TILBURY, England — On Saturday afternoons, 20 short miles to the east of central London, Tilbury Football Club comes alive. Players drive up to the stadium’s clubhouse and knock the mud off their boots onto the grass outside. Fans squeeze through the old turnstiles and line up for quarter pounders and cups of tea. Flags are hung under the faded Carlsberg billboards, and kids skitter along the sidelines of the pitch. Maggie bustles around the boardroom, putting out biscuits and making drinks for the referees. The loudspeaker pumps out Coldplay, then Sean Paul.
“The Dockers,” as the team and its followers are known, are about as old as the nearby docks themselves. You can get the history from Mavis Billinghurst, who is 84 years old and the club’s longest-serving fan. Over one of her homemade sausage rolls, she’ll tell you about the night the floodlights over the pitch were switched on for the first time, and the legendary cup run in the 70s that carried Tilbury into a third-round clash with Stoke City. She’ll tell you about the times — long gone, of course, because things are always changing and it’s hard to keep up — when hundreds of supporters would tumble out of the port at the end of a shift and walk right across town to cheer on the boys.
These days, the Dockers are in the Isthmian Northern Division, the eighth tier of English football, and generally only a few dozen people attend matches. But they are a tight-knit and raucously loyal bunch who put on ska nights at the bar, make you drop a penny in the swear jar if you mention Grays (Tilbury’s hated local rivals) and are generous with the pints. “Hello, hello, we are the Tilbury boys,” they chant. “We’re the famous Tilbury Town, the hardest team in the land.” There is a mountain of shared experiences here, massive enough to hold you safe in an untethered world, or perhaps to pin you down and break your back.
Leaning up against the railings that separate the spectators from the action, in between muffled curses and sharp intakes of breath, Charlie Lawrence conjures up one of those memories. It was the first day of February in 1953, the morning a great flood churned up the ground and separated tens of thousands from their homes. Charlie can still picture the dogs. His family had two of them, a pair of scruffy mongrels named Wag and Prince. When the seven-year-old rose that Sunday from the bed he shared with his brother and peeked out the window, he was dumbfounded to see both floating past on a piece of driftwood.
Later — after he and six siblings were evacuated by American soldiers, after the funerals for the victims and the long, messy clean-up of the streets — dignitaries began making their way to this little corner of Britain, where the narrow kinks of the River Thames begin to straighten out, and the water widens fast toward the sea. Famous and important folks came to sympathize with locals and pose for photo ops. Charlie, the young tearaway who stole sherbets from the penny sweet shop and spent his holidays pulling up potatoes in the field, got to shake hands with the Queen. But almost seven decades later, it’s that image of his pets, rather than his brush with royalty, that remains with him: how comic they looked, how confused, as the world spun giddily around them.
“There was a Sunday joint in the oven, and my dad, God bless him, swum down to get it so we could feed them something,” Charlie grins. “It was pandemonium. There were rats and snakes everywhere.” He pauses to watch one of Tilbury’s forwards break through on goal, before tumbling in the mud. “It was the glory days,” he says, turning back to me. “I loved it. I want to go back there now.”
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Tilbury is the most storied town you’ve never heard of. Some of Britain’s greatest historical milestones unfolded here. Today, its port serves as one of the country’s key links to the rest of the planet, a site where money, goods and people find their way across borders — usually officially, sometimes illicitly. It is the backstage of the capital, home to the pipes, wires and storerooms that few people see, but which everyone front-of-house relies on to keep the show alive.
But Tilbury is also a community, and right now that community is in the middle of a quiet but devastating revolt. The revolt is multi-dimensional. It is economic, driven by a backlash against privatization and the globalization of markets. It is political, upending all the assumptions we once had about what a liberal, modern democratic state should look like. And it is social, provoking awkward questions about identity and what it means to be tied to a physical space.
This revolt is not unique to Tilbury. Similar upheavals are playing out elsewhere in Britain, across Europe and throughout the global north — most starkly in the United States. The context to all these disruptions varies from location to location, and their outcomes will not be uniform. But at a broad level, they are all animated by similar forces. In Tilbury, where a certain vision of capitalism and modernity has slammed up hard against its own contradictions, the impact of those forces is particularly extreme and the rebellion against them particularly fierce.
Our current political moment has propelled once-marginal ideas and entities to the foreground and plunged traditional power brokers into crisis. It has also produced a surfeit of new and reheated buzzwords, as soul-searching media commentators struggle to account for Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the far-right in Europe and the U.S. For too long, we are told, liberal society has ignored the plight of the post-industrial white working class, members of which feel left behind and are now lashing out at the globalism of elites.
How comic they looked, how confused, as the world spun giddily around them.
At first glance, Tilbury is a perfect microcosm of these trends. It is a predominantly white and largely deindustrialized community, once an impregnable stronghold of Britain’s center-left Labour Party. But in the most recent set of local elections, the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party secured victory in one of Tilbury’s two wards and came within five votes of winning in the other. Labour called on its supporters to vote “remain” in last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Tilbury was among the top 1 percent “leave”-voting regions in the country.
In this week’s general election, Tilbury will be on the frontline of the tectonic shifts that are reshaping politics as we know it: its parliamentary constituency is one of a handful of “marginal” seats in Britain that will determine who forms the next government. It is a top priority for both Labour and UKIP as well as the incumbent Conservative party.
Over the course of several months, The WorldPost interviewed dozens of Tilbury residents from a wide range of social backgrounds and heard many articulate a form of nostalgic nativism to explain their disillusionment with the status quo. As the most recent — and defeated — Labour parliamentary candidate for the area, Polly Billington, put it, “Tilbury is the connection point to the world — but the winds of globalization have blown harshly through this community, and so its residents have turned away from those winds.”
And yet, Tilbury is also a refutation of lazy narratives about racial self-interest or cultural conservatism. Its stories subvert the claims of those who dismiss places like this as backwards and out of step with the 21st century, as well as those who seek to fetishize them and apologize for bigotry. The tales Tilbury has to tell are more complicated and more urgent than that, and they speak directly to the fault lines that are increasingly shaping our world. Anyone who wishes to make sense of the bigger picture could start by thinking about what has happened to this small, precariously positioned dock town, and what it might do next.
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Tilbury lies almost equidistant between England’s eastern coast and the heart of London. Sail inland from the North Sea onto the Thames and you’ll find yourself in an eerie, beautiful mashup of ocean and river. The waves are studded with the relics of 1940s Royal Navy towers perched on squat concrete pillars or slender stilts. It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly the open water stops and the inlet begins, until you round the final bend of the Hoo Peninsula and see the fields of Kent to the south and Essex to the north closing in.
Humans have built settlements here for over a thousand years, taking advantage of the natural contraction of the river to establish transport links and military defenses against any foreign marauders. It was near Tilbury Fort, on the north bank, that Queen Elizabeth I made her famous speech to the troops as they prepared to face down the Spanish Armada in 1588. “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman,” she declared, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” More than a century later, the writer Daniel Defoe — who operated a tile and brick factory in the area — wrote that Tilbury was still “the key of the river … and consequently the key of the city of London.”
In this week’s general election, Tilbury will be on the frontline of the tectonic shifts that are reshaping politics as we know it.
