Brighton is the undisputed liberal capital of the UK and a proverbial honeypot for decadent Londoners. The seaside town’s bohemian reputation has seen it become the equivalent of Shoreditch-On-Sea with its massive gay and lesbian scene and an increasingly left-wing population. If you want to buy the Guardian on a Saturday then don’t bother, it has already sold out.
Brighton’s liberal ascendancy peaked in May 2010 when Caroline Lucas was elected as Britain’s first ever Green MP. The Green Party’s landmark victory only further confirmed the town’s reputation as a fantasy world of boutique hedonism, vegan restaurants and G-string clubbing. More than 30,000 people live in Brighton and travel the 53 miles to work in London every day and many of them are wealthy media types.
Brighton hasn’t always been an arty liberal utopia and up until 1997, Brighton Pavilion had consistently voted for the Conservative Party. So what happened to what happened to all the Tories in that blue-rinse retirement home by the sea? Well Brighton might have become a Guardian reading refugee camp since the late 1990s but it remains a shifting city of conflicting values.
Britain’s favourite seaside town retains an affiliation with the English working-class and is still affectionately known for serving fish and chips, ice cream and lobster bellied men on the pebbled shore. Protestants of the flesh can be found wearing sunglasses and reading Rupert Murdoch’s finest on deckchairs on Brighton Beach during the long summer months.
Anyone walking along Brighton Pier will marvel at the views at sunset but the structure itself is a bona fide cultural Chernobyl. Somewhere where you go to fall in love and get stabbed simultaneously. Britons of all social classes love the seaside and wealthy playboys echo Brighton’s decadent past by chasing each other on speed boats on sunny afternoons. Trudging back over pebbles and sand, a strange dust will land on your hand as dozens of grand Edwardian hotels stare out towards the English Channel along the Marine Parade.
Such grand emblems of historic wealth are unlikely to be occupied by counter-culture hippies. These luxury hotels remain the spiritual home of Conservative Party MPs, who secretly long for a return to the 1980s, when they didn’t have to go up north to Birmingham or Manchester for their party conference season. Blue rinsed traditions still retain their historic prominence in 21st century Brighton, which remains socially diverse with different groups co-existing in relative harmony.
It appears the demographic shift towards bohemian liberalism has not stopped Brighton from becoming the drug- injecting death capital of the UK. Understandably the Golden Syringe trophy is unlikely to take centre stage on the tourist board’s website but English seaside resorts have always been pretty seedy. A haven for criminality and smuggling for centuries, novelist Peter James has suggested Brighton is one of the top favourite places for criminals to live in the UK.
With seaports on both sides and a nearby airport with no custom post, masses of unguarded coastlines and London only an hour train journey away. Brighton is easy to escape and has a massive drug market with its two universities, booming club scene and arty middle-class residents with experimental tastes.
Now one of the most exciting British cities, the seaside resort has been mentally rebuilt in a different order with many of its old Tory characteristics obliterated. Society is always changing and is forever being rebuilt and having its old assumptions challenged. The town, after all, remains the truth, and its residents the shifting fable.