What (on earth) did the Welsh think they were doing?

In a piece originally published in the New European, Roger Scully and Richard Wyn Jones analyse the Welsh vote for Brexit and reflect on the implications for Welsh politics going forward.

If anywhere in the UK has benefitted from EU membership in recent years, then it is Wales. A conservative estimate is that Wales enjoys a direct net benefit of £245m per year from the EU. And that is before any wider benefits from the single market are factored in. Given also the widespread acknowledgement that the Barnett formula under-funds Wales substantially, leaving the EU promises to further impoverish one of the poorest parts of the UK.

That 52.5 per cent of Welsh voters supported Leave in the recent referendum thus appears bizarrely self-defeating. That Leave supporters were concentrated precisely in those parts of Wales that have benefitted most from EU Objective 1 spending, and which therefore have the most to lose financially from Brexit, merely adds to the bemusement. What (on earth) did the Welsh think they were doing?

For some observers, including some despairing Remain supporters, the answer is that the Welsh have given up on Wales. Even while the nation’s football team was performing heroics, politically the Welsh have become merely an extension of England. In a few places the rhetoric has even echoed the self-loathing common after devolution was rejected in a referendum in 1979: the Welsh, we were told then, had voted themselves out of existence.

Yet the Welsh, in the words of a popular song, are “Yma o Hyd” (still here), and it is very unlikely that 23rd June 2016 will end that particular story. Moreover, the referendum result came the month after Plaid Cymru had won two of the four Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Wales, while the last two months have seen at least a mini-surge in Plaid’s poll ratings in Wales.

Elections and voting in Wales have what Denis Balsom and colleagues once summarised as “a bifocal perspective: Welsh as well as British”. Sometimes the emphasis is more on one, sometimes the other.

In June the British aspect was very much to the fore. The political parties and news-media in Wales, both of which are very poorly-resourced by London standards, had thrown pretty much all they had at May’s Welsh elections. Moreover, both then spent the following fortnight largely focussed on the saga around appointment of a new First Minister and Welsh Government. Neither had much left – either financially or in terms of energy – to put into the referendum campaign. When the pro-Remain parties finally started to campaign, it was in a distinctly desultory manner, with activity levels far lower than witnessed during the Assembly election. Meanwhile, 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. It was nothing more than a token gesture.

The upshot of all this non-activity is that there was precious little to put a Welsh stamp on the referendum campaign. Thus, few electors seem to have viewed their voting decision through a Welsh lens. In the absence of a serious Welsh campaign, and with English-based media sources dominating the coverage of the EU referendum, it is hardly a surprise that voting patterns in Wales were so similar to those across the border. In Wales, as in England, less-affluent and less well educated voters, as well as older ones, tended heavily to support Leave. As in England, this led to a vast range of traditional Labour heartlands voting in the opposite direction to what the party had recommended. The south Wales valleys have been solid Labour territory for nigh-on a century. Yet on 23rd June, every single one of them voted Leave, some by substantial margins. But it was not only Labour who were defied. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood – who the polls now indicate is the most popular politician of any in Wales – also strongly endorsed the Remain campaign, yet saw her Rhondda political base, where she had only recently won handsomely at the Assembly election, vote to Leave the EU.

So now what? A few Welsh Remainers have appeared content to wallow in despair and self-loathing. Somewhat more productively, others have sought re-assurances from Westminster that Welsh funding levels will be maintained, and that the UK government will compensate Wales for any losses after Common Agricultural Policy and Structural Fund EU monies cease to flow. (These assurances have largely been sought in vain, as no-one has appeared to be in charge in London).

In the longer-term, however, one must hope that that crisis which Brexit does threaten might provide the prompt for politicians across various parties to begin constructing, communicating and delivering an alternative vision of politics in Wales. An important and largely unremarked feature of contemporary Welsh politics has been that devolution has remained largely a defensive project. Welsh political institutions have been valorised for providing a degree of protection against the depredations of Westminster, rather than being the embodiment of an alternative politics. That was true of Rhodri Morgan as First Minister, who offered ‘clear red water’ between the New Labour government in London and his approach, which he dubbed ‘Classic Labour’.  If anything it has become more true under his successor Carwyn Jones, particularly since the return of the Conservatives to government in London. But this is not simply a Labour problem. Politicians in Wales in general are more known by what they are against – austerity, Tory cuts – than what they are for.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Brexit provides a challenge of such scope that at least some political figures will seek to reach beyond these limits. What Wales needs, now more than ever, is a politics that is no longer content to blame others, be they EU immigrants, or government in Westminster, for Wales’ multiple problems. A politics in which devolved institutions and leaders take responsibility for addressing these problems ourselves, in partnership with all of our European neighbours.


Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.


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