It was only in the 19th century, though, that the modern town — home these days to about 13,000 people, with several thousand more living in a cluster of surrounding villages — really began to take shape. The railway arrived in 1854, and the docks three decades later. This was the start of the steamship era — for the first time, commercial boats could ferry goods all the way from China and the Far East in a single voyage. Before long, the tally clerks, porters, scrubbers and shipwrights of Tilbury were processing everything from crates of Madeira wine to sausage skins packed in brine and bales of jute.
Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour prime minister, opened a cruise terminal in 1930, which is still London’s only deep-water passenger port. It became the staging point for two great waves of migration: the departure of the “Ten Pound Poms” — Brits who left England for Australia in the aftermath of the Second World War — and the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, a passenger ship carrying one of the first large groups of Caribbean immigrants that became synonymous with a new period of multiculturalism in the U.K.
“When you go out and speak to people, no matter where they live or where they’re from, you can almost always find a connection somewhere to Tilbury,” said Lucy-Emma Harris, who works with the port and local community organizations to showcase the area’s heritage. “There are so many important markers of history here, and they all make Tilbury quite fundamental.”
Tilbury’s street names bear witness to its global reach: Bermuda Road, Toronto Road, Malta Road, Auckland Close. The docks and associated industries used to employ thousands of locals, and some of them still feature remnants or provoke memories of the good times: the days when the stevedores might purloin a slab of prime imported steak and a bottle of whiskey and go for a riotous crawl through the town’s countless drinking holes. “We were honest thieves,” Charlie remembered. “We lived through the best years there ever was.”
In 1967, Pink Floyd played the Railway Club on Calcutta Road, Tilbury’s main thoroughfare, and brought the house down. Back in those days, an annual carnival paraded through the town, featuring floats, folk songs and the crowning of a carnival queen in Anchor Fields Park. On the Tilbury and Chadwell Memories website, where residents upload photos of their old haunts and reminisce, you can scroll through sepia pictures of schoolkids and dockers and dancers all garlanded in flowers and lining the sidewalks for the procession. Those images are all that are left of the carnival — or, for that matter, the Tute, the Athlone, the Anchor Inn and all the other pubs, working men’s clubs or social centers that once gummed Tilbury together.
In the late 1960s, containerization transformed the port’s operations — where it once took dozens of people several days to unload sacks of barley from a ship, now a pair of skilled crane operators could finish the job in under an hour. A decade later, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s revolution unleashed another mutation of Tilbury’s economic landscape. Social housing — affordable homes built and rented out by the state throughout the post-war era — was ushered out of collective ownership and into the realm of the market. Meanwhile, an ideological commitment to privatization, one that has continued to grip Britain’s political establishment ever since, hastened the disappearance of the town’s major industries.
As of 2017, almost every large employer or local institution that Tilbury could traditionally claim as its own has been privatized, shut down or both. The huge coal-fired power station whose chimneys overlook the fort is being dismantled — in part because EU environmental restrictions made operation too expensive. The Bata shoe factory just north of the river stands idle and empty — shoe manufacturing became much cheaper away from Tilbury. The docks were sold off to a company in Edinburgh in 1992. The local fire station closed in 1997. The Railway Club, once the focal point of Tilbury social life, is a charred ruin, its debris shielded from view by thick black boards that have been scrawled with graffiti.
“The rot set in, and it started a downward spiral,” said June Brown, a 68-year-old retired civil servant who spent time as a child helping her grandmother clean the bathrooms at the cruise terminal. First-class passengers had one set of toilets, she remembered, and third-class passengers another. “What’s left of the Railway Club is at the end of my street, and it’s a sorry sight. I can’t wait for it to be knocked down, to be honest.”
With the erosion of social housing and the disappearance of the town’s most dependable source of jobs, instability became the new norm. Today, according to figures provided by the local authority, Tilbury’s two council wards are by some margin the most deprived in the region. Nearly one in five working-age people are without employment, close to double the regional average; income levels, education levels, skilled qualifications and health indices in Tilbury are all lower than almost every other administrative unit in the area, and crime rates are higher. Inequality stalks the town from cradle to grave: almost half of Tilbury’s children grow up in poverty, more than double the national figure, and the average resident can expect to die around eight years earlier than someone from the more affluent settlement of Corringham just a few miles up the road.
Wedged between a cruise terminal and the outer edges of an old fort stands the World’s End, the last proper drinking hole in the entire town. To reach it from Calcutta Road, you have to drive almost a mile to the west, navigate a busy roundabout, cross the train tracks and then head back down in the same direction for two more miles. The route is dark, on account of the steep port walls that line the verge, and smoggy, thanks to the ceaseless cavalcade of trucks making their way between the docks and the nearby motorway. Many people in Tilbury told me they felt cut off from the rhythms of the port and the water it looks out on, particularly the younger generation, for whom any connection with the area’s riverside — past or present — is tenuous. “I don’t look at it,” said one 17-year-old, before gesturing around at the town center. “I just live here.”
Toward the back of the pub, at an old wooden table lacquered in varnish and under a series of framed maritime paraphernalia, Charlie ran me through his résumé. Like many older men in Tilbury, Charlie has worked at one point or another for almost every big employer in town, and — he related with mischievous pride — he was a rabble-rouser at every one of them. “I left school at 15, and I wasn’t really educated. But although I weren’t that political, I’ve always stood up for myself,” he said.
Charlie’s father was a trade union shop steward at the Ford motor plant in nearby Dagenham, and Charlie inherited from him a strong notion of solidarity and a willingness to fight for one’s rights. It was an instinct reinforced by Tilbury’s illustrious record of labor agitation, which stretches back to the earliest days of the port and the great waves of unrest that roiled the shipping industry in the late 1880s.
‘The winds of globalization have blown harshly through this community, and so its residents have turned away from those winds.’ Polly Billington
Workers’ leader Ben Tillett was a docker in Tilbury and founded the Dockers Union here, which would later go on to lead a victorious national strike for better pay. Strikes continued to be frequent throughout the 20th century, especially in the 1960s, 70s and 80s as port jobs gradually gave way to mechanization. In the past few years, those who remain at the docks have walked out on strike again, most recently over attempts by a logistics company to force workers onto zero-hours contracts, which do not guarantee any work and enable employers to sidestep certain pension and benefit commitments.
That legacy of working-class political organization rendered Tilbury a Labour fortress for most of the modern era, even during the 1980s, when the rest of Essex became a poster child for Britain’s lurch to the populist right. “We kept this area a red island under Thatcher,” recalled Vincent Offord, a local Labour party activist. “And in terms of state investment, we paid a price for it.”
The town’s economic decline put a strain on its residents but also fostered a sense of communal defiance. As Charlie put it: “We’re Labour men because we look after each other when no one else does.” By 1997, when Tony Blair ended 18 years of Tory government and Labour secured almost two-thirds of the entire vote in Tilbury’s parliamentary constituency of Thurrock, the prevailing sentiment was that Tilbury was down, but not out.
