When Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for Grimsby’s Royal Dock in 1849, he said it would serve “not only as a place of refuge and refitment for our mercantile marine, and calculated to receive the greatest steamers of Her Majesty’s Navy, but I trust it will be the foundation of a great commercial port”.
“This work in future ages,” he continued, “when we shall long have quitted this scene, and when perhaps our names will be forgotten, will, I hope, become a new centre of life with the vast and ever increasing commerce of the world and a most important link in the connection of the East and West.”
The Prince’s speech came at the mid-point of a century that had been kind to Grimsby. Its population was only 1,500 in 1800. By 1900, it was a boom town of 60,000. Most of that growth came in the second half of the century, when the new docks and a railway line allowed this Humberside town to thrive. The Royal Docks, and the two-hundred-foot high hydraulic tower modelled on Siena’s Torre del Mangia, remain today as a red-brick testament to Victorian ambition.
But rather than Grimsby flourishing as a link between East and West, it was fish that built this town. The fish docks were finished shortly after the Royal ones and the town grew to become what, according to some, was the largest fishing port in the world. In 1930, there were 450 trawlers in Grimsby, each with a crew of 20 men and supporting many more jobs on shore.
Today, the statue of Albert, on which his remarks are engraved, looks out on to a rather emptier sea. Fishing is almost non-existent, with fewer than 500 people working in the industry. When I visit, on a Saturday, the action was not to be found at the port, but at the shopping centre in town, where indications of Grimsby’s former economic might are hard to detect.
“We haven’t fished here for years,” said one Labour-voting pensioner. “And the town hasn’t been the same since the fishing stopped.” That is borne out by the numbers. Unemployment in Grimsby is almost double the national figure and wages are low.
Great Grimsby is a Labour seat, with Melanie Onn defending a majority of 4,500. Given that Ukip and the Conservatives each won around 8,500 votes at the last election, Onn’s tally of 13,400 is far from insurmountable. Complicating matters further is the 70 per cent Leave vote in Grimsby, which makes it one of the most Brexit-friendly seats in the country.
It’s not hard to see why support for Brexit is so strong in a town built on fish. The Brexit vote here was as much about taking back control of our waters as our borders. There may not be much fishing any more, but Grimsby’s residents overwhelmingly know who to blame for the town’s decline.
“All the fish that made us rich is still out there,” one voter tells me. “But we don’t catch it any more. Explain that to me.”
The vast majority of fishermen consider their industry’s decline to be a direct consequence of political choices. Westminster apathy meant the Cod Wars ended in 1976 with the UK surrendering fishing rights to Iceland. And around the same time, it was a political commitment to the European project that trumped the interests of British fishermen. Ted Heath saw fishing as a dangerous complication to UK accession and so brushed aside the industry’s concerns when the UK joined the EEC.
The fishermen’s main gripe with the EU is the Common Fisheries Policy: they are understandably maddened by the times they unavoidably catch more than their quota, and so must throw dead fish back into the sea.
There is also a sense that the UK has been shortchanged in the quota calculations. In 2015, according to the EU’s numbers, EU vessels caught 683,000 tonnes of fish – worth £484 million – in UK waters. UK vessels caught 111,000 tonnes – worth £114 million – in the waters of other member states.
Mike Hookem MEP, Ukip’s fisheries spokesman and the party’s candidate for Great Grimsby, has fishing in his blood – his family were in the industry for more than a century. He is standing on the slogan “Make Grimsby Great” (the “again” is implied), and he shares the uncompromising stance on Brexit that many fishermen take.
For Hookem, failure in the negotiations would mean foreign vessels fishing our waters. “We’ve got to have that commitment that our waters are non-negotiable,” he told me. “We’re having our waters back, we’re having our fish back, we’re having our jobs back.”
He has seized on the ambiguous line on fishing in the Conservative manifesto, in which the party commits to maritime control “where we have historically exercised sovereign control”. Hookem claims this is backsliding because the 200-mile international fishing limits were introduced in 1976, once the UK was already bound by the Common Fisheries Policy. That argument has been dismissed by George Eustice, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has pointed out that Britain automatically regains full control of what is known as its Exclusive Economic Zone upon leaving.
Even then, Hookem admits that his dream of British boats fishing British waters will be hard to realise. “It’s a multi-million-pound business for the others,” he said. “And they’re not going to let it go.”
Yet Grimsby has filled the gap that fishing left by becoming the national hub for fish processing. Everything from cheap supermarket fish to high-end smoked products is prepared and packaged in the town. The industry is directly responsible for 5,000 jobs. According to Simon Dwyer, a consultant who knows the local economy well, the town’s processing plants account for 20,000 jobs in the wider supply chain.
And this is where the Brexit paradox kicks in. The town, with much justification, blames the EU for its economic decline. Yet the ways it has found to muddle along are embedded in complicated continental supply chains.
Despite its large port, Grimsby-based fish processing businesses import much of their fish from Norway on lorries through the EU. The fall in the pound has already made things harder. Tariffs, as well as costly delays at the border, would push up processing costs even further.
Even if fishing were to return to Grimsby, smooth and tariff-free trade with Europe would be a priority for the industry, given that we export most of the fish we catch and import most of the fish we eat. Moreover, if British fishing bounces back, it is unlikely to do so in Grimsby: it will head for ports where larger fleets are already set to capitalise on the renaissance.
Grimsby, in other words, is a chastening reminder of the gap between the expectations of the liberation that Brexit will bring and the realities of going it alone.
Yes, leaving the CFP will enable the UK to set its own fisheries policy – and those policies should certainly be designed with the places like Grimsby in mind. But an element of international cooperation in the North Sea is inevitable. The free movement of fish is not something the British government can stop, and preventing over-fishing will require collaborative action.
Still, even if the idea of Grimsby returning to its fishing heyday is far-fetched, that doesn’t mean government should be happy for things to continue as they are. Places like Grimsby voted for change. On polling day, it is there that the Conservatives – even after a lacklustre campaign – may capitalise on the fact that they are seen as best-placed to deliver that change.
Yes, the government has a duty to be realistic about what it can and cannot do after Brexit. But the Conservatives also owe it to voters, some of whom will have put their trust in the party for the first time, to be imaginative about future possibilities.
A good place to start would be the “free ports” proposed by MP Rishi Sunak, outlined in a Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet last year. (Full disclosure: CapX is owned by the CPS.) His excellent idea is to liberate down-at-heel places like Grimsby and breathe new economic life into them by transforming them into hubs for international trade. And it is only possible because Britain is leaving the EU.
Perhaps that, and ideas like it, can set Grimsby on the path to becoming the “new centre of life” that Prince Albert intended.