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Hors​t Friedrichs/ Anzenberger/Redux

The White Cliffs of Brexit

The port of Dover is expected to be paralyzed by Britain's departure from the European Union. So why are its residents so desperate to leave?

The small, seaside town of Dover, where little more than 30,000 people live, has an outsized significance in Great Britain’s national psyche. The sprawling eleventh-century castle that overlooks the town is the largest in England, while the White Cliffs of Dover, rising from the sea, are the nation’s definitive natural landmark. Across centuries, they have stood as a symbol for the nation’s dream-self: bold, defiant, and eternal, both a window onto the world and a wall against foreign threats.

The chalk cliffs are where Britain’s border juts most dramatically from the surface of the earth—and yet, only 21 miles from the European continent, they are also where the nation’s island identity feels most fragile. When I was walking along the cliffs on a late September Sunday, rain was falling sideways and the sea and the sky formed a giant mass of gray. “This is England,” I thought to myself, warmly. And then my phone sent me a message welcoming me to France.

With Brexit, these cliffs are taking on a new role, becoming a blank canvas on which competing narratives are projected. Staunch “Remainers” have sought to cast the cliffs as “outward-looking,” with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown calling it a “highway to the rest of the world.” The “Leavers” say Dover tells a different story. “Dover and out,” The Sun tabloid declared—a message it then literally projected onto the cliffs—when former Prime Minister Theresa May officially started the process of exiting the European Union on March 29, 2017. Later, The Sun ran a front page featuring a supersized image of May standing at the cliffs’ edge, two fingers raised in a V, beneath the headline “UP EURS.”

Like Britain itself these days, Dover doesn’t seem to make sense. It is home to Europe’s busiest ferry port, booming with trade to and from the continental mainland, but it has also been a hotbed for Euroskepticism for at least 20 years. In the 2016 referendum, Dover voted Leave by 62 percent—ten percentage points higher than the national average. Dover now finds itself at the center of Britain’s Brexit battle, which very well may end without a deal with the EU—a so-called no-deal Brexit, the starkest rupture of all. Despite a deluge of bleak forecasts about what that might mean, support in Dover for this scenario remains stronger than ever. Dover is where the complex constellation of forces buried within Brexit—from the toxic fantasies of Brexiteers, to the failures of the national government—meet on the map.

A no-deal Brexit is the favorite negotiating boast of May’s successor, Boris Johnson, even as he makes last-minute overtures towards a compromise. On October 31, he has said, Britain will leave the EU, deal or no deal, “do or die.” And while a vote on Johnson’s new Brexit deal is imminent, its chances of passing Parliament intact are low. On October 20, Michael Gove, the Conservative minister in charge of no-deal preparations, said the government was now implementing its contingency planning. “The risk of leaving without a deal has actually increased,” he said.

No-deal only has an illusion of immediacy. For such a reckless act, it requires vast and meticulous planning, already costing £8.3 billion. It also simply signals the start of another, even longer negotiating process with the EU, because Britain will need a new formal relationship with its biggest trade partner no matter what and it has more leverage while still inside. But under the orders of Johnson, preparations for the fallout are picking up pace. A public advertising campaign offers consolation: “Beer, wine, spirits, and cigarettes will all be duty free for people traveling to the EU if we leave without a deal,” one official promotional video pronounces. “Get Ready for Brexit” is blown up on billboards across the country. According to Amber Rudd, a former member of Johnson’s cabinet, about 80-90 percent of government time is taken up with no-deal planning.

But however much time and money is spent, the chaos of a no-deal exit cannot be planned away. Down in Dover, as many as 16,000 trucks pass through the port each day—more international trucks than the rest of Britain’s ports combined—carrying 17 percent of Britain’s total trade and almost a third of the nation’s food supply. For now, at the port’s Eastern Docks, trucks transport EU goods and their average clearance time is under two minutes. At the Western Docks, which handle non-EU trade (and only 2 percent of the port’s traffic), trucks take a minimum of 20 minutes to reach the open road. Sometimes, it’s several hours. Other times, several days.