But then “New Labour,” as the party became known during almost two decades of reform led by Blair and then Gordon Brown, failed to instigate the metamorphosis that many in Tilbury had been counting on. Blair’s offer to Britain involved embracing most of Thatcher’s economic precepts — from a commitment to markets and deregulation to a wariness of unionized labor — albeit with a greater degree of redistribution on the other side. Under Blair’s “Third Way” philosophy, London’s voracious financial sector flourished. Above the Isle of Dogs — Thatcher’s citadel of unshackled wealth that lies just 15 miles west from Tilbury — new skyscrapers jostled for space in the clouds. From the cranes at Tilbury’s port, you could see the glass and steel facades reflecting the space in between them; after dark, the aircraft warning lights on the roofs crowded the night in a thicket of blinking red.
Of course, as a focal point for rising trade, Tilbury’s docks and cruise terminal were part of London’s growing success story — a funneling point for containerized imports and luxury cosmopolitanism into the capital. But amid all the GDP growth and the “cool Britannia” revival of national cultural pride, the rest of Tilbury continued to stagnate. Grand regeneration plans for the surrounding Thames Gateway region were drafted, debated and forgotten. Unemployment persisted and social institutions continued to be shuttered. For many Tilbury residents, a sense that something was being snatched away from them — that they were being locked out of a widely trumpeted voyage to prosperity passing by their very doorstep — became more entrenched. It takes 40 minutes to travel by train from Tilbury to London’s Fenchurch Street station. Even today, there are people in Tilbury who have never made that journey.
Money is rootless, was the message, and you should be too.
Just as painful as the economic exclusion were the ideological strictures that justified it. Thatcher’s political imperative was to atomize the working class. Rather than an identity based around a shared set of lived realities and political interests, working-class “respectability” was recast as individual aspiration. Affluent strivers — those well-versed in a new entrepreneurial language who shrugged off their social housing and dreamed of being homeowners — became separated from welfare dependents, whose financial failures were presented as personal and moral. New Labour adopted a similar lens, albeit one that softened Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” mantra with a dash of positive, get-up-and-go motivational schmaltz. Britain, according to Blair, was now part of a global economy that was “indifferent to tradition,” rewarding only those “swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”
There was not much time to worry about how fairly the fruits of hyper-capitalism were being distributed or the devastation it might be wreaking on communities who struggled to change fast enough. Indeed, the very idea of “communities” made up of people with loyalties that transcended the frictionless movement of capital was viewed as somewhat suspect and distasteful. “Settled, stable communities are the enemies of innovation, talent, creativity, diversity and experimentation,” claimed New Labour adviser Charles Leadbeater in 2000. “Community can too quickly become a rallying cry for nostalgia; that kind of community is the enemy of knowledge creation, which is the wellspring of economic growth.”
Charlie’s old-school conception of Labourism in Tilbury, based around the power station canteen and the local working men’s club, began to feel wildly out of sync with Labour’s new age. As the writer Lynsey Hanley argued, Britain had entered a period in which, “To feel discomfort about constant change — an emergent feature of globalization — was to be inherently right-wing; yet equally, to believe in the strength of collective public institutions — such as unions, publicly funded health and education systems — was unhelpfully Bolshevik.”
* * *
In 1980, at the start of Thatcher’s premiership, The Sun — Britain’s notoriously provocative and best-selling tabloid newspaper — ran a double-page report on Tilbury with the headline “Aggro Britain,” aggro being shorthand for aggressive. “This is Tilbury,” it began, “a grey, desolate place with an evil stench of violence, where local skinheads roam the docklands like cropped rats.” Everyone who was around at the time remembers the story, partly because it was full of blatant exaggerations and untruths and partly because, in retrospect, it seemed to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.
To those buoyed by an exciting dawn of unfettered finance, places like Tilbury started to feel like an embarrassment. The port was useful, yes, but most of the people who once built, staffed and established their lives around it were now little more than an aberration. Britain’s political class, including both major parties and the media establishment that articulated their interests, seemed to prefer that the residents of Tilbury scatter into the ether. Money is rootless, was the message, and you should be too.
In the decades that followed the notorious Sun feature, Tilbury’s residents became accustomed to being ignored. On the rare occasions they impinged on the national consciousness, they were presented as outliers, a sneered-at “other” whose flaws and pretensions provided a useful reminder to the rest of us of just how far we’d come. Tilbury regularly features on lists of Britain’s “crap towns.” When Thurrock, Tilbury’s council area, finished last in a national government survey of wellbeing in 2012, the Guardian labeled it the U.K.’s “capital of misery” and headlined the story with the quote: “It’s one big cesspit here.”
“People with power always need someone to look down on, and in this area, it’s Tilbury,” observed June Brown, the retired civil servant. “It makes people here feel rubbish, really.” She recounted a conversation with someone from English Heritage, a charity that manages England’s historic landmarks, about how to market Tilbury’s history more effectively to tourists. “It’s a shame that Tilbury Fort is in Tilbury,” she was told. In 2013, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen began work on a mocking film about Grimsby, a fishing town on England’s northeastern coast. Once production was underway, it was decided that Grimsby wasn’t grim enough for the cameras, so the movie was shot in Tilbury instead. Staged scenes included drunks urinating from windows and mothers handing their children beer cans in garbage-strewn streets.
The docks here have often been used by film crews — they stood in for Venice in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” — and although that brings financial benefit to the port, there is some irony in the fact that whenever Tilbury comes to the attention of the wider world it is nearly always through someone else’s lens, with the voices of its actual inhabitants missing from the soundtrack. “I’ll give you a nice write-up boys, make you look like working-class heroes,” the Sun journalist promised local youths, according to one who was quoted in the article. “I think the reason they got involved,” observed a former teacher of several of the people featured in the Sun story, “was that they’re all unemployed. The situation locally is very bleak, and frankly I don’t think they saw any other way of making a name for themselves.”
For Charlie, all this — the Sun, the crushing of the unions, the marketization of social housing (he refused to cash in by selling his, which he has now lived in for almost 50 years; “my old man would have turned in his grave if I’d done that,” he told me) — was part of the same intentional corrosion. “It was about destroying our unity,” he said, “breaking us up with shame and greed.”
In August 2014, 34 years after The Sun’s “Aggro Britain” report, The Economist published a short profile of Tilbury by the anonymous columnist Bagehot. By this point, a financial crisis powered by speculators in the city had shredded New Labour’s early economic gains. And although banks on the Isle of Dogs were bailed out by the state, it was ordinary citizens who were left to pick up the tab. A Conservative-led government elected in 2010 implemented an austerity program that slashed welfare and public services. Like other economically vulnerable places, where dependence on both forms of state spending is highest, Tilbury’s residents were among the hardest hit.
The Economist has always been a supporter of the neoliberal orthodoxy that has taken such a heavy toll on Tilbury, but that appeared to give Bagehot little pause for thought. The columnist introduced Tilbury’s population as “a polyp of hard-up, mostly white, grumpy people” with a “deep and justified sense of inferiority.” The piece continued: “What they need to get aboard the train to Britain’s future, even more than a fare, is self-confidence. … The answers to Tilbury’s and Britain’s white left-behinds are not obvious. Yet they surely lie within their own hearts. State aid, of which they have had plenty, cannot fix a cultural failing.”
Bagehot’s profile was illustrated with a mocked-up image of a train at Tilbury station, with a destination that read “NOWHERE.” In the comments, someone pointed out that “polyp” is a medical term, referring to an abnormal growth on the body.
