Skip to main content

'Get them out': A post-Brexit visit to England's least integrated town

Anti-immigrant backlash in Boston sees Lincolnshire town vote 75.6 percent to leave the EU - now the atmosphere is tense
St Botolph's church, commonly known as 'The Stump', in Boston (MEE/Graeme Baker)

BOSTON, UK - In the market square near St Botolph's church, a group of Polish teenagers are chatting. Alternating between perfect English and their razor-sharp mother tongue, they discuss their mums, their plans for the evening and their future careers. One wants to be a police officer.

Two benches along sits an old man smoking strong rollups, muttering to himself. "****ing dickheads," he says half under his breath, but still loud enough to hear. "Get them out."

St Botolph's, affectionately known as "The Stump" by Bostonians, is in fact an imposing structure soaring over the town, making it almost impossible to get lost.

But for a sizeable chunk of the population, who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU last week, "foreigners" and "immigrants" should do just that - preferably back to where they came from.

Such is the apparent division and feeling of anger in this south Lincolnshire town, that one can simply stumble on incidents such as this. And the immigrants here - Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians, Pakistanis, Afghans, to name a few countries of origin - are feeling the pressure. 

'Boston isn't Boston anymore'

Boston last week became the poster boy of the Leave campaign, as 75.6 percent of voters chose to leave - the highest percentage of any area in England.

It is a town that has been transformed since the EU expanded eastward - 13 percent of the population in the 2011 census was non-UK born, while the Lincolnshire average was 3.5 percent. The figure has accelerated in the last five years as EU citizens flocked to take jobs on the town's surrounding farms.

And that rapid demographic change and competition for locals has left many Bostonians feeling left behind, ignored, and living in what they say is a foreign town. Wages have fallen, rents have risen, immigrants take the blame. In January, the Policy Exchange think tank named Boston the least integrated town in England and Wales.

A walk down West Street offers a range of international shops and restaurants - the Europe Express, several Polish shops, Thai and Brazilian restaurants, the Baltic Store, Ali's barbers. In London it may be celebrated as an example of diversity and strength. In Boston, the feeling is different.

Brendan McKeown stops to speak near a Polish store overlooked by a flat festooned with "Vote Leave" posters and Union and St George flags. McKeown voted to leave the EU in last week's referendum, and immigration was his main motivation. 

"Boston isn't Boston anymore. With this result we might keep what we have left, we might get our own town back," he said. "There are so many immigrants. West Street is known as East Europe Street now, every shop that comes up is foreign. That's not right.

"I hadn't voted since 1999, but I got off my arse because this is so important."

The 43-year-old said that the EU vote was not just about immigrants, however. Staying in the EU, he said, means "we will have no government of our own". 

"We have to take back control. I'm unemployed. I want a job but I need an operation, and it's been delayed because of cuts. Once it happens maybe I can get a job, if there are any." 

Vote leave campaign posters above a West Street shop (MEE)

'Sick of being walked on'

Yvonne Stevens, a UKIP councillor, vents her frustration in stronger terms. The town she had lived in for 70 years is unrecognisable, she says, and no one has listened.

"Unless you live in Boston you have no idea what it is like. We have had lots of groups who are coming through. They do not integrate. They get benefits. And they cause so many problems.

"They defecate in the streets. They urinate in the street. They drink in the street. There have been murders, and rapes. The rest of the country does not know what it is like."

She did not offer specific examples, but Boston has in recent years become the murder capital of England and Wales, per capita.

The result of Brexit, she hoped, would mean that many immigrants would "decide to go home".

"Not all Boston people are racist. Not so. England is not a racist country but we are sick of being walked on. People feel abandoned and the government has done nothing to protect us. We go abroad and offer respect - well most of us do - and the same has not been seen here."

And the feeling is so strong that Stevens would rather have no relationship with the rest of Europe if the issue of free movement of people could not be changed. 

"There should be no deal with the EU if there is no change in immigration. Out should mean out."

'A big mistake'

Immigrants are well aware of these feelings. Many spoken to by MEE would not give their names, and were even then reticent to speak about what Brexit meant for them.

One man, who described himself as "not European," shuffled uncomfortably when asked. "I am sorry, I cannot say, cannot tell you. This is just too much," he said, gesturing for the door.

In a Polish butcher's shop, and a Polish general store a few doors down, the answer was the same from several workers: "We cannot talk."

Those who could speak told of their disappointment at the result. Mariya Ivanova arrived in Boston four months ago from Bulgaria, just as the EU referendum debate began to heat up. 

In lilting English, she told MEE that she wanted to stay and, as long as she worked, there should be no problem.

"This is a huge mistake, a big mistake for the UK," she said. "People in Boston, many are very Little England. There are many immigrants. They do not like.

"I want to stay, maybe three or four years. If the immigrants work, life is good. What is the problem?"

And what now for the wider immigrant population?

The Masjid al-Noor, an unassuming brick building on Trinity Street, just off West Street, serves a Muslim community drawn from across the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

After 7pm prayers, the imam and two worshippers sit down to speak of their experiences in Boston, and their hopes for the future.

Huge influx

One of the worshippers, a 24-year-old who moved from Karachi to Boston 15 years ago, said it was difficult to assess the mood of his chosen home. If anything, he was sympathetic to the demands for immigration controls.

"It's a fair comment about too many immigrants. Boston has seen a huge influx of Eastern Europeans. I've lived here for a long time and it's been huge - you can see everything has changed. It's almost a natural reaction to what has happened - people feel threatened.

"Then there have been a number of crimes, especially where we are around here. I think Eastern Europeans have been involved - adult men. 

"So people put two and two together and say look, Eastern Europeans: too many and they are causing too many criminal acts and the EU solution is not the answer."

But while he offered sympathy, he feared his community could be next for attention.

"The mosque has never had any trouble, I've never heard any comments. My father and friends, they've never had issues. 

"But there has always been an issue with Islamophobia, and I think right here, in Boston, it has been overshadowed by the Eastern European community. I think if they deal with that, they may move on to Islamophobia again." 

Abdul, 43, from Baghlan in the north of Afghanistan and who has lived in Boston since 2002, said all would have to "wait and see" what changes were coming.

"We'll see what happens. I have never had any problems here [but] I feel worried by this, sometimes," he said. 

"I want to stay here. Almost half of my life I have been here. It has changed, it is busier. I like Boston, it's why I'm still here. It is my home now."