Nigel Farage, Brexit’s foremost champion, campaigning in Dover in 2015, a year before Great Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

If such inspections suddenly moved to the Eastern Docks, as will be required if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, the effects will be immediate and far-reaching. According to a recent (and reluctantly released) government report named “Operation Yellowhammer,” billed as a “reasonable worst-case scenario,” lorries could face waits of up to two and a half days, creating traffic tailbacks of dozens of miles. Food and medicine supplies will be jeopardized across the country, and so supermarkets and pharmaceutical companies are stockpiling in anticipation. At least three sets of government papers on the no-deal fallout– “Operation Snow Bunting” on police preparations, “Operation Kingfisher” on business support, and “Operation Black Swan” on the real worst-case scenario—remain secret.

Whatever happens, roads in and around Dover will be gridlocked. Residents could find themselves cut off from shops, public services, schools, and work. The National Health Service has had to block-book hotel rooms near Dover’s hospitals to ensure doctors and nurses can sleep within walking distance. The chairman of the county council has called on police officers to be drafted in from all over the country. The port could lose a £1 billion worth of trade each week. The turmoil—which neatly aligns with Brexit’s distinct blend of paralysis and pandemonium—is expected to last for at least several months.

The many economic players girding for a no-deal Brexit have been anticipating something like this surreal scenario for some time. “It’s not just me who’s frustrated or the company,” Tim Dixon, general manager of Motis, which runs the operation at Dover’s port, told me last year, “it’s the whole Dover community. We’re on the front line down here, and we’ll bear the brunt of it no doubt.” Now, I’m told, Motis employees—like those of other companies—are being pressured not to share concerns about a no-deal Brexit with the press. One head of a major business group told The Financial Times that the message from on high is: “Don’t expect to be given good access [to the government] and influence if you’re not prepared to play the game in public.”

Still, in Dover, no-deal is disproportionately popular. In May, during the European Parliament elections, the newly launched Brexit Party, founded by the original Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage, stood with a single policy—a no-deal Brexit—and won comfortably nationwide. In Dover and the surrounding region of Kent, there were places where the Brexit Party won as much as 49 percent of the vote, almost 20 percentage points higher than the national average. Farage himself is one of their MEPs.

Three years after the referendum result, excitement about Brexit has turned into frustration—but the will to leave is unshaken. When I spoke to people in Dover—whether a waiter, a butcher, or a Conservative councillor—“just get us out” was a recurring, sighing refrain. It’s a similar story across the country. The sentiment seems to stem as much from wanting to exit the endless saga of Brexit as escape the captivity of the EU. A no-deal Brexit appeals to this impatience. Since the Brexit Party’s success, Johnson has thus harnessed his best Farage impression—an act that, along with several others, he has been perfecting for years. The Conservative slogan of Theresa May was “Building a country which works for everyone.” Johnson’s is simpler: “Get Brexit Done.”

Dover is a swing seat. Over the past few decades, it has switched hands between Conservatives and Labour every two or three elections; it went Conservative in 2010, and stayed that way in the last two elections. “Dover is bellwether, it goes with the government,” Charlotte Cornell, Labour’s prospective candidate, told me when we met at a cafe along the local high street. With Dover having voted Conservative three times in a row now, the moment should be ripe for a Labour win—all the more so because the town has suffered from nine years of austerity-driven government cuts. Still, Cornell said, “It won’t be so easy.”

Dover makes plain the difficulty of Labour’s task. Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader is a hard sell. So is the party’s support for a second referendum—achieved over Corbyn’s resistance, after continuous pressure from within and outside the party. Brexit is constantly drawing new battle lines, eclipsing old distinctions between Labour and Tory: A remarkable 87 percent of the population identify as either a Remainer or Leaver—more than any other social grouping, and more even than the 72 percent of the electorate who voted in the referendum to begin with.

In this part of England, distrust of Europe runs far deeper than modern-day trading ties, which even in Dover can still seem remote. The affluent port is separated from the struggling town—not only by a motorway but also by a Royal Charter. This document, from 1606, puts the seafront under the control of a national authority, rather than the local council, with its own private police force. There is a warranted sense that, like the lorries carrying cargo, the port’s prosperity is always heading elsewhere.