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Pastor Abraham’s office features a set of rococo-style chairs slathered in gold-leaf, a book called Beware of the Devil and a desk calendar advertising “The Power of Love.” The thing he really wants to show me when we meet, however, is the egg splattered on the window. It’s been there for over a year on the other side of the cracked pane, its smashed contents congealing in the warmth of the church building. “I’ve left this one,” the pastor explained, “because every time we replace the windows, it just happens again, and the insurance goes up.”
Abraham Bamgbose was born in Oyo State, Nigeria, where he used to lecture in electrical engineering. In 2003, he came to the U.K. to join his wife, an advanced nurse practitioner, and settled in south London. A year later, eager to buy a home but unable to afford the capital’s rapidly soaring property prices, they moved east to Tilbury with their daughter. The family wasn’t alone on this journey: between 2001 and 2011, according to census data, Thurrock’s black population grew more than sevenfold. Most of the increase was driven by internal migration from London’s African communities, particularly its Nigerian population, and that trend has continued in recent years. “Ambitious, upwardly-mobile Nigerians are … crossing London’s borders into Essex,” reported Britain’s national black newspaper The Voice in 2013, “in search of affordable housing, better educational prospects or simply a break from city life.”
Still, Abraham said that back then, when he first arrived in Tilbury, “you could count the number of black people around on one hand.” He initially spent many hours commuting back and forth to the London branch of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, an evangelical megachurch headquartered in Lagos, where he led services. A colleague suggested one day that he give up on the traffic jams and plant a new church in Tilbury instead. Abraham eventually found an unused room in the old fire station complex, and “RCCG Fruitful Land” was born. “We started with three people,” recalls the 51-year-old, “me, my wife and our daughter. But then before we knew it, the congregation started expanding. And that’s when I noticed something: that there is a lot of racism around here.”
‘We’ve got a greengrocers now, but it’s an Asian greengrocers. And the butchers is for African meat. They don’t give you the feeling that you’re welcome in there.’
Tilbury’s reputation for racism stretches back to the late 1960s, when the dockers came out on strike to support Enoch Powell, a controversial Tory cabinet minister who was sacked following an infamous public speech in which he objected to immigration and invoked the ancient priestess Sibyl prophesying rivers of blood. In the 70s and 80s, a skinhead movement known as the Trojan Skins was active in the town and often identified by the media as being responsible for racial violence (many Tilbury residents, both black and white, deny that was the case).
In 2007, soon after Fruitful Land was founded, a spate of racially motivated assaults gripped the town, prompting a major police response. Gangs of youths harassed and attacked some of Tilbury’s black residents. Abraham’s church was targeted with a series of burglaries and fake calls to the emergency services that disrupted his preaching. “My understanding of Tilbury’s history is that this is an abandoned place, and that creates resentment,” Abraham told me. “The racism is not just about black people here. I think the moment people find out you don’t come from Tilbury, they don’t like you. They don’t want to see you.”
The incidents continued sporadically over the following years, Abraham said — many parishioners had their cars broken into, were pelted with stones and suffered attacks on their homes. The church, which has since moved into the premises formerly occupied by the Anchor Inn — the last pub in the town center, which was closed on police orders in 2010 after numerous disturbances — is now the most secure site in the area. Ground-floor doors and windows are covered with thick boards and grills, and 15 video cameras protect the site inside and out.
“You can see the hostility. You can feel the ‘we hate you.’ But we have to show love to them,” said Abraham, his usually calm and lyrical voice rising with emotion. “We are for the community. The problem is education; some of the children who do the vandalizing, if you talk to them, you realize that their mindset comes from the parents, from the home. But things are changing. When you used to walk, they would be throwing eggs at you, spitting at you, it was as bad as that. They don’t do that anymore.”
Many of Tilbury’s residents have worked hard to overcome the town’s history of prejudice. Today, an array of religious and secular organizations, some managed by the local authority and others operating more informally, aim to bring citizens from different ethnic backgrounds together and integrate minority groups into municipal decision-making. All the community leaders The WorldPost spoke with were understandably eager to play down the past and emphasize cohesion as the new norm. But while Abraham’s church has gone from strength to strength — today it boasts a congregation of more than 300 people and runs a program of activities that are open to all, from homework help to marriage counseling and knitting clubs — it continues to face bureaucratic obstructions.
When Fruitful Land applied to host a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, for example, objections from local residents prevented it from going ahead. And although many in the town’s black community insist they rarely encounter explicit discrimination anymore, that doesn’t mean people of color in Tilbury can blithely put the old divisions behind them. “It’s safer now, but it didn’t use to feel safe at all,” said Ese Odeje, an 18-year-old church attendee. “When we first came, it was horrible. My dad’s car and my mum’s car used to get smashed almost weekly. Now I’d say it’s better, but we still get the odd racist remark from little boys or people in shops.”
Every white resident I interviewed in Tilbury denied racial prejudice. Some went out of their way to recount personal friendships with people from different ethnic backgrounds, and many expressed frustration at what they saw as a particular line of questioning from “London media types” — like me — that was rooted in metropolitan political correctness and snobbery and designed to give Tilbury a bad name. “You say the wrong thing, and people trip you up and accuse you of stuff,” one person complained. “Like speaking to you — I don’t know what words I’m allowed to use. … Tilbury’s not a racist town anymore, that’s all I want to get across.”
But when asked to characterize the town today, several people I spoke to insisted there was a cultural divide between white and black locals and spoke negatively about the latter’s influence on Tilbury. False rumors and easily debunked myths abounded — “foreign” gangs going on rampages, and shops and services displaying “no whites” signs in their windows. “It used to be that everybody here knew everybody, but it’s all gone downhill in the last 10 years,” said one white man, repeating a popular sentiment. “All the pubs have closed, all the shops, the greengrocers, the butchers, and they’ve all ...” He trailed off, and gestured around him. “We’ve got a greengrocers now, but it’s an Asian greengrocers — it actually advertises itself like that. And the butchers is for African meat. They don’t give you the feeling that you’re welcome in there.”
A number of people told me that black people arriving in Tilbury were bumped straight to the top of the waiting list for social housing or that they were given £50,000 (around $65,000) by the local authority to help them buy a home. Neither of these claims is remotely true. What is true is that London’s housing crisis — it has the second-most over-valued property market on the planet, and the average home now costs 14 times more than the average annual wage — has had a dramatic effect on Tilbury. Lower-income buyers are driven eastward from the capital; at the same time, London’s overburdened council authorities find the cost of housing vulnerable residents in their own boroughs increasingly unaffordable.
‘The Poles and Bulgarians want to learn, and they want to work, much more than our young lads.’ Charlie Lawrence
As one of the few stretches of London’s hinterlands that hasn’t yet seen a spike in prices comparable to that of the capital itself, Tilbury provides those councils with a convenient solution. According to Steve Liddiard, one of Tilbury’s councilors, up to 70 percent of privately rented accommodation in the town is now being leased by London councils in order to provide homes for their own residents. That pushes up local property prices and makes affordable housing harder for Tilbury’s population to secure, especially given the aggressive diminishment of the local social housing stock since the 1980s.
