SUNDERLAND, England — They train in a gym near the docks of this old shipbuilding city, men who see cage fighting either as an escape from hard times or as a livelihood, bringing in a few hundred dollars every weekend.
But local programs like the gym — which rely on a charity that gets European Union funds for neglected communities — could soon become casualties of Britain’s looming split from the bloc. Even as the British government tries to shield big businesses from the economic fallout, many in Sunderland say, with some bitterness, it is once again ignoring the concerns of people like them.
“The City of London’s protected at all costs,” said Steven France, who runs the gym, “but that’s no good for us on the outposts of England.”
A breakfast club run by the Salvation Army in Sunderland, where one resident said, “People here are using food banks all the time.”CreditMary Turner for The New York Times
Two years after the people of Sunderland voted 61 percent to 39 percent in a national referendum for Britain to extract itself from the European Union, their anger at what they see as Britain’s two-tiered economy and indifferent political class has hardly cooled.
Where they once saw a vote to leave the European Union as a way to strike a blow against the establishment, they now see the process known as Brexit as just another broken promise made by the political elites.
Perhaps as a result, some recent polls have shown a broad cooling of attitudes toward withdrawal, in Sunderland and other places that voted to leave. Many have come to doubt the promises trumpeted by the Leave campaign, including new trade deals, an infusion of money into the health care system and complete independence from the European Union.
In dozens of interviews, residents said that what Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has done since the referendum — pressing ahead with austerity measures, presenting a business-friendly Brexit plan that fails to deliver all the promised benefits — only reinforced the sense that their needs were being ignored.
The resentment runs strongest among hard-line supporters of Brexit, who want a clean break with the bloc.
“She should listen to what the voters said and come out — just come out — like the northeast said to,” Matthew Newton, a 62-year-old retired council employee, said over a beer at a pub, the Peacock, referring to Mrs. May. “She thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll see what the ones in London say.’ But we’re a part of England, too.”
With a population of just over 275,000 on the blustery coast of the North Sea, Sunderland is the 28th-most deprived city or town in the country, according to a government measure released in 2016, with nearly a third of children there growing up in poverty. It has been hit hard by public spending cuts as part of the Conservative-led government’s austerity program. It is also in the region whose economy stands to be walloped worst by Brexit: Nearly 60 percent of exports from the northeast go to the European Union.
People described the 2016 referendum as a chance to get London’s attention after generations of elected leaders neglected its sagging economy, which was devastated after the shipbuilding industry collapsed and the mines closed.
The vote was ostensibly a protest against the obligations of European Union membership, especially provisions that allow citizens of any member state to live and work in Britain. But it also reflected resentment toward the political elite and promises that the membership fees sent to the European Union would be used for Britons instead.
Many in Sunderland say they are growing increasingly doubtful that those promises will be fulfilled, and mindful that northeastern England has received considerable funding from the European Union — more than 426 million pounds, or about $445 million, for the period from 2014 to 2020, according to local officials.
They credit the government for saving jobs at a Nissan plant in Sunderland, Britain’s largest car factory, which exports more than half of its cars to other European Union countries. After Nissan hinted at pulling investments from the factory following the 2016 referendum, the government responded with measures to protect the carmaker from any negative economic impact.
But residents said that step alone was meager in the face of plummeting benefits, rising food prices and looming uncertainty across the work force, which in the northeast is heavily dependent on exports to European countries that could become costlier after Brexit.
In a no-frills pub in Southwick, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, John Taylor, a 58-year-old bricklayer, said he had voted to leave the European Union to stop foreign workers from getting jobs and benefits in Britain. But he said he was also concerned that he might never receive the benefits that he had earned over a lifetime of paying taxes, saying he had not gotten any government help during a recent stretch of unemployment.
“Even though I’ve paid in taxes 40 years,” he said, “I don’t get nothing back.”
A friend at the next bar stool, who gave his name only as Francis, took some pleasure in Mrs. May’s plight, with members of Parliament lining up to oppose her deal. He said her brief barnstorming tour to drum up public support had fallen on deaf ears in Sunderland.
“She’s got the gumption to come all around the country and ask us for help after she’s took all the money off us,” he said, referring to benefit cuts.
In a mall in the city center, Patricia Stokoe said the way London politicians treated Northern England told her all she needed to know about Mrs. May’s draft deal.
“What she’s agreed to, I don’t know, but I think one way or another we will be still in the European Union,” Ms. Stokoe said, adding, a bit wearily, “I didn’t think it would take this long.”
At the same mall, Paul Yearnshire, 44, a builder and a Brexit supporter, was taking a coffee break with his construction crew. Mr. Yearnshire said he worried about quitting the bloc without a deal but did not know if Mrs. May’s plan was the right one.
He was hopeful that Brexit would reduce migration and end what he described as the problem of multiethnic communities, views reflecting anti-immigrant attitudes that played a major role in the referendum campaign and that many people in Sunderland still hold. But he was less sure that leaving the European Union would do anything to improve schools or create jobs. His 17-year-old son, Ryan, was expelled after his school did not accommodate the family’s pleas for extra attention. Now Ryan works beside his father on the same construction crew.
“People here are using food banks all the time,” the elder Mr. Yearnshire said. “How will Brexit affect that? Will it make it worse, or will it make it better?”
Thiemo Fetzer, an economics professor at the University of Warwick, has found that a significant number of people voted for Brexit not because they were ideologically opposed to the European Union, but rather because they wanted a way to protest after austerity cuts had left them feeling ignored by the government. Those same voters, he says, are now the most susceptible to doubts about Brexit being the best path forward, suggesting that, for them, pocketbook issues outweigh ideology.
Perhaps reflecting those changing attitudes was well-regarded work by Survation, a research firm, that showed support for leaving had fallen around 10 percentage points in Sunderland since the referendum. This was not a traditional opinion poll, however, but an estimate based on responses from 20,000 people nationwide that were combined with information about the demographics and voting history of local areas.
At Pop Recs, a music shop and cafe near the bus depot, three people who voted to stay in the European Union were debating a second referendum. Barry Cornell, 42, worried another public vote risked reviving the far-right U.K. Independence Party, which played a major role in the Brexit campaign. But the shop’s proprietor, Dave Harper, said he did not much care whom a referendum angered, so long as it reversed Brexit.
Laura Brewis, 37, an arts organizer and fund-raiser sitting beside Mr. Cornell at the counter, lamented that elected leaders had said nothing for years about the European Union funding that came to Sunderland.
Grants from the bloc have contributed to an aquatic center and a university campus, and helped underwrite a business center that assists aspiring software entrepreneurs, though these amenities are not always within reach for residents.
In a square in the city center, a monument features the shipyard workers who once made Sunderland the largest shipbuilding hub in the world. It looks like a local project through and through, except for a small bronze plaque nearby covered in browning grass.
Describing the source of some funding, it features not a Union Jack, but the flag of the European Union.