The son of Pakistani immigrants, Sajaad Ahmed voted to leave the European Union because he sees only one way to reverse a decades-long dwindling of resources in Britain’s most deprived town: Curb immigration.
Deteriorating public services, competition for jobs and a general economic malaise are the constant refrains of the 61% of voters in this northwest English town who opted to leave the EU, many citing migration as the root cause.
Their long-simmering frustrations exploded onto the world stage on Friday when 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, sending global markets into a tailspin and raising questions about the future of the European Union itself.
“It’s not racism. It’s just that we’ve been pushed to the back of the queue,” Ahmed said as he waited in a minivan to pick up his wife and children from the Bargains 4 Less Superstore in Oldham a day after he defied the advice of relatives and voted leave.
“It’s like you’ve had the fun, let these people come in and have a little bit…a piece of the pie. But the pie is getting increasingly smaller.”
Of a dozen Leave voters interviewed in Oldham, named the most deprived town in Britain by the Office for National Statistics, all cited shortages of good jobs and over-stretched services—and all said migrants were a factor.
“I’m just sick of all those foreigners coming in. And wasting all that money sending it to Europe,” said unemployed Kim Marshland 48, who was drinking a pint of lager on the terrace of a pub decked out with strings of English flags.
Ahmed, 45, said he spends an hour a day ferrying his four children to three different schools because there are not enough places at the school next to their house.
He has started working as a carer in the evening to top up his dwindling wages as a taxi driver to pay for tutors to help his eldest daughter get into university, something he never managed himself.
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Queues are longer every time he visits the doctor, friends can’t get the jobs they are qualified for, and his sister’s rent has soared by 50% in the last few years, he complains.
While the problems have grown in a period of austerity ushered in by the centre-right Conservative government—which Ahmed voted for after defecting from centre-left Labour—he insists most are due to increasing numbers sharing the same meagre resources.
“My doctor is still my doctor. He’s doing the same hours,” he said. “But the queues get bigger and they say there’s nothing we can do.”
Oldham retains some of the red-brick monuments to its 19th century heyday as one of the textile capitals of the world, but after decades of decline its centre is dominated by cheap chain stores.
“It’s the Eastern Europeans,” said gardener John Crilly, 23, explaining that his decision to vote Leave was partly due to problems he had with some difficult Romanian neighbours.
“We live next door to them and it’s a nightmare. There’s no respect and that.”
Ahmed, like many in the city, divides immigrants into those who benefit the economy and those who drain resources, and a key objection to the European Union is its failure to distinguish between the two.
“I take a lot of Eastern Europeans to work in Manchester, you know. I hold my hands up and say, yeah, that’s the kind of people we want,” he said.
“What about the ones we don’t see at work, there’s 20 of them living in a house. They’re there all day,” he said, citing “whole streets” of such houses in the area where he lives, including former tenants in a small house he owns who “stripped the place bare”.
The right-wing anti-EU UK Independence Party has been growing in popularity locally, scoring around 20% of the vote in the three parliamentary constituencies around Oldham in last year’s national election.
However, Labour retained all three seats, though most voters appear to have defied its call for a Remain vote on Thursday. The Conservatives have just two of 60 seats on the town council.
Oldham had almost no Leave posters, campaigners said, leaving people to get their information on the EU referendum from canvassers and the media. Ahmed said he reads the Daily Mail online and sometimes buys The Sun, both eurosceptic newspapers which urged readers to back Brexit.
He confidently reels off answers to every one of the Remain campaign’s concerns: The financial turmoil is temporary, trade benefits everyone and won’t stop, EU countries will be happy to give his well-educated children visas to work and study.
But as with most Leave voters interviewed, his optimism that the economy will improve in the wake of Brexit was not backed up by any specific reasons other than the saving of resources no longer devoted to the EU.
For many, a deep nostalgia appeared to play a role in their vote—nostalgia for a time they remember the economy and public services in the region as better and when Britain was less apologetic about its place in the world.
“We’re falling behind the rest of the world and someone has to turn it around,” said retired truck driver Roy Chaney, 72, who cited the economy and immigration as his reasons for voting to leave. “Australia has the best idea. They turn the (migrant) boats around and turn them back.”
As for Ahmed, he hopes leaving the EU will bring back Britain’s glory days.
“I was born and raised in this country, but it seems to have gone downhill,” he said as he packed his kids into his van. “I’m hoping we will get back to what we used to be. Great.”