Boris Johnson, who has promised to get Britain out of the EU, “do or die,” swung through Dover in July 2019.

Here, memories of the Second World War feel far closer, and fold with worrying ease into the Brexit narrative drummed up by Johnson, Farage, and Co. As many people in Dover will tell you, it’s not the first time they find themselves on the frontline of a battle with mainland Europe—if anything, emboldened by nostalgia’s siren song, they appear to relish this role.

It was during the Second World War when the Cliffs of Dover truly affirmed themselves in national legend, as a shelter that everyone shares. When Germany invaded France, and Britain “stood alone,” the cliffs became a hive of hidden tunnels. Underground barracks, built during the Napoleonic era, housed beds, a hospital, and a command center from where British generals plotted the Dunkirk escape. A cartoon from February 1941 shows a huge, angry Hitler launching planes from France, only for them to crash into the cliffs and fall into the sea below.

In truth, Germany dropped so many bombs on Dover it became known as “Hellfire Corner.” Today, the town exhibits its sacrifice with the solemn honor of a veteran parading his military medals, and it wears its wounds—bomb sites, lists of the dead—with the same sense of pride. Commemorative statues and plaques are everywhere. Plastic red poppies—the national symbol for war remembrance—are permanently pinned to lampposts along the high street. The citizens of Dover have suffered for the nation’s sovereignty before, the story goes, and they are ready to do so again.

Even more than May, Johnson has stoked this force of national feeling. On October 8, Johnson and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke on the phone. Whereas a German official said the call was “very friendly” with nothing new agreed, Johnson’s team briefed the press to the contrary: Merkel apparently, and implausibly, made clear that a deal is “essentially impossible, not just now but ever.” The provocation landed. Moments later, the social media account of Leave.EU—one of two main campaign groups during the referendum—tweeted, “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a kraut,” next to an image of Merkel.

The narrative of Brexit as a sequel to the Second World War—or rather, as the continuation of a continental war that never ended—began during the referendum campaign. As prime minister, Johnson has stepped into his military persona even more. While playing up comparisons with Churchill and posing with armed forces for posts on social media, he has made military investment a priority, announcing an extra £2.2 billion in funding. “I am a prime minister who will back our Armed Forces all the way,” he says.

With EU negotiations, Johnson is reportedly attempting to use Britain’s military cooperation as leverage. May tried the same with intelligence cooperation, prompting The Sun’s bloodthirsty headline: “Your money or your lives.”

Johnson’s increasingly militaristic rhetoric has drawn accusations that he is inciting death threats against fellow MPs, who find themselves accused of “betrayal,” “surrender,” and “collusion” if they oppose no-deal. (One anonymous minister in Johnson’s cabinet warned The Times of a “violent, popular uprising” if his Brexit agenda was thwarted.) Johnson shrugs off these fears with his usual bonhomie. “Am I fighting a losing battle to use these military metaphors or should I stick to my guns?” he quipped at the Conservative Party conference.

Besides letting Johnson act out his own Churchillian fantasy and pander to the patriotic fever-dreams of Brexiteers, the prime minister’s pantomime pivot into military general serves another purpose. In the national mold, Corbyn is a postwar leader—ready to invest and rebuild after decades of damage, delivering paeans to the virtues of peace. Johnson is a wannabe wartime one: His main purpose is to rally the troops and expel those he calls “the doomsters and the gloomsters,” spurring the spirit of the nation. At a time when Britain feels like a nation at war—if only a war with its own shadow—Corbyn finds himself on the back foot.

This has long been Corbyn’s abiding weakness. In many parts of the country, the Labour leader’s original sin is neither his socialism nor the allegations of anti-Semitism that plague his party, but his pacifism. The agreed danger of this stance is so ingrained that, when Corbyn was first elected as Labour leader in 2015, a senior serving military general told The Sunday Times that there would be “mutiny” if Corbyn became prime minister. Both press and Parliament—faced with the threat of a military coup—barely batted an eyelid.

