EU referendum: The view from Guildford

By Carolyn Quinn
BBC World Tonight

Image source, ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / Getty Images
Image caption,
Guildford High Street

Guildford is a prosperous town. It is equidistant from London and Portsmouth with a well-educated population.

It has a thriving centre for cutting-edge satellite and aeronautical technology and a reputation as the "Hollywood" of Britain when it comes to video game development.

As the people here and across the UK weigh up whether to stay in or leave the EU, it's the business advantages that have convinced Malcolm Parry, the managing director of the Surrey Research Park, which employs about 5,000 people in a range of small tech companies.

He argues that EU subsidies for research and development are crucial. Originally uncertain he now concludes: "From talking to a wide number of colleagues there's a consensus that for these important companies that form the bedrock of the economy, we should stay in the EU."

Image caption,
Malcolm Parry says staying in the EU offers business advantages

Since 1979 Guildford has been twinned with the German city of Freiburg.

The harmony has been extended by joint appearances of the Freiburg Bach Choir and the Guildford's Vivace Chorus, whose chairman, James Garrow, admits that the referendum decision is a tricky one. But he enjoys collaborating with countries further away.

"It gives you a feeling of belonging to Europe. I'm a believer in big is beautiful and I think it is sensible to join in with others."

But that's not a view shared by Michael Gorman, a retired software engineer who says he loves his role on the Guildford-Freiburg Association.

He is a former European Union enthusiast but has concluded it is time to quit the EU, in part because of what he regards as the "grudging" attitude towards David Cameron's attempts to forge an agreement over Britain's future relationship.

His fellow "twinner" Ian Stewart, who used to work for the British Council, disagrees. He says he feels "at home in Europe" and argues "we get back more than we put in".

Image caption,
Michael Gorman (left) and Ian Stewart disagree over whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU

I find similar conversations going on across Guildford's town centre. Under the shadow of the cathedral and the castle, the modern shopping centre provides a place to have a cup of tea with Gillian Cameron from the local civic society.

She says she's always believed in Europe and the EU but doubts have crept in. She is hungry for information and has been listening to both sides of the argument, but tells me that almost makes her decision more difficult.

Veering towards a Brexit vote but not completely decided, she admits that it is "probably the most important" vote of her life.

A tea-drinker at a neighbouring table has no doubts. "We should definitely leave," she says.

The economy, the stresses immigration puts on services and the already-heaving road network around Guildford were factors that came up time and time again. In that sense it is no different from many other areas of Britain.

Media caption,
Carolyn Quinn asks members of the Guildford Vivace Chorus about the EU referendum

Gordon Bridger has lived in the town for 50 years. He is a former mayor. As an economist he has travelled the world. He argues that immigration has real benefits for a prosperous place like Guildford where European workers contribute to the local economy.

But there is a shortage of affordable homes and he fears that if immigration gets too high, social resentment will follow.

As for trade, he gets irritated by all the scaremongering about the economic consequences of leaving the EU. "The argument that if we leave somehow we're going to be discriminated against - I just don't think this is true. Because the Europeans have just as much interest in keeping trade open as we have," he says. "Why should they discriminate against us?"

If Britain leaves the EU - will that affect the relationships within the Guildford-Freiburg Association? Michael Gorman certainly hopes the link will continue as strong as ever, even if he gets his desired Brexit.

But will it be the head or the heart that wins over people in Guildford? "Heart," says his fellow twinner Ian Stewart. He for one will be putting his own heart - and soul - into winning over the wavering voters who hold the key to the referendum result.