It also means that many of those resettled in Tilbury — often Londoners who have suffered from homelessness, domestic violence or substance abuse — have no prior connection to the town and little motivation to develop one; their stay on the riverside will almost certainly be temporary, and their lives remain grounded in the city. But few of the Tilbury residents I spoke with had any knowledge of the process behind this estrangement. To many, it simply looked as if new, usually non-white people kept turning up in town, provided with free or subsidized accommodation from the authorities, while they or their friends and family struggled to afford a home. To make matters worse, the newcomers seemed to show little interest in integrating with Tilbury’s communal institutions — or what’s left of them.
In the gap between perception and reality, little shoots of resentment have sprouted and become entwined with other grievances — anger over unemployment, pub closures, a generation of elite cultural mockery — to produce a hazy and often racialized sense of injustice, one that is compounded by the feeling that our society lacks a shared language in which to interrogate it. “It’s all political correctness now,” one person I talked to said abruptly as we discussed the challenges faced by young families in Tilbury. “I know that I’m not racist, and I know the way I talk makes you think I’m racist, and so I don’t know what to say.”
Tilbury’s affordable housing shortage has nothing to do with non-white or “foreign” settlement here — it is largely the product of four decades of systemic marketization and state failure that has created a savage imbalance between London’s economy and Tilbury’s. That imbalance has marginalized Tilbury’s residents twice over: first by leeching wealth and social status from the town and thus impoverishing it, and then by exploiting that impoverishment as part of a Band-Aid over some of the wounds inflicted inside London itself by the capital’s lopsided property boom.
As with the growth in job precariousness and casualization — the replacement of permanent positions with part-time or temporary contracts — it’s a complex story about the structural defects of modern capitalism and the uneven allocation of power and resources that follow. But that story has not been explained convincingly, certainly not by a Labour Party that has, for most of this period, been entirely on board with the policy decisions that have driven it forward.
And so, for many of Tilbury’s white residents, another story has taken root instead, one that has long been spun by right-wing political forces operating in the area. This alternative story seizes on justified criticisms of economic liberalism and conjoins them with an opposition to social liberalism. It bundles together the loss of things like job security with the partial erosion of social privileges previously enjoyed by white citizens, especially men, back in the time when racial and gendered social hierarchies were more blatant. It identifies the betrayal of “traditional values” as the problem, and resurgent nationalism as the solution.
In the past, those telling this story have been fascist groups like the National Front, which called for the compulsory deportation of Britain’s non-white population. The NF was active here in Tilbury throughout the 1970s, and Charlie remembers attending some of their meetings, although he insists he has never been into “that sort of thing.” More recently, as Tilbury’s residents gradually turned their backs on Labour — over the course of the party’s reign between 1997 and 2010, Labour’s vote in Thurrock almost halved — a far more nuanced and mainstream group of right-wing populists picked up the electoral slack.
UKIP was founded in 1993 as a single-issue, Euroskeptic party on the radical right. On the national stage, its anti-Europe platform centers on hostility to immigration. In Tilbury — despite its long leadership by Nigel Farage, a cigar-smoking, commuter-belt commodities trader — UKIP has cannily positioned itself as a sort of Labour redux, the final guardian of dependable employment and the NHS, the U.K.’s national health care service. In parliamentary elections, UKIP’s local support here grew 18-fold in less than two decades; the votes it garnered from Labour in places like Tilbury handed the overall constituency to the Conservatives twice in succession and left Labour reeling in its own heartland.
“The Labour party grew out of communities like Tilbury, and now it’s led by people who want to pat places like Tilbury on the head,” said Jackie Doyle-Price, Thurrock’s current Conservative member of Parliament. “They’ve taken Tilbury for granted and neglected it … and in the past 10 years, Tilbury has started kicking back.”
Charlie still considers himself a Labour man, but he is one of many people I met in Tilbury who switched allegiance to UKIP and hold Labour accountable for the breach. “As far as I could tell, New Labour was the Old Tory,” Charlie said. “At the last election, it hurt me to put my cross in front of UKIP. I didn’t want to. But then I remembered that UKIP is basically Labour now.”
UKIP insists its electoral gains here are down to a strong record of local casework and a willingness to tackle issues that matter to residents. UKIP officials have spoken out against the closure of Tilbury’s power station and criticized a new property development by the council for not including enough affordable housing. But their defense of local homes and jobs, as far as it goes, dovetails with support for a sort of cultural revanchism, underscored by a crusading opposition to what they consider to be leftist shibboleths: political correctness, identity politics and multiculturalism.
The current UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, is an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ rights and has called for a ban on anyone who is HIV-positive from entering the U.K. He has also defended a senior party figure who called Islam a “death cult” and placed anti-Muslim sentiment — including a ban on the full-face veil — at the heart of UKIP’s 2017 general election manifesto. Former UKIP bigwig Godfrey Bloom, who represented the party for nine years in the European Parliament but has now resigned his membership, claimed that “no employer with a brain in the right place would employ a young, single, free woman” and labeled feminists as “shrill, bored, middle-class women of a certain physical genre.” Jingoism and resistance to a perceived attempt by the political class to deny British — particularly English — citizens a right to take pride in their nation lies at the heart of the party’s appeal.
In Tilbury, UKIP’s sharp-suited and media-savvy member of the European Parliament, Tim Aker, has fought cleverly engineered and highly publicized battles with the council over the right to fly the British flag. (Many associate the it with the U.K.’s uncomfortable history of colonial empire.) I asked Aker about accusations that UKIP stokes racism. “Don’t listen to the rubbish other parties put out,” he told me. “I say to every single voter, every single person: you’re as part of the community as all of us.”
But one of Aker’s first moves upon winning office was to hire Robert Ray, a former local council candidate for the National Front, as part of his political team. In 2014, the UKIP candidate for a nearby parliamentary seat in Essex, Kerry Smith, was forced to stand down after being caught making explicitly racist remarks. And as part of UKIP’s campaign to extricate Britain from the EU last year, Farage unveiled a poster depicting a group of Syrian refugees next to the words “Breaking Point,” which echoed imagery used in Nazi propaganda against Jews.
“What we talk about is controlling immigration, putting this country first,” Aker insisted. “That includes first generation, second generation and however many generations you want to go back. We’ve all got the same problems, we all use the same public services, we all want weekly bin collections.”
And yet it’s hard to reconcile this studiously inclusive rhetoric with the “Breaking Point” poster and the rest of UKIP’s messaging — particularly for those who have migrated to Britain from another country or were born here to parents who did. UKIP views foreigners as an existential threat to Britain as long as they are outside the country’s borders trying to get in. Is the Fruitful Land congregation supposed to believe that in UKIP’s eyes those same foreigners become welcome members of the community the moment they reach the other side?
There are other contradictions in UKIP’s platform. Its long record of economic libertarianism and the support previously offered by its leader for NHS privatization hardly chime with the old Labour revivalist image it has attempted to construct in Tilbury. But as Trump and his cabinet of billionaires have demonstrated, anti-establishment credentials can be more important than policy consistency.
