'We Want Our Country Back': Why Thetford is the Frontline of Brexit
Thetford, a market town in the Breckland district of Norfolk, England, overwhelmingly voted "leave" in the June 23 2016 Brexit referendum. The result exposed the deep, previously unacknowledged socioeconomic divisions in the town - divisions that blight many other regions of the UK.

By Kit Klarenberg

'This Is My Home'
By Thetford's riverfront, a statue of Captain Mainwaring — the main character in classic UK sitcom Dad's Army — perches proudly on a bench. The beloved series, set in World War Two, was shot in the Norfolk town, and it's not hard to see why the show's producers picked it as a filming location. Even in 2017 it retains a thoroughly quaint air, with historic buildings from several epochs dotting the landscape, and ubiquitous signage denoting centuries-old sites of significance.

Nonetheless, it was a town that enthusiastically embraced the opportunity for change in June 2016, voting overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Moreover, over the past decade Thetford has undergone a seismic demographic shift, with thousands of Eastern Europeans moving to the area to work in farms and factories.

Attesting to this, just over the bridge from Mainwaring's seat lies Kubus — a small convenience store specializing in Eastern European goods, one of eight such outlets in Thetford. Inside, Sandra, who moved to the UK from Vilnius seven years ago, is buying groceries. She wasn't happy about the referendum result, and has felt less welcome in the UK ever since.
"I want to stay here. The UK is my home now. I have a job, I pay tax. I don't feel threatened but often customers are unhappy when they hear me speaking Lithuanian to my colleagues."
Lithuanian National
The vodka selection at Kubus, Thetford. Sputnik ©
Just up the road, Polish Mama's Kitchen wears its origins and offerings on its sleeve, and its interior evokes the milk bars ("bar mleczny") popularized in Krakow in the 1950s — chalked menus listing the day's delicacies in Polish, recently prepared breaded pork cutlets and pierogi cooling behind protective glass.

Owner and head chef Kaya moved to the UK in 2000 with her British husband, before her home country's accession to the EU. The move was not financially-motivated, as she ran her own small but successful business in Poland. Her cafe has been open two years, primarily serving Eastern European clientele, although Britons do stop by from time to time — "brave ones," she laughs. Brexit has left her disappointed, but not dejected.

"The attitude towards Polish people here has changed a lot. When I first came, I was well-received. Now when people hear my accent, there are less smiles, and more checking of bank notes. Friends of mine are going. They want some certainty from the government and they're not getting that. They also have a sense they'll never be fully accepted. I think the majority will leave in the end," she says.

While she says a friend of hers was attacked with a knife because he was Polish, it's not merely a hostile climate that's precipitating their exodus from Britain. She and her friends are predicting a major economic downturn in the near future — Poland experienced major hardship during the 1980s, and their experience suggests to them the same thing could be lurking round the corner for the UK.

Nonetheless, she herself will be staying for the time being, as her son is studying — after that, she's not sure.

"When you live abroad for so long, you lose touch with your motherland — but I probably will move back eventually."
Owner and Head Chef, Polish Mama's Kitchen
Patriotic ales on tap at Thetford pub The Black Horse. Sputnik ©
Grade II listed pub The Black Horse is considerably more packed than Kaya's cafe, and pierogi certainly isn't on the menu. One won't find Tyskie or Lech here — the most exotic fare on tap is Stella Artois, although the establishment's principal offering is British ale, patriotic bitters such as Spitfire and Bombardier, the kind Nigel Farage is proud to be photographed swigging.

At the bar, an individual who identifies himself as Robertson sits with a friend, nursing a nut brown pint. Above his head hangs an advert for a beverage named "Innorowt"- the label features the Union Jack and EU Flag, and two British bulldogs engaged in an intense staring competition.

Robertson is a big fan of leaving the EU, but feels the process has gone on too long. He wants "owt" — and he wants it now.

"I want our country to be our country again. I'm English and that's the be-all and end-all. [Immigrants] don't integrate and there's too many of them. They've made this town worse. I was born and bred here, and when I was younger it used to take me hours to walk down town, because I knew everyone on the way — now it takes me ten minutes," he laments.

'Belgian Bastards'
Elsewhere, a man named Ivor is similarly unimpressed with the way Brexit negotiations are proceeding — in particular, he's very unenthusiastic with the country's "dreadful" Prime Minister, Theresa May. He feels she has neither "guts" nor "balls" — she should be telling to Brussels to "p*** off once and for all," rather than kowtowing to a "bunch of Belgian bastards." He would prefer Nigel Farage to be leading negotiations.

Nonetheless, he remains resolutely committed to leaving.

"I don't know anyone round here who voted to stay. Nobody wants it. It's about money. We waste £50 million per day on being a member, and get nothing in return. We want control back," he says.

While he claims his own stance on Brexit has "nothing to do with foreigners" as they don't cause him problems personally, he acknowledges it was the foremost concern in the minds of most voters locally.

"All of a sudden, 30 percent of the population here became Eastern European. It's a different culture — they carry knives. They've affected public services. My granddaughters go to a local school, and less than half the people there speak English," he concludes.

