with lower wage rates than most of the UK and older residents.

Just maybe some of it really is the fact that this town's heyday was well and truly in the time of Empire; it remains a world where, even today, a stick of rock, a bucket of candyfloss and a walk down the pier can constitute a jolly good, British day out.

Who needs more than that?