Dover feels the fears of invasion intimately. It is one of the reasons why opposition to Corbyn, in one of the poorest towns in the country, runs so high. Cornell spoke very warmly of him, and showed me a photo from the recent party conference of the Labour leader holding her baby. “He’s not a magic grandpa, he’s a friendly grandpa,” she joked, referring to one of his nicknames. “He’s a lot warmer than the media ever makes him seem.” But she admitted that having him as leader is “tough.” “A lot of people I meet say they would vote Labour if he wasn’t leader,” she said. “I don’t know if they just use it as an excuse for not wanting to vote Labour.”

On September 23, vandals sprayed CORBYN RESIGN in large, red letters outside the local Labour party headquarters. I asked Cornell what explained such strength of feeling against Corbyn in Dover. Her response was immediate: “It’s a military town.”

Dover and the surrounding region of Kent are also reminders that, while Leave vs Remain is often painted as a story of North against South, this picture deceives. In England, Leave won a majority in almost every constituency outside major cities and university enclaves like Oxford and York. More than 100 of England’s 120 or so coastal constituencies voted in favor of Brexit, and the southeast is where Farage first rose to prominence with his old party, UKIP.

Dover, like much of Britain, tells itself a story of being permanently under siege. At the time of my visit, the local museum had an exhibition dedicated to “invaders and settlers”—a revealing conflation that pools together people fleeing war with those fighting it. The timeline begins with Viking Raiders in 835 AD, moves through the Norman Conquest in 1066, the World Wars, the arrival of Jewish refugees, and the late 1990s (when refugees arrived in Western Europe during the Balkan Wars), and ends in 2004, when the EU’s freedom of movement was extended to new members like Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia.

There’s a feeling that, in Dover, people are always either leaving or, if they arrive, arriving in the wrong way. There’s a transience to the town today that sits uneasily alongside its ancient castle-crown and its timeless white cliffs. People are always passing through: Truck-drivers with their trade, ferries with their tourists, and now journalists like me, writing dispatches on Dover and Brexit. Television crews have become a common feature along the high street. Even those visitors who come for the cliffs and the castle often circle the town—aided by the same road that sections off Dovorians from the port. “Everything that’s great about Dover bypasses Dover,” lamented Gareth Doodes, the headmaster of the local private school, Dover College.

The ones who really want to reach Dover are the ones who are most resented. Over the past few months, French authorities have raided refugee camps across the Channel and many people—from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Eritrea—have sought to find a way to Britain by sea, leading to hundreds of crossings and at least two deaths. “We cannot have the Channel becoming the new Mediterranean Sea with dead bodies lying on beaches both sides of the Channel,” said Pierre-Henri Dumont, the MP for Calais.

If Britain’s Border Force doesn’t stop them, then the neo-fascist group Britain First might. In September, members of Britain First began patrolling Dover’s coastline with binoculars and torches, ready to intervene if they see any crossing. They’re calling it “Operation White Cliffs.”

Perhaps the great irony underlying the names of Britain’s two new tribes—Leavers and Remainers—is that, as metonyms, they are the wrong way around. The archetypal Leaver really wants nothing more than to remain: to pull up Britain’s drawbridge, deepen roots, and make others outside remain where they are, too. The archetypal Remainers, by contrast, love leaving—they are more cosmopolitan and liberal, with dreams of either one day departing toward a European elsewhere or at least living alongside those who have.

At times, these caricatures can be unhelpful, pitting thoughtless patriots against rootless cosmopolitans. “Leave” and “Remain” are complex coalitions, which is one of the reasons why neither side can settle on a single strategy. But these caricatures still capture something true: Leave and Remain draw almost all their emotional force from these opposing visions, fixed borders and flight. Leavers long for stricter border controls, hoping this will make people remain where they are. Remainers rally around a right to leave, channelled through the EU’s freedom of movement.

Dover, with its unmovable cliffs, might seem a fitting symbol for the wish to remain. Yet even the cliffs are leaving. A study in 2016 found that they’re losing about 22-32 centimeters of ground a year. Over the past 150 years, the rate of erosion has been 10 times faster than the previous 7,000 years, and this is only expected to accelerate further with climate change.

Brexit hopes to shore up Britain’s borders by other means. A no-deal is often described as a cliff edge. For many Dovorians, and for many in the nation who find security and shelter in the nation’s towering, white walls, there is no place they would rather be.