Paradoxically, UKIP has in electoral terms been a victim of its own success. By forcing the Conservative party into first holding an EU referendum and now enacting Brexit, and by dragging British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to the hard right on the issue of migration, UKIP has lost much of its raison d’etre and, ahead of June’s national election, is currently languishing in the polls. Thurrock remains UKIP’s number one target seat in the country, yet victory for Tim Aker — the party’s parliamentary candidate here — is seen as unlikely by pollsters.
But the party’s real victory is far deeper than the results may suggest. Under Britain’s electoral system only two parties can ever hope to achieve power; one of them, the Conservatives, has absorbed UKIP’s agenda for cultural protectionism almost completely, and the other, Labour, has so far struggled to articulate a coherent response. The narratives pushed by UKIP are not fading away, even if the organization itself does. A divide between defenders of “double liberalism” (economic and social) and those who set themselves up — however disingenuously — as nationalist insurgents against an amorphous globalism is one of the central fissures of our time, and Britain is not the only country in which it has radically redrawn the formal political landscape.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, nationalist parties have made huge electoral gains in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland and many other European states. The French presidential run-off was contested not by either of the main left or right parties but rather an independent “centrist” and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National. “The year 2016 will likely be remembered as a major turning point in the trajectory of Western democracies,” wrote the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential essay for The American Interest last year called “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism.” “Those who truly want to understand what is happening should carefully consider the complex interplay of globalization, immigration and changing values.”
Across the country, local transport, arts, culture, child care and adult social care budgets have been slashed.
This sort of analysis has been taken further by commentators like the British author David Goodhart, who believes that old distinctions of class and economic interest have been “overlaid” by a larger fault line between “Anywheres” — those citizens who place a high value on autonomy, mobility and novelty — and “Somewheres,” who care more about group identity, tradition and place. Goodhart argues that part of the problem lies in the failure of mainstream politicians to recognize that white “racial self-interest” is a legitimate political concern and should be distinguished from racism.
It is the assertion of this self-interest, he claims, that lies behind much of the popular support for both Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K. “Since the turn of the century, Western politics has had to make room for a range of voices preoccupied with national borders and pace of change, appealing to people who feel displaced by a more open, ethnically fluid, graduate-favoring economy and society, designed by and for the new elites,” Goodhart wrote. “The Anywheres have counted for too much in the past 25 years — their sense of political entitlement startlingly revealed by their reaction to the Brexit and Trump votes — and populism, in its many shapes and sizes, has arisen as a counterbalance to their dominance throughout the developed world.”
Goodhart is one of many intellectuals contributing to an ongoing glut of think pieces, academic inquiries and general media interest in the “left behind” social groups of the global north, whose alienation is often invoked as an explanation for recent political shudders. Undoubtedly, those shudders owe much to the insecurities, both real and imagined, of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the “emergent precariat”: poorer white citizens who live in fear of seeing their economic and social capital diminishing any further and who are targeted by right-wing populists using racially coded language to promise an illusory “return” to ancestral lands.
But far too often, the arguments that develop from this are premised on the notion that “left behind” communities are monolithically white, timeless and static — single, cohesive social entities that were subsequently disrupted by immigration. Tilbury might appear at first glance to offer the perfect validation of this thesis, but in reality, it exposes its limits.
Migrant communities have been at the core of Tilbury’s existence since the modern town was born. The docks were built by Irish and other European navvies (laborers) in the late 19th century, and since then, Tilbury has been home at various times to large communities of Punjabis, Kenyans, Zimbabweans, Vietnamese and immigrants from the Caribbean. One of the most arresting sights on Tilbury’s riverside is the magnificent Sikh Gurdwara temple that rises from the opposite bank in Gravesend.
Today, more than one in five of Tilbury’s residents are classified as “black and minority ethnic,” some of whom are British and some of whom are not — a figure significantly higher than the national average. Far from being a drag on welfare services, members of this group are statistically more likely than their white neighbors to be employed, and their typical education levels are better too.
Many of Tilbury’s white residents are second-generation internal migrants themselves, with parents who hailed from London’s old East End and relocated out to Essex in the post-war period — just as many in Pastor Abraham’s congregation have done more recently. There is no immutable “them” and “us” in Tilbury, because the backgrounds of those who call it home have always been changing, complicated and contingent.
Nor do Tilbury’s white residents have a monopoly on the physical “Somewhere” of this town that the nebulous “Anywheres” might fail to understand. Bukky Okunade, a 52-year-old Nigerian-British woman who serves as a Labour councilor for Tilbury, knew about the cruise terminal here long before she saw it with her own eyes. She remembers seeing grainy photos of the Empire Windrush landing during celebrations of Black History Month when she was living in London. “Tilbury mattered to me because it was part of my heritage, even though I’d never been there — this was where black people came to Britain and went on to different places in this country, and when we thought about that history we’d always talk about Tilbury,” she told me. “When I finally moved to this part of the world in 2002 and I saw the docks, it felt symbolic and emotional.”
Okunade is one of the few black councilors in Thurrock’s history. She has represented Tilbury since 2006 and, at almost every election she has contested, a white ethno-supremacist group — usually the British National Party — has run candidates against her. She has seen them all off, although in 2008 an election for the other seat in her ward resulted in a BNP victory, and Okunade was forced to spend two uncomfortable years working alongside a fascist. “This is a small town, close-knitted, where everyone knows each other,” she said. “Yes, there have been issues. Yes, I face hostility sometimes on the doorstep. And yes, there are myths that need to be burst. But I think that bursting is happening. I’ve been here, in office, for more than 10 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes.” Her lips crept into a smile. “And look,” she concluded, “I’m still here.”
Okunade’s story is a reminder that although place matters far more than the high priests of globalism have reckoned for in recent years, attempts to rescue the notion of “community” from political purgatory need not depend on the construction of imaginary white idylls. Tilbury’s better days rested upon the contribution of black and Asian working classes both within the town and beyond; as a port, its wealth has always been derived from the labor of men and women across the planet, especially in the global south.
Similar economic processes that have devastated Tilbury more recently have produced victims in other places too, some of whom arrive folded into almost airless hiding spaces among the goods lifted by Tilbury’s cranes onto British shores. In 2014, staff at the port heard screaming from inside a shipping container; upon opening it, they found 34 Afghan refugees, alongside the body of one who didn’t survive the journey.
We are all “Somewheres” to some extent, and the somewhere we belong to is rarely fixed and neatly bordered. Amid the tailwinds of votes for Brexit and Trump, the question Tilbury poses is not about how liberal democracies can respond to the need of a non-existent collection of mono-cultural “Somewheres” to articulate their racial self-interest. It is about how all of those left behind by the ideology of free-market fundamentalism – a great many of whom can be found in Tilbury – can build on their shared interests, and struggle for an alternative.
“We tell people that this place belongs to everybody,” Pastor Abraham said with the oratorical flourish of a practiced preacher when I asked him what message he was trying to spread to Tilbury residents outside his congregation. “We explain that we need to work together, because none of us can achieve what we want to achieve by ourselves alone.”
* * *
On a bright and chilly afternoon in January, with time to kill before a Dockers match, I went for a drive with John Heath, a 60-year-old fan who used to work at Tilbury’s Riverside railway station, along with his friend and colleague Mick. “It’s our town, and it’s our club,” John said when I asked him about his relationship with the football team. “It’s not nothing, but it’s ours.”
