A fake Republican ad put Jaywick in the global headlines, but it's Trump who could sink this struggling UK village
In a sense, the southern English seaside village of Jaywick, Essex, was never supposed to exist. Constructed on reclaimed salt marshes in the 1930s as a summer resort, its buildings were not intended for permanent habitation. But in a nation short of housing after the devastation of the Second World War, many people chose to move there, despite its lack of infrastructure (a mains sewerage system was not installed until the late 1970s). For years, locals have resisted council plans to demolish their homes, and Jaywick has acquired a reputation for a variety of social problems, including high levels of unemployment and substance abuse. It is now consistently ranked among the most deprived places in the UK, hitting the top of this dubious chart in both 2010 and 2015.
Long a byword for poverty and societal breakdown in the UK press, an unlikely turn of events forced Jaywick into the global headlines last week. Ahead of the US midterm elections, the Republican candidate for the 11th congressional district of Illinois, Nick Stella, used an image of a forlorn, potholed street in the village as part of his online electoral campaign. Referencing the American sub-prime mortgage crisis and featuring a superimposed billboard image of the Republican congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Facebook ad read: “Only you can stop this from becoming reality! Help President Trump keep America on track and thriving… We can't go back to foreclosures, unemployment and economic recession.”
In the village, the discovery of the advert by Buzzfeed News prompted anger and justified accusations of fake news. “Many Jaywick Sands residents will be outraged at being smeared in this way and rightly so,” said local council representative Paul Honeywood. He added that the photograph was out of date, and that significant investment had been made in the past few years to improve Jaywick’s roads and infrastructure. The Stella campaign half-apologised for any offence caused, but added that it had chosen the photograph as “an example of a town overburdened by poor governance”. In any case, the damage had been done, another insult to Jaywick’s reputation, used to score cheap points in an election taking place thousands of miles away.
Perhaps it’s partly a legacy of filial tensions that go back to the war of independence, but the much-vaunted “special relationship” between Britain and the US has come unstuck in previous election campaigns. During the 2004 US presidential election, the UK’s liberal Guardian newspaper mounted an unusual and somewhat tongue-in-cheek campaign that rapidly descended into high controversy.
Reasoning that, after four years of rising greenhouse gas emissions and war-driven foreign policy, the re-election of George W Bush was a grave prospect not just for America, but the world at large, the newspaper bought an electoral roll from Clark County, Ohio, for $25, and proposed that readers write letters to voters in the swing district and try to persuade them to vote for John Kerry. A staggering 11,000 Guardian readers signed up for “Operation Clark County”, which quickly sparked a furious response in the US and antagonised far more Ohioans than it inspired. In fact, it is entirely plausible that this intervention helped swing the county for Mr Bush, instead.
That particular plan has now entered the annals of truly historic editorial misjudgements, but the idea behind it still has some merit. In an increasingly interconnected world, the choices made in western polling booths often have repercussions far beyond national borders. While the Stella campaign’s choice of imagery might have been as misleading as it was cynical, there is an ironic and undeniable link between the welfare of the inhabitants of Jaywick, and an election taking place more than 6,000 kilometres away in Illinois.
Jaywick has faced down numerous challenges over the years, and now its residents insist that it is finally on the up. However, built on marshland, much of which is at or below sea level, it has long been threatened by flooding. Despite investment in sea defences in recent decades, that danger is now existential. In both 2013 and 2017, the entire population of more than 4,000 people had to be evacuated because of the risk to their homes and lives.
With Mr Stella – a man who, like his president, denies all evidence of man-made climate change – on the ballot, this danger only worsens. Unless radical action is taken across the globe and the US rejoins the Paris climate accords, then in all likelihood, and despite the best efforts the people who live there, Jaywick will one day be lost to the tides. That’s something Mr Trump could stop becoming a reality. Sadly, there are no signs that he is willing to do so.
Dan Hancox is a journalist and author living in London
Updated: November 5, 2018 05:23 PM