"They should all f*** off…" mutters one of his compatriots, who declines to comment further.

In a small retail park not far away, nestled next to a large Aldi — the discount German retailer, which became the UK's fifth largest supermarket chain in February 2017 — is Maxi Poli, a sizeable independent superstore.

Stepping inside, one could be forgiven for believing they'd entered a wormhole and travelled 2,000 kilometers to Warsaw in the blink of an eye — there's not a single Western product on show, staff and customers alike converse in Polish, and adverts for local Polish businesses, including a hairdresser and tarot reader, are plentiful.

When store manager Amin moved to Thetford, he noticed there were no dedicated shops catering to the local Eastern European population, so decided to open a small outlet. Before long, it had blossomed into a chain, and today he employs 18 people in his flagship store alone — although things haven't been the same since June 2016.

"Business has gone down and our profits have been hurt. The cost of importing many things has gone up a lot because of the weak pound, but we're still selling for the same prices, because we want to keep customers coming — although they're spending less anyway. It's harder to survive now. Hopefully things won't get worse, but if they do we'll have to close down," Amin says.

While he'll be staying put in the UK if that does come to pass, the same can't be said of his staff.
"They're very worried. They have no idea what's going to happen in the future, and they can't plan anything. Some were planning to buy houses here. They aren't any more, they're thinking of moving somewhere else instead — Norway, Germany, or back home. Life's difficult for them at the moment and they're not happy."
Amin Bashdar
Owner, Maxi Poli

Waves of Immigration
Eastern European meat products at Maxi Poli, now more expensive to import due to Brexit. Sputnik ©
As his name might suggest, Amin isn't Polish — he's an Iraqi Kurd, although holds a British passport, and very much regards the country as home. In the 1980s, Kurds fled repression in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, and took up residence in the UK in droves. Other groups have followed their lead in bursts since.

In that sense, Thetford is a microcosm of the UK — there have been many waves of immigration to the town over time, although in recent years the rate has increased significantly, facilitated by the EU's freedom of movement policies. In the 1990s, Portuguese citizens came for the first time, and thousands remain today. The town is even home to a miniature "Portuguese Quarter" of sorts — a small enclave of family businesses, the apparent nucleus of which is cafe O Cabaz.

The surrounding streets are largely deserted and silent, but inside the mood is vivacious — young and old alike chat animatedly in their mother tongue, hammer fruit machines and partake in Toucinho do Ceu ("Bacon from Heaven"), coffee and Sagres, among other regional delights.

No one seems interested in pausing their afternoon fun to discuss politics, although a youngish man smoking outside says Brexit is "great" because there's been too much immigration to the area, before excusing himself to call a relative in Lisbon.

This apparent cognitive dissonance is referenced with some amusement by Terence Lamb, in the bar of the local Royal British Legion club. In the 1950s, Thetford became an "overspill town" — between 1957 and 1990, former residents of East London moving to the area grew its population by around 10,000. These people, Lamb says, have been unenthusiastic about subsequent influxes.

Lamb is a three-time elected mayor of Thetford — "always as an independent," he's keen to stress — in 1970, 1989 and 2012, and remains a significant figure in local politics. He also enthusiastically supports Brexit.

"This is about sovereignty. We've rolled over for the EU for years. We're in danger of not getting out at all — we must completely cut ourselves off from Brussels. European courts should have no jurisdiction here," he explains.

He notes Polish immigration to Thetford has a long and established history, beginning in the wake of World War II — many Poles who fought alongside the British over the course of the conflict made the country their new home. To this day, many ostensibly British families in the area boast Polish surnames.

"People worry that the Poles like to drink…like I like to drink," he chuckles, raising his tumbler, "but they're wonderful people. It's the numbers though. There's too many now. This country is a small island. When I was at school, we were told we were overpopulated — 45 million people lived here then — and there were schemes encouraging immigration to Australia and Canada to reduce the numbers. Now there are 70 million, and the government's saying we need even more."
"I say to people complaining about new immigrants, now you know how I felt when you came in. I don't blame people coming here, I blame our people for not working, for not standing up and doing what they should do. When a shop here falls vacant, Poles take it over and run it and seem to succeed. I'm critical of British people who allow this to happen. We need to do work ourselves."
Terence Lamb
Three-time Mayor of Thetford
The Railway pub, Thetford. Sputnik ©
It's fitting Thetford, a town so quintessentially British, so perfectly embodies the national divisions starkly exposed by the Brexit referendum result, and the significant socioeconomic impact leaving the EU could have on the UK, and demonstrably already has to a degree.

While negotiations inch forward glacially, the debates had by communities, friends and workmates will only intensify as to whether Brexit will benefit or destroy Britain, disagreements that will surely continue well after the UK has ceased to be a member of the bloc.

For the time being, the residents of Thetford - and presumably many other towns of its ilk - will keep calm and carry on, while unseen machinations in the halls of Westminster and Brussels impact their day-to-day lives.
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