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World Away From Westminster: Future of the UK in the Brexit era is new and worrying, John Ray writes

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Ray

I’m an ex ex-pat; and it’s all a bit strange. I’m back to find my country ill at ease with itself.

I’ve come home after more than a decade working overseas, reporting from the troubled world around us. Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Africa, there’s rarely been a dull moment.

Dull - or at least predictable - is what the world thought of us. The Queen, the Union Flag. Good old reliable Britain; a by-word for stability.

Then Brexit happened. And soon I found I was reporting – informally - on the Dis-united Kingdom to a puzzled world beyond.

Beth with her son Morgan (left) who is severely autistic and needs his nappy changing 12 times a day. Credit: ITV News

"Tell me; what’s happening in Britain,’’ more than one president, opposition leader or senior aid worker has asked me, genuinely baffled. "Why are you leaving Europe?"

As I say; a little strange. Clearly things have changed since I left, first for China, in 2006; when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister and the Great Financial Crash was two years away.

A decade of austerity later and I’m back. As government has reined in spending, so public provision has receded leaving exposed a million private agonies.

Britain in the post-Brexit era is unfamiliar, John Ray writes. Credit: ITV News

In Hull, we met single mother Beth, who cares for her severely autistic son, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s no respite help. Her local council, forced to implement huge cuts, says he doesn’t qualify.

"If I had someone who could come in for a few hours, and play with him in the garden. That’s all I need," she says.

"I’m at the point now that lack of sleep…constantly being in the house, going out once a week to somewhere other than these four walls. It gets on me. I feel down all time.’’

Austerity has left many sectors in the UK struggling to cope. Credit: ITV News

In Oldham, there are five thousand people – often vulnerable families – waiting for decent housing the local authority doesn’t have the money to provide.

We spoke to one lucky survivor of the system. Lauren has learning difficulties and speech and hearing problems.

Yet for six years she’s bounced from bed and breakfast to house-shares with dangerous strangers.

"A lot of them have problems with alcohol. A lot of them carry weapons,’’ she told me.

"I’m very exposed. And then especially round men that’s got mental health issues, or men who want you or your body."

Laura has finally found a home in Oldham, after bouncing from one place to the next. Credit: ITV News

In Liverpool, there’s Dominic, a father of six who says the pressure of work led him to alcohol abuse, unemployment, and then a desperation that drove him to steal food for his children.

Dominic doesn’t need pity, and not every viewer will offer it.

But he’s just one of many people I met who complained the benefits cap and Universal Credit – designed to simplify the system and reward work - has trapped them in poverty and misery.

The city’s famous community spirit is intact – we saw it in the force of nature that is Shirley Marshall of the L6 community centre in Everton where they were busy providing, among many essentials beyond the pockets of local people, baby food and school uniforms.

Shirley Marshall says the UK is turning 'into a third world country.' Credit: ITV News

What’s missing is the sense of optimism that things will get better.

"I think we’re turning into a third world country, I really do. People have got absolutely nothing," says Shirley.

Across in Oldham, a similar assessment from Jeanette Beblot, who runs a crisis advice centre. It’s a booming business.

"My generation, we had the idea that you’d get an education, then a job then a better one, and you’d move up. I haven’t had that conversation with anyone for a while."

Another unifying – and disturbing - theme – is a lack of faith in the ability of politicians and politics to change things for the better.

For some Brexit is a last hope.

I remember the off-camera words of one volunteer who works with the homeless and hungry.

Oldham is in the midst of a housing crisis. Credit: ITV News

"We need to get out so we can spend more of our money on our own problems. Don’t get me wrong, we need migrants, but it’s got to be controlled."

Then in the same moment, a women pushing a pram came into the centre. One of the town’s European migrants. Her husband had had an accident and could no longer work. Rent and food worries followed.

The same volunteer was immediately busy doling out sympathy and advice.

Such are the contradictions of modern Britain.

For every Brexiteer we met a Remainer.

The housing crisis, universal credit and social care are all issues which are unresolved. Credit: ITV News

But everywhere, in Liverpool, Oldham and Hull, we found the kind of disillusionment that fed into that referendum result of 2016. And perhaps it’s getting deeper.

Three years of political stagnation, three years of Westminster – and yes, the media – obsessed with Brexit; three years in which the controversy of universal credit and the crises in housing and social care have been unresolved.

What happens next – if Brexit is a bright new dawn or a darkening of the economic horizon - should matter most to those who have least.

But Westminster has never felt so distant. And as Shirley in Liverpool put it so eloquently: "When you aspire to survive the week, it can all seem irrelevant."

I still recognise my country. So much of it is the same old familiar place. But we are in danger of losing our faith in the future, and our ability to make it better. That’s new and it’s worrying.