Brexit Blog #3 : Why did Wales 'Leave'?

Wales is a nation which has historically been perceived to be pro-EU (at least until the Welsh General Election when 7 UKIP seats were won in the Assembly), reaping large economic benefits and development grants from Brussels. Yet last week Wales delivered a 52.5% vote in favour of Leave.

"last week Wales delivered a 52.5% vote in favour of Leave."

"last week Wales delivered a 52.5% vote in favour of Leave."

Whilst the result was always predicted to be far closer than that of Scotland and Northern Ireland, the commonly held assumption was for a Remain majority. Therefore, the question must now be asked: why did Wales vote so heavily in favour of Leave, defying pollsters and seemingly going against the economic evidence of benefitting from EU membership?

On the face of it, it appears that the vote in Wales followed a similar pattern to that of England, seeing traditional Labour heartlands turn against Remain, influenced by issues of economic disparity and immigration from Eastern Europe. Indeed, this can certainly be said to be the case in areas such as Deeside, Wrexham, and the South Wales Valleys each of which have large Eastern European communities, as well as large scale economic distress.

However this trend was not consistent. Take, for example, Ebbw Vale, which has little immigration, and received more EU investment than possibly any other small town in the UK. The area was identified as the poorest in the whole of North Western Europe and millions have been spent on Ebbw Vale as a result. Transport links were seen as crucial and the ‘heads of the valleys’ road has been revamped at a cost of £79m. The former steel works is now ‘The Works’ – a flagship regeneration project costing £350m funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). It is home to the £33.5m Coleg Gwent hosting some of the 29,000 Welsh apprentices funded by the European Social Fund (ESF). Yet the area voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU.

Dialogue with people in the area indicates the result was due to a clear disconnect between ‘EU funded’ shiny new buildings, infrastructure developments and so forth, and ‘real life’. Since the closure of all the deep mines we have come to rely more and more on inward investment and the sense of community has diminished. Even if the geography of the land is healing, the closure of the mines is still impacting the communities historically, socially, and politically. Unfortunately the perception of a lot of the people in the valleys (rightly or wrongly) is that the continued diminishing of the community is as a result of our involvement with the EU. New projects were perceived to have had little immediate impact and economic distress continues.

Sadly, while many cannot see the value of the EU funded projects, e.g. Coleg Gwent, the impact on future generations of access to education will be great, helping to develop the socio-economic life of the community which high levels of illiteracy and poor education has so far stunted. Under-investment in jobs and people in the area due to the absence of capital to invest has also helped fuel fear of “outsiders”.

"New projects were perceived to have had little immediate impact and economic distress continues."

"New projects were perceived to have had little immediate impact and economic distress continues."

The main problem appears to be the disbursement of EU funds through the bidding process and subsequent allocation. The funds are primarily allocated to projects that have been created by public sector professionals who are considered to be a ‘safe haven’ for the large sums involved. The projects often appear to have had zero input from the populace or any relation to the actual needs of a particular community. Following successful acquisition of these funds the ‘delivery’ elements are then put out to tender. The successful bidders are invariably large businesses, who from the perception of those in the valleys have zero interest in ‘the public good’. This contributes to the misunderstanding, suspicion and disconnect between the populace who is supposed to be the beneficiary and the government/councils/public sector who are the actual beneficiaries.

Furthermore, the arguments for Leave/Remain were not presented here in a Welsh context. There were several reasons for that. The first was the decision to hold the referendum a little over a month after the Welsh General Election – the political parties and political journalists were spent; financially and in terms of energy. Secondly, the two largest political parties in Wales, Plaid Cymru and Labour, were expected to take their orders from the wider Stronger In campaign. Unfortunately, this campaign had thought it could win the referendum by rolling out a number of big guns, from the President of the United States to leading economists, and that their predictions of doom and gloom would do the trick. It was almost an all ‘air war’ conducted through the TV, radio and internet, and Wales barely got a mention.

Those who voted Remain did so for economic, travel, and employment opportunities and the Remain vote centred around areas where benefits of the EU membership could be seen in a more ‘real’ way, e.g. funding for academic projects, and the arts. Thus, there was not such a big dis-connect in their thinking between being part of the EU and the reality they live with.

However, it must also be noted that the shift in Wales within these Labour heartlands, from Remain to Leave, could also have been a direct attack on the failure of Welsh Labour to deliver significant change to Wales, as well as a rejection of the austerity packages implemented by the Conservatives at Westminster - a large proportion of the economic argument for Leave seems to have been an attack on Westminster just as much as Brussels.

While there is still a division between Remain and Leave voters, and despite protests held in Cardiff as a consequence of the result, there is the growing realisation that the real work is yet to begin. The aftermath is sinking in and consequences becoming apparent; with disgust being shown at the increased racism. Yet there is awareness that we have crossed the Rubicon in terms of emotion and trust with the EU, when the majority of voters voted for Leave.

"a large proportion of the economic argument for Leave seems to have been an attack on Westminster just as much as Brussels."

"a large proportion of the economic argument for Leave seems to have been an attack on Westminster just as much as Brussels."

Communities appear at the moment to be in a liminal time, which leads to challenges with the high emotions and divisions evident in the post-referendum moment. It has been noted that during transitional periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved; continuity of tradition may become uncertain; and future outcomes previously taken for granted may be thrown into doubt[1]. And it is fair to say that we are seeing the theoretical become reality in our political arena; as both parties seem to have dissolution of tradition and social order as debates about leadership and the way forward continue.

So what now? Well, people of faith have a crucial role to play. We ought to be working every day to create a society that is marked by concern for the common good. As the Second Vatican Council stated, “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”.

We ought to be listening for the voices of those who are not being heard, especially in the aftermath of the referendum where the close results show such a deep division in society. In our local areas, we don’t have to look far to find someone who holds a different view to us; and instead of responding in anger we need to open dialogue with one another.

We ought to be challenging increased levels of racism; and remember that only love overcomes hate. Racism is not acceptable, and though we need to stand against it, we must remember that language combat can be counter-productive at times. Instead of meeting the aggression of racism with an aggression of our own, overcoming it means doing the harder work of waging love, winning hearts, and changing minds. We should strive to forge better ways of living together in our differences. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”[2].

Instead of concentrating on the negative, we need to take a deep breath and think what an opportunity we now have, what a responsibility we have: to repair, to raise up, to build up, and to offer hope for all those who mourn and celebrate, in our midst and beyond our shores.

Rev Rebecca Stevens is Assistant Curate of Bedwas, Machen, Michaelstone and Rudry and Young Vocations Advisor for Monmouth Diocese | @rebeccaclaires1


[1] Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen, and Harald Wydra, Introduction: Liminality and Cultures of Change (International Political Anthropology 2009)

[2] Martin Luther King, J