We turned out of the parking lot and down past the spot where the carnival man stores his fairground rides in a jumble of gaudy pink, and then out onto the main road. In John and Mick’s company, Tilbury’s streets became a map of densely woven social connections and microhistories that spanned decades, populated by aunts and uncles, scandals and surprises, as well as the many different sites where the pair of them had once earned a living.
“Find an old photo of the docks off Google Images,” John told me, “then go inside and stand there and compare it. You know what’s missing from the picture today? People. When you go into the docks now it doesn’t smell of fish, or coal, or graft. Just machines.”
I would later take John’s advice and visit the port — which, on paper at least, is booming. Despite a sharp reduction in the workforce over the past half-century, Tilbury handles 16 million tons of cargo each year and is home to 120 different companies. There are still people there, and they are friendly, skillful and highly trained. Some control the high-tech clamps that hold huge reels of imported paper on the front of forklift trucks; others operate the elongated straddle-carriers gathering up shipping containers off the ground like giant yellow arachnids sweeping prey into their innards before whizzing them off in a blizzard of beeps.
A major expansion is planned at the end of this year that will cost £100 million (about $130 million) and extend the docks over to the other side of old Tilbury Fort. The port’s owners believe they are doing what they can to maintain a link with the town that sprung up beside it — the football club, for example, is sponsored by the Port of Tilbury — and it’s not their fault that technology has mechanized many of the processes that were once carried out by human hands. But John’s right: the docks don’t smell of coal or fish anymore.
Just beyond the cruise terminal, John showed us the railway station he helped run for a quarter century — or at least, he showed us the empty space where the station used to be. We could see where the platforms once stood and the shuttered entrance to the building that once housed the ticket office. Tilbury Riverside station, a relic from the time when the area around the docks still hummed with humanity, closed in 1992. John locked up on that final day. He searched out some old graffiti he’d doodled about the cricketer Ian Botham and slipped into a reverie as he recalled the long-lost cafeteria and the dancehall and the night the storm blew out glass from the roof. He told us where the weathervane that once crowned the station’s dome can be found today — underneath someone’s clothesline in nearby Chadwell St. Mary, it turns out.
For Tilbury’s famous 1978 cup match with Stoke, the club organized a special train from Riverside station to make sure as many townspeople as possible could make the journey north for the match. It was John who coupled the carriages to the engine before hopping aboard to join the knees-up. “So much stuff went when the station closed,” he said, shaking his head and pulling his jacket tighter. “Nice chairs that were worth money, things that had been there for a hundred years, just chucked onto the skip.”
We turned and walked down the old passenger ramp that leads down toward the river. “They threw out people’s lifetime’s work, and I guess the work of future people too,” he continued. “I don’t mind admitting I shed a tear when I turned all the lights off that last time, and turned the key.”
Like almost everybody over the age of 30 I met in Tilbury, John backed “leave” in Britain’s referendum on membership in the EU. Thurrock, Tilbury’s local council area, recorded the fourth-highest “leave” vote in the entire U.K. When asked for the reasons behind their decision, most people I interviewed mentioned democratic sovereignty and what they saw as an unhealthy degree of influence exercised by unelected foreign bureaucrats over British law. Many also cited uncontrolled migration from EU countries under the bloc’s freedom of movement guarantee — with emphasis on the “uncontrolled,” rather than the “migration.”
When pressed for details on how EU migrants were impacting the town, however, the answers were often contradictory. Charlie does some part-time work as an instructor of forklift truck drivers and has trained many Poles and Bulgarians. Free movement through the EU has benefited him financially, and he spoke approvingly of the new arrivals: “They want to learn, and they want to work, much more than our young lads.”
I asked him why, in that case, EU migration was a negative. He paused, then eventually responded: “Well, it used to be ‘I know your lass, you know my lass’ around here. You knew people then and could trust them. You left the house key inside the letterbox. My house is lit up with security cameras now. I want to go back.”
‘You know what’s missing from the picture today? People. When you go into the docks now, it doesn’t smell of fish or coal or graft. Just machines.’ John Heath
A certain caricature of the Brexit voter has become commonplace in the British media: the defensively insular, working-class man with authoritarian instincts and a desperate pining for days of yore. As in the U.S., where the post-industrial Rust Belt Trump supporter is often credited as being the main factor behind his triumph — despite the fact that most of Trump’s votes came from the traditional and more prosperous Republican support base — the actual demographics of the EU “leave” camp are more complicated. They include some ethnic minority communities in major cities, as well as large numbers of traditional middle-class conservatives living in the suburbs or counties that surround London.
But focus on a misplaced “nostalgia” as being one of the main factors behind the referendum result continues unabated and has provoked many meditations on the topic. “We recognize that with time every human being will cease being, will only have been,” wrote the novelist Mohsin Hamid in a compelling essay on the subject. “And so we seek to resist time. We rebel against it. We are drawn like lovers to the unreachable past, to imagined memories, to nostalgia. … The kind of futures we would like to inhabit seem unlikely to occur. The futures that we suspect are likely to occur, meanwhile, fill us with anxiety. And so we are left stranded: unstable in the present, being dragged from the past, resistant to the future. We become profoundly angry, vulnerable to the dangerous calls of charlatans and bigots and xenophobes. We become depressed. And in our depression, we become more dangerous too.”
And yet the sort of nostalgia Hamid is identifying is not an innate human property; if it were, and if there were a relationship between it and feelings about the EU, then no one would have voted “remain” at all. As it is, almost half the electorate did. We are all losing the past, all the time, but the losses involved have not been distributed equitably, and our ability to absorb them is dependent on how confident we are in our ability to shape the future to our liking. Without thinking about who has more reason to be nostalgic, and what it is those people are nostalgic for, accusations of nostalgia risk becoming little more than a “mute” button on those who have lost the most.
Alongside jobs and social capital, one of the most abject losses experienced by the residents of Tilbury has been the erosion of a sense of influence over their lives, just as those lives have grown harder — not an abstract loss, but a concrete and institutionalized one that has accompanied a generation-long, top-down dismantling of municipal governance. Thatcher’s economic vision rested simultaneously on both the primacy of the market and a strong, centralized state that could be used to beat back what she saw as creeping socialism. Implementing that vision has involved a drawn-out enervation at the local government level, one that has reached its apex in the present era of austerity as Parliament dumps most of the responsibility for Conservatives’ mammoth deficit-reduction program onto local councils.
Across the country, local transport, arts, culture, child care and adult social care budgets have been slashed, and councils are likely to face almost £10 billion (around $13 billion) of unfunded costs by 2020. In response, cash-strapped municipalities have pursued neoliberal policy prescriptions, privatizing key services. The state as we know it and the protections it provides have been shrunk. The burden of this has fallen hardest on poorer areas; Thurrock is in the bottom five for funding per citizen of all unitary councils in Britain and has the third smallest budget overall. At the same time, lines of local democratic accountability have eroded — with less money and less power, elected councilors have fewer tools at their disposal to change anything.
