Gareth Evans looks at why Wales bucked the trend of the devolved regions in the United Kingdom and voted in favour of Brexit.
The result of the EU Referendum in Wales saw 52.5% of the electorate vote in favour of Brexit. Reading this result in comparison with England delivers little in the way of an electoral watershed, mirroring patterns seen in the South of England – South East (51.8% Leave), South West (52.6% Leave). However, taking into account the experience Wales has had as part of the European project, especially since the advent of devolution in 1998, there requires a reanalysis of the Welsh vote in order to understand as to exactly why Wales bucked the trend of the devolved regions in the United Kingdom and voted in favour of Brexit.
The commonly held assumption with regards to Wales has been one of a region in favour of membership of the European Union, reaping large scale financial benefits in the shape of regional developments grants for the former industrial regions of the North and the South Wales Valleys as well as in areas such as agriculture and fisheries, infrastructure projects and education. Calculations made by the Wales Governance Centre in May showed that on average Wales receives a benefit of £245 million per year from the European Union, a figure which marks one of the largest financial gains in any area of the United Kingdom. Therefore, the result in favour of Brexit in Wales seems to have been influenced by factors more than simple economics, reflecting more a rebellion by the working classes to the politics of Westminster and Cardiff Bay, as much as Brussels.
On the one hand, it can be said that perhaps one of the main driving factors behind the Welsh vote in favour of Leave drew its support from dissatisfaction within the working classes to the high levels of immigration into Wales from Eastern Europe. Indeed, some of the highest Leave votes in Wales came from areas such as Wrexham, Deeside and the South Wales Valleys, all areas which have experienced high levels of immigration, as well as economic disparity since the decline in heavy industry. Such a vote mirrors patterns seen in the North East of England, Yorkshire, and the East and West Midlands – each of which having seen high levels of immigration from Eastern Europe as well as widespread economic stagnation.
However, to say that the result in Wales was influenced primarily by anxieties relating to immigration would be false. Indeed, the vote for Brexit in Wales can just as equally be said to have been a rejection of the politics of Westminster and Cardiff Bay – politics which have had a negative effect not only on the economic and social prosperity of Wales, but also on the unity of the nation. It is upon this point that we can turn to an analysis of devolution in Wales, and its inability to deliver a level of civic identity and cohesion similar to that seen in regions such as Scotland, Catalonia or the Basque Country. On the one hand, such a lack of similarity between Wales and other devolved regions can be pinned to separate histories, with Wales losing any sense of civic independence in 1536 – being absorbed into the English administrative system – whereas Scotland continued to retain a large degree of civic independence through its education system, legal practice and kirk. However, the politics of social democracy built upon by the SNP, whilst building on a distinctly Scottish civic history, also play on the dissatisfaction of the Scots with the traditional dualist politics of Westminster – a view shared in Wales.
However, what has appeared clear from the EU referendum, is that Wales has failed to convert dissatisfaction with Westminster politics into a sense of Welsh unity. Indeed, during the period of devolution, the fragmentation of Welsh voting patterns along party political lines has remained relatively unchanged: Labour continue to hold the former industrial centres of the North East and the Valleys, whilst the rural vote is divided between the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Plaid along issues such as economic prosperity and the Welsh language. What is also important to note in a comparison of Wales to Scotland is the rise of UKIP, a trend which following the Assembly election in May 2016 saw seven regional seats pass to the UKIP, predominantly from existing Labour, Tory and Lib Dem votes. The rise of UKIP is perhaps the key to the argument that Welsh politics under devolution has deviated little from that of Westminster for unlike in Scotland, Wales has seen no dramatic rise in votes favouring civic nationalism and identity. Indeed, there seems to if anything be a sense of dissatisfaction with the politics in Cardiff Bay with all four seats held by the leaders of big four parties in Wales (Labour, Plaid, Conservative and Lib Dem) voting contrary to party lines – signalling a rebellion against the politics of Cardiff Bay just as much as Westminster. On this basis, it would be safe to say that the politics of the Senedd have failed to capture the hearts and minds of the Welsh electorate in highlighting the economic benefits of EU membership. This lack of civic identity under devolution in Wales directly challenges patters seen in Scotland, Catalonia and the Basque country, as well theories that devolution under the umbrella of a wider supra-state can deliver unique constitutional relationships and the “blessings of scale” which allow for the attainment of civic identity within the sub-state. On this basis, it can be said that far from beginning with a blank canvas, the politics of devolution in Wales merely carried the complacency, inaction and dissatisfaction seen with Westminster down to the sub-state – therefore, failing to provide a new sense of revitalised, progressive politics to Wales, which in turn has failed to instil confidence within the Welsh electorate in favour of devolution.
Therefore, the result in favour of Brexit in Wales can be said to be an example of the failure of both the politics and the people of Wales to see devolution and its relationship with the EU as having the ability to forge new constitutional relationships. On the one hand, such a phenomenon can be said to be down to the relatively low levels of nationalism seen in Wales when compared to Scotland – confirmed by the rejection of devolution in Wales in 1979, and the slim majority achieved in 1997. However, the result in Wales conversely indicates the failure of the Welsh Assembly to motivate and awaken a sense of civic pride within the people of Wales, instead seeing the relative stagnation of Welsh politics dominated by the inability of Welsh Labour to reach voters out if its traditional urban heartlands. Therefore, the result in favour of Brexit in Wales can be said to be a reflection not of a widespread dissatisfaction with Brussels, but with a dissatisfaction within the people of Wales to the politics of Westminster and Cardiff Bay, both of which have historically been complacent in their assumptions of the will of the Welsh electorate, failing to motivate and appeal to a unified “Pan-Welsh” audience, which has resulted in the dissatisfaction seen along the east coast of England being reflected in Wales.
Gareth Evans is a PhD Candidate in Law at Aberystwyth University. His thesis examines the effects devolution has had on the constitutional order of the United Kingdom, with special interest on the relationship between devolution and nationalism. He holds an LL.B in Law from Aberystwyth University, graduating in 2014, and at present tutors seminars within the Law department as well as chairing the recent postgraduate conference “Changing Society… Changing Law?”