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The depressed English seaside town of Margate was the epicentre of Nigel Farage’s pitch to those left behind by globalisation. But it’s now Theresa May they’re counting on to deliver UKIP’s platform. By Matthew Clayfield.

Brexit and UKIP in Margate, England

I am standing in a Victorian-era promenade shelter in Margate, a two-hour train ride from London, in the district of Thanet in north-eastern Kent, looking out over the grey-green water, hugging my winter coat around me and trying to imagine the iron pier that used to stretch into the bay here.

It was destroyed by a storm in 1978 and never rebuilt. I have come to Margate to find out why Thanet was once considered a UKIP stronghold and why the party’s prospects here and elsewhere have faded almost to vanishing point since.

This is the shelter where T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land – “On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” – and it has long been common to use this literary connection to write off Margate and its surrounds as barren. That’s partly because it’s been easy to do so. By the 1980s, with mods and skinheads taking to the beach to wage war and the country in recession, the rot had well and truly set in.

Ingrid Spencer was a Conservative Party councillor for Margate between 1999 and 2007, and continues to work for the council in an administrative capacity. I meet her in the offices of the Margate Charter Trustees, where she’s struggling to get the week’s payslips out on time. Her views are her own.

“The accepted practice had been for hotels to go into the black during the season and into the red outside it, with a blip over Christmas if they opened,” Spencer says. “That had been going on for God knows how many decades. Then we went into recession and the banks turned around at the end of the season and said, ‘Thanks very much, but we’re not renewing your overdraft.’ The lucky ones sold out, but many weren’t able to.”

The people most likely to turn up in Margate were the sea-change homeless and the poor, victims of local councils elsewhere that were only too happy to relocate them to the seaside, where the hotels of yesteryear had been repurposed as multiple-occupancy bedsits and sold to housing associations for a song.

“It came to be known as the ‘Costa del Dole,’ ” Spencer says. “If you were going to be unemployed, why be unemployed in wet, horrible Manchester? Why not come down and enjoy the sea, sun and whatever in Margate?

“But if such people couldn’t survive in Manchester and Liverpool, how were they going to survive here? The old industries – tourism and agriculture – were long gone.”

Other people were arriving, too: immigrants and asylum seekers. By the early 2000s, some bright spark had nicknamed nearby Cliftonville “Kosoville” – a name that stuck despite the area’s relative lack of Kosovars. There were reports that the Nayland Rock Hotel, where Mick Jagger partied with Jerry Hall in the 1990s, was being used as a vertical transit camp for asylum seekers awaiting processing.

But it was the closure of Dreamland in 2003, after 83 years in service, that really marked how far the town had fallen in the minds of many who live here. The Coney Island-inspired amusement park on the waterfront was immediately labelled “derelict” and “nightmarish” in the press. “You begin to believe that sort of thing when you read it everywhere,” Spencer says.

Sitting among former Dreamland rides and amusements – fading fibreglass relics now available at rock-bottom prices to collectors of kitsch – Margate’s resident fortune teller, Miranda Jane Dunn, makes me a cup of tea and tries to sum up the early 2000s.

“There were times when it felt like we were living on fresh air,” she says. She smiles widely, as though what she’s telling me isn’t absolutely devastating. “There simply wasn’t any money to go around. We lived on the air we breathed.”

All of which made Margate the perfect place for Nigel Farage. The former UKIP leader and current member of the European Parliament rolled into town for UKIP’s 2015 conference, and the media circus and protesters followed. Despite not actually being from South Thanet, the national seat he was contesting, Farage smelled blood in the water. The by now all-too-familiar combination of decline, squandered promise, wounded pride, and fear of change and the other, was too tempting to pass up. He didn’t win, but UKIP cleaned up at the local level, and the following year the area voted resoundingly for Britain to exit the European Union.

But UKIP’s fortunes have waned significantly in the wake of last year’s referendum. In a move that recalls John Howard’s adoption of Pauline Hanson’s rhetoric in 2001, Prime Minister Theresa May has so thoroughly UKIP-ified the Tories’ message on Brexit and borders that in local elections earlier this month UKIP failed to hold on to even one of the 145 seats it was defending. Farage has credited himself with May’s success: “She is using exactly the same words and phrases that I have been using for 20 years,” he told a television interviewer recently. “The British prime minister was running on exactly the same ticket [as me] and swept the board.”

According to Dunn, Margate’s worst days are behind it. In 2011, the Turner Contemporary gallery opened after nearly a decade of planning. Margate’s old town – a collection of shuttered shopfronts only 15 years ago – now appears to be thriving. Dreamland reopened the same year Farage barrelled through at the height of his powers, though it closed again earlier this year for refurbishments and expansion. It’s set to open again next week and pop group Gorillaz are scheduled to play there next month. “We’re all very excited,” Dunn says.

It’s difficult not to wonder what regeneration really means here, though. When Dreamland reopened, many noted that it was less a funfair than a homage to or pastiche of one, more a weird museum piece than an attraction designed with modern tastes in mind. The old town is dominated by stores trading in bric-a-brac, vintage clothing and overpriced body lotions made from local seaweed. In 2014, a local company raised more than £30,000 on Kickstarter to recreate the Victorian bathing machines that once lined the beach.

In a piece about the town the following year, Vice’s Tim Burrows noted that UKIP and the gentrifiers share “a desire to turn the clock back” that “speaks to the feeling of dread one has about the future in this country”. UKIP plays to the working class, and the gentrifiers to the priced-out artistic one back in the city. It’s difficult not to notice that a striking number of the old town’s stores are only open over the weekend.

“That’s when it comes alive,” says Brian Phipps, 48, a plasterer from nearby Cliffsend. “Then it goes dead again.” He takes a sip of his beer and thinks about it a moment. “Actually, in winter even the weekends are dead.”

Phipps says he was tempted to vote for UKIP in 2015 “as a protest vote” and “to scare the Tories”. He wasn’t worried that such a vote might actually benefit the party.

“I never thought Farage would actually get in,” he says. “Nobody I know was going to vote for him. Nobody with a job, anyway. He was taking advantage of how depressed Margate was. He’s a parasite.”

Phipps’s friend, David Geraghty, 51, agrees. He says May should stop and think about the consequences of adopting UKIP’s message.

“During the day, the boozers are full of UKIP supporters,” he says. “If Farage has his way, their benefits will disappear. They’ll have to get a job. Especially when all the foreigners fuck off because of Brexit. I hope the Tories know they’re relying on people who don’t work.”

For her part, Ingrid Spencer doesn’t believe May has adopted Farage’s rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to his voter base and guarantee her success in next month’s general election. But she does admit that many in Thanet will be deeply disappointed with the prime minister – who was against leaving the EU until she wasn’t – should she fail to deliver the so-called “hard Brexit” that Farage has long championed.

“She has a very tough job ahead of her and she’s not shirking it,” Spencer says. “But people do expect this from her.”

In striking contrast with the old town, Margate’s High Street is populated with second-hand clothing shops, dingy tobacconists and discount stores where everything costs a pound. There’s an old Salvation Army depot that serves now as a Polish-language Catholic church and a pub where ageing skinheads and punks put back pints and talk about anything but politics. Back towards the train station, two homeless people remain motionless in their sleeping bags, exactly where they were when I left them this morning, sleeping beneath the promenade shelter where one of last century’s great poems was written.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Waiting in dreamland". Subscribe here.

Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.

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