Many Britons have suffered from what the writer Tom Crewe called “the strange death of municipal England.” In that respect, Tilbury is hardly unique. But those whose economic and social networks are especially concentrated geographically have experienced that suffering with a special intensity. Research by the think tank Demos has revealed that one of the key predictors of a person’s likelihood to support Brexit is the degree to which they have friends outside their hometown and travel to other parts of the U.K. and abroad. High-mobility citizens were more inclined to vote “remain,” lower-mobility citizens to vote “leave.”
“I moved away from Tilbury once,” Mick told me. “It was only six or seven miles, but it felt like forever away to me.” Later, in the clubhouse at Chadfields football ground, regulars showed off their local patois — which they insisted that residents of Grays, less than two miles west, could not understand. “We’re all enclaves here,” Vincent Offord, the local Labour party activist, told me. “There are Tilbury-ites and Grays-ites and so on, and people feel that those things are very different.”
Nostalgia is not irrelevant to Tilbury’s political cadences, but the term on its own does nothing to capture the forces behind it: that slow-burn stripping of the identity, agency and security that form the building blocks of a decent life. For people in Tilbury and many other places, there weren’t many chances to do something about all that until the EU referendum came around. The majority of political and financial leaders, who had insisted all along that the downturn in places like Tilbury was in everyone’s self-interest, told voters it was in their own interests to back “remain.” “We’ve got our personal pride, and Brexit made all those MPs sit up and listen. The prime minister — all that lot — they got a right kick in the teeth, didn’t they?” said Peter Hewitt, a retired police officer in Tilbury who founded the Tilbury Riverside Project and has been recognized with an MBE, a national award, for his community service.
Unpopular decisions have flowed east down the Thames from London for many years, much like the city’s garbage, which arrives by barge at the Tilbury docks for processing. To some, the referendum was a chance to send some of that back. “Take back control” was the “leave” campaign’s slogan, and here it was crushingly effective. As Crewe observed, people ended up using the EU vote to answer many more questions than the one on the ballot paper. “I think it’s woken people up,” said Charlie. “Everyone’s waking up, and that’s got to be good.”
In some ways, Tilbury is a window onto a fate that, for better or worse, may soon belong to many of us.
* * *
Over the next two decades, between 10 and 15 million more British jobs are expected to be replaced by automation. In December 2016, an investigation by the Institute for Public Policy Research warned that this trend risked entrenching a new era of economic feudalism, with a few who own the robots reaping the rewards and the rest, especially at the lower-skilled end of the labor market, struggling as humans become less and less important to the production process.
Tilbury was dismissed by The Economist as a polyp, but in some ways it is a window onto a fate that, for better or worse, may soon belong to many of us. “These changes have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance, or a second machine age that radically concentrates economic power,” wrote the report’s author, Mathew Lawrence. “Which path we take — a future between Star Trek and the Matrix — will depend on the type of politics and institutions we build.”
Which path will Tilbury take? On a stretch of dying grassland between the football stadium and the main roundabout, one part of the answer is already rising from the ground: Amazon is building a mammoth new fulfilment center, the company’s 13th in the U.K. It’s set to open this year and the company claims it will eventually provide more than 1,500 jobs, alongside “the most advanced Amazon Robotics technology.” Local officials have hailed Amazon’s investment as a sign that Tilbury’s fortunes are about to change — this time for real.
But if the pattern of Amazon’s existing distribution hubs is replicated, much of the work done here will involve hard, low-wage labor on zero-hours contracts. Investigations by the media have thrown up allegations that warehouse workers are penalized for sick days. Some are reportedly so poor that they are forced to camp nearby to save money on commuting costs, while trade unions have accused the internet giant of making staff “physically and mentally ill.” The WorldPost requested an interview with an Amazon representative about its plans for Tilbury, but the company declined.
Mick, whose 20-year-old daughter juggles three cleaning jobs, all on zero-hours contracts, remains skeptical. “That kind of ‘work’,” he said, grimacing. “She gets called in three days a week sometimes, and then she’ll have two days work across the whole month. There’s no control.” He harked back to the days when he used to manage a small team inside Tilbury’s (then-nationalized) power station. “You looked after the guys, and they looked after you. It’s not like that anymore with these companies — there’s no bonding. They don’t pay their taxes. It’s not about the community now. It’s about how much money they can make.”
Whether Mick’s fears about Amazon’s employment practices prove correct or not, there is no doubt that in terms of its relationship to Tilbury, the new fulfillment center will have a very different look and feel from the power station or docks of his past. The new building is drab and almost windowless, just another node in a global web; the sort of thing, as the writer James Meek put it, that marks the land but isn’t a landmark.
If an alternate path is possible for Tilbury and other post-industrial communities like it, it will not lead back to an unreconstructed reboot of the Keynesian post-war settlement but rather something more radical, rooted in grassroots empowerment and faith in the collective institutions that have somehow clung on amid the free market’s atomizing storms. Tilbury, despite everything, is home to many such institutions: the football club, Fruitful Land, the dance academy that sits opposite the church on Civic Square and the famed Tilbury brass band, which can trace its history back almost a hundred years. No single group can lay claim to these vital spaces, and younger residents of Tilbury — while remaining as fiercely proud of their town as their parents are — appear to be less concerned than older generations with the matter of cultural borders that UKIP and their kindred political forces believe to be so important.
“Not everyone in Tilbury gets on with everyone, obviously,” noted Abigail Collins, a 16-year-old student at the dance academy. “There’s a mixture [of people from different backgrounds] ... but as time goes by, everyone is going to become used to it, because more people are born, and that’s what they’re going to live with.” Olamide Olufemi, a 19-year-old member of Pastor Abraham’s congregation, said that contrary to what those unfamiliar with the place might think, Tilbury has plenty of self-esteem. “I’ve experienced it; people from the outside might see it as an area you wouldn’t want to be in, but I don’t want to put anything down. You have to embrace where you come from. If you don’t put some positivity into your town, then who will?”
On my last trip to Tilbury, I went to another Dockers’ football match and took up a place in the stadium’s only elevated stand, where a row of fold-down plastic seating faced west into the setting sun. From where I stood, with the pitch below me, I could see a small band of Tilbury die-hards — Charlie, John, Mick and Mavis among them — clustered in the far-left corner, singing with gleeful abandon.
In the days ahead, John and Mick would clock into their temporary gigs at the old power station site, where — in what seems like a lifetime ago — they both used to have steady jobs. Their current gig is helping to prepare the building for demolition. It’s the second time in his career John has been tasked with shutting down a place that once employed him. “You start with the soft strip,” he told me. “Wood, fittings, anything that can be removed by hand. Then you take the interior metal out, and then you explode the walls.”
Mavis would be at the hospital bed of a friend she’d known all her life and who, she told me with a tremble, was nearing the end. Charlie would be heading off to a pigeon meeting. He raises homing pigeons — which are famed, of course, for their ability to return home, no matter how far they travel, to the place they know best — just like his grandfather did. The old man was so good at it, runs the local legend, that the authorities commandeered his birds during the Second World War.
But that winter evening, with the gray prefab walls of Amazon’s new warehouse looming large against the sky behind them and the cranes of the docks glinting in the light beyond, the football fans were bouncing up and down as the game unfurled before us. At that moment, Haringey, Tilbury’s opponents, scored a goal. It didn’t matter. Standing at the edge of the field with their team down 1-0, wrapped up against the January chill, the Dockers kept on singing.