Brexit town wants government to 'get on with it' and leave EU

August 31, 2016 7:16 AM EDT

People relax in front of beach huts in Clacton-on-Sea, a town in eastern England, where 70 percent of people voted on June 23, 2016 to leave the European Union, Britain August 22, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

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By Sarah Young

CLACTON-ON-SEA, England (Reuters) - Gazing out across the calm, gray North Sea toward northern France, families in Clacton enjoy the English summer, some sipping tea, others with cans of beer, outside wooden beach huts strung with union jack flags.

Two months ago, many residents of this town of 55,000 in eastern England, were celebrating: 70 percent of people in the area voted on June 23 to leave the European Union, helping secure Britain's 52-48 percent result in favor of quitting the bloc.

But the joy of that victory has begun to fade in Clacton, a town represented by the only member in parliament of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP). It has been replaced by frustration at the lack of any clear progress toward making Brexit actually happen.

"We need to get moving," said Janet Ford, 60, a retired bookkeeper at a Brexit-themed party held by UKIP in a pub.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will not trigger Article 50, the formal mechanism which sets the clock ticking on a two-year deadline to leave the EU, in 2016. Media reports have said it might be as late as the second half of next year, a notion rejected by some government sources.

May, who has established departments to negotiate a new relationship with the EU and sign trade deals with other countries, has said that Britain needs time to prepare before Article 50 is triggered.

But for Tony Goldstone, 56, a retiree who has been in favor of leaving the EU for over 10 years, the referendum result lacks weight until the formal leaving process is started.

"We're happy but I don't think it will sink in until they trigger Article 50, because at the moment I feel like we're in limbo," he said, nibbling on sandwiches and chatting to fellow UKIP supporters at the British flag-festooned event.

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Once a fringe movement, UKIP's years-long anti-EU campaign helped shape Britain's future. The party came third in the 2015 general election with more than 12 percent of the vote, but under Britain's winner-takes-all system, has only the Clacton seat in parliament.

UKIP's success in the town is linked to the area's high retiree population, with one in three residents a pensioner.

"We've seen the other side of it. We remember a better Britain," said Ford, suggesting a reason why older people in the area tend to vote for UKIP.

Many pro-Brexit voters are stirred by a nostalgic vision of Britain. They talk of a country which made its own laws, was unburdened by EU rules and was less crowded before hundreds of thousands of EU migrants began settling in the UK from the mid-2000s.

"I like the idea that we should run our own country. Immigration was part of it, not all of it. It's everything really associated with making our own laws and controlling our own borders," Ford said.

With its pleasure pier of fairground rides stretching 300 meters (yards) off the shore, and cluster of bed and breakfasts, Clacton used to be a destination for holidaying Britons before trips to Europe became popular from the 1960s onwards.

About 80 miles (130 km) from London, Clacton has above-average unemployment and part of neighboring Jaywick has been classified as the most deprived place in England.

That poverty and a lack of investment is why Graham Thornton, 53, a truck driver said he voted to leave the EU.

"We need to get our country back," he said. "We need to get it back to the reality where everybody can earn a decent living, everybody can live in a decent home."

Munching on his takeaway fish and chips on a bench in the town, Thornton does not want the Prime Minister to delay triggering Article 50.

"We need to get out as soon as possible and then start talking about what (trade) deals we're going to get because it doesn't matter what deals we're going to get. Can we live on our own? You better believe we can," said.

As May and her government return to work from their summer breaks, executing Brexit will be foremost in their minds, and UKIP and its supporters in places like Clacton will be there to make sure it stays the priority.

"I want UKIP there to keep them (the government) in check, to make sure it goes through properly and they don't make too many compromises," said Goldstone.

(Additional reporting by Alex Fraser Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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