EU referendum: The view from Swindon

Nick Robinson
Presenter, Today programme

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How does being in the EU affect me? What difference would it make to me and my life if we left?

Let's be honest, few of us have ever had to give much, if any, thought to these questions. The fact we are members of a club of 28 nations is something most people take as a given - like the weather. However, now they are beginning to be asked as people to ponder how to vote in the EU referendum.

I spent the early hours of Thursday morning in Swindon to learn how people were approaching one of the most significant decisions this country has faced in decades.

As dawn rose over the frosty fields that surround Brinkworth Dairy, I stood by the cowshed with Ceri Cryer and her husband, Chad. Like all farmers, their lives and their livelihoods are closely linked to policies made in Brussels.

The grants they receive - for keeping hedgerows in shape or for other environmentally friendly policies - are set by the EU. The rules that govern the hygiene of their dairy and the packaging of the cheese they make are set there too.

Media caption,
Chad and Ceri Cryer at Brinkworth Dairy

Yet Ceri and Chad have very different views.

She thinks there's no reason to imagine that if the rules and regulations were set in London they'd be any less strict.

What's more, she fears farming would receive less, not more, support without the lobbying of countries such as France and Poland with long, proud traditions of supporting the rural economy.

He, on the other hand, thinks there's no reason to doubt their farm would receive the same backing as it does now if the UK left the EU and every reason to think Britain would benefit from the freedom it would give.

Down the road, at Lydiard Millicent Village Hall, I went a few rounds with a group of women who start their morning with a few jabs, uppercuts and hooks. Shona Watt - who runs the training classes here - spoke for many of her clients. She and her small business have very little to do with the EU.

Desire to know more

Yet she - and they - are fearful leaving might damage other businesses in this manufacturing town, home to Honda and BMW. Less trade for them might mean less money to spend on boxing classes for professional ladies.

GP Sian Edwards sees this as a debate as much about people as it is about money. In a town that does not have the doctors it needs to cover the population it has, she worries uncontrolled immigration could put an intolerable strain on the NHS - even though she knows many of those immigrants may end up working for it. What, though, she wonders, would being out be like?

Image caption,
Immigration was a topic of conversation over breakfast

My last - and frankly well deserved - stop was for a doorstep bacon sarnie at Dotty's Cafe in Swindon. There, too, immigration is a key concern. Graham Rowcliffe - the cafe's owner - told me we simply couldn't control our borders while being in the EU. It is, he is certain, time to leave.

His customers on Thursday morning were much less sure. David Pedley, chief executive of GWP Group, a packaging manufacturer employing about 100 people, thinks his products would sell whether we are in or out of the EU.

Getting out might just free his business of those onerous Brussels rules and regulations. But he concedes he can't be sure the rest of Europe wouldn't use Brexit to try to put up artificial barriers to stop him competing with their companies.

Accountant Laurence Harrison advises many small businesses in the town. He has no doubts - being in a big European club is the way to get business in a world increasingly dominated by economic giants such as China, India and the United States.

One thing united all these people - a desire to know more. But there are many already groaning at the thought of "four more months like this".

The answer, surely, is to use that time not to listen to slogans and sound bites but to the experiences of other people and to the answers to the questions we've never before needed to ask.

Nick Robinson is a presenter on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and a former BBC political editor.