Brexit Reflections - Why did Wales shoot itself in the foot in this referendum?

Richard Wyn Jones on the reasons contributing to a leave vote in a part of the UK that benefits most from EU membership.

Turkeys, it seems, do vote for Christmas – at least if they’re Welsh. There can be no doubt that, financially speaking, Wales has been one of the parts of the UK that has benefited most from EU membership. At a very conservative estimate, Wales enjoys an annual net benefit of £245m from the UK’s relationship with the EU. That’s before any of the wider benefits of the single market and, yes, free movement is factored in.

Given that even the UK government accepts that the failings of the Barnett formula leave Wales under-funded to the tune of some £300m per annum compared with similar English regions, the fact that some 52.5% of the Welsh electorate chose to further impoverish their country by voting to exit the European Union appears to be bizarrely self-defeating. That leave supporters were concentrated precisely in those parts of Wales that have most to lose financially from a Brexit merely adds to the bemusement of external observers. What did the Welsh think they were doing?

Since the results were announced, the answer to that question among some despairing remain supporters is that the Welsh have given up on Wales. While the people of Northern Ireland and, in particular, the Scots, are ploughing their own furrow, we Welsh are mere “English wannabes”. Cue the kind of self-loathing that consumed supporters of Welsh devolution in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 referendum debacle. The Welsh, we were told then, had voted themselves out of history. Yet to quote the title of a contemporary Welsh language folk song that is rapidly becoming an unofficial second national anthem, we are “Yma o Hyd” (still here). If March 1979 didn’t presage the death of Wales and Welsh difference, then it’s incredibly unlikely that 23 June 2016 marks the end of that particular story.

An alternative understanding of the referendum result in Wales might begin with a recognition that very few electors seem to have viewed their voting decision through Welsh lenses – a state of affairs that can only have been encouraged by the apparent lack of interest of most Welsh politicians and media in the referendum until it was far too late to make a difference. Understandably perhaps, but disastrously in retrospect, most Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru politicians seem to have viewed the referendum as something akin to a family squabble within the Conservative party. Given that David Cameron had called the referendum for tactical rather than principled reasons, why should they expend scarce resources on putting together an effective referendum campaign? Especially as there was a Welsh assembly election to fight only a few weeks before polling day. Even when the pro-remain parties finally started to campaign, it was a desultory affair, with activity levels far lower than witnessed during the assembly election campaign itself.

The weakness and general impoverishment of the Welsh media also served to ensure that there was very little differentiation in terms of the way that the referendum was covered in Wales. Financially exhausted by the demands of the assembly election campaign, the news and current affairs section of BBC Wales could only manage one Welsh leaders’ debate on Brexit and that was just a few days before the poll. With the best will in the world, it was nothing more than a token gesture.

In the absence of any serious Welsh-level campaigning, let alone “ground war”, and with English-based media sources dominating the coverage of the issues, it is hardly a surprise that voting patterns in Wales were so similar to those across the border. Even if the strong link between English national identity and Euroscepticism is not replicated in Wales, nonetheless it is a nation with more than its share of “left behinds”. A land blighted by low educational attainment. A country in which immigration has become a lightning rod for resentment at the bewildering pace of social and economic change. In short, fertile soil for leave campaigners.

What is striking about the Welsh case is that, in seeming contrast to Scotland, devolution has not led to a closing of the gap between the population and what we must now term the “Establishment”. True, evidence suggests that the Welsh electorate hold devolved-level politicians in higher esteem than their Westminster equivalents. But that’s setting the bar very low. They certainly did not feel inclined to follow their lead on EU membership, despite the fact the Welsh political class was largely unified in urging a remain vote.

This in turn highlights an important and largely unremarked feature of contemporary Welsh politics. In Wales, devolution remains largely a defensive project. Welsh political institutions are seen as providing a degree of protection against the depredations of Westminster rather than an embodiment of an alternative politics. By the same token, politicians in Wales are better known for what they are against – austerity, Tory cuts – rather than what they are for.

Rather than wallow in despair and self-loathing, Welsh remainers would be better advised to begin constructing, communicating and delivering an alternative vision of politics in which devolved institutions and leaders become part of a politics of hope. A politics that is no longer content to blame others, be they EU immigrant or English, for our multiple problems, but takes responsibility for addressing them ourselves in partnership – optimistically – with all our European neighbours.

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Cardiff University
27th June 2016
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