Brexit has sometimes been portrayed as being largely about England and Englishness: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted clearly for Remain, while within England those whose primary national identity is English rather than British were much more likely to vote Leave.
Wales rather inconveniently muddies this picture. It also voted Leave – an act that severely damaged the political self-image long cherished by much of the Welsh centre-left. The idea that the Welsh were more politically progressive and internationalist than their English neighbours was left looking rather detached from reality.
One of the most striking aspects of the Brexit referendum result in Wales was the outcome in the south Wales Valleys. Socio-economically these former heartlands of coal and steel have much in common with the “left behind” English communities that leaned strongly towards Leave. So perhaps it should not have been a shock that the Valleys all supported Brexit – in many cases by clear margins. Yet the Valleys are notable for their strong Welsh identity. They have been staunch electoral bastions for Labour for nearly a century, and the Welsh Labour party was almost unanimous in supporting Remain. Moreover, the Leave vote appeared to run directly against the Valleys’ self-interest: they have received large amounts of EU aid over the past two decades. Why vote to bite the hand that had fed you?
On Thursday, Cardiff University published findings from the most detailed research yet carried out on public attitudes to Brexit in Wales. Working with colleagues at YouGov, we conducted a detailed survey of a large and representative sample across Wales; but in addition, our focus groups spoke directly with working-class Leave voters in the south Wales Valleys.
We found very little sign that those who voted Leave in the Valleys are yet thinking twice about their actions. The concerns that motivated their referendum vote persist, and a major element of this is immigration.
Focus group participants in Merthyr and the Rhondda were notably unhappy at the increase in the Polish communities in those places. This was not articulated simply as xenophobia: a specifically working-class objection to immigration advanced to us was that, by making the jobs market much more competitive, the wages of locals were driven downwards. Thus, immigration was viewed as working much more to the benefit of managers and companies than for ordinary working people. Immigrants willing to work for low wages were also seen as contributing to the decline in some town centres, and in particular leading to the growth of charity and low-value shops catering to the needs of a low-wage economy.
Our Valleys Leave voters also continue to be very sceptical of the idea that their communities, or Wales, had benefited from the UK’s membership of the EU. That Wales was a net beneficiary of the EU budget – confirmed prior to last year’s vote by Cardiff University research – was just not believed by lots of those we spoke to.
Many thought that England had done much better out of EU membership, and that Wales and the Valleys had received little: “I know they done the roads round here but that’s it,” as one focus group participant put it. But even those who acknowledged that some EU funding had come their way were very dubious of its value. Several of those we spoke to talked of white elephants, and “vanity projects” that were seen to deliver little of long-term worth to local people. Putting a blue flag with twelve yellow stars on a new bridge, or the entrance to a new leisure centre, is certainly not a guaranteed way to win people’s hearts.
One final lesson to come from our discussions with Leave voters in the Valleys is not to expect many to change their minds if the Brexit process continues to be difficult, or even if it causes significant economic pain. Many of those we spoke to thought that their communities were already in dire straits, and that it would be difficult for things to get much worse.
For others, some short-term pain is already expected – but they think that it will be worth it for the long-term gains of enhancing the UK’s sovereignty and independence.
Moreover, any difficulties in negotiations with the EU may well reinforce many in their existing hostility to the union we are leaving. Far from necessarily showing Brexit to be a mistake, it can equally be interpreted as demonstrating why the EU are not people we should be in partnership with.
In June this year, voters in the south Wales Valleys continued their long tradition of supporting Labour at general elections. They are not, in the main, well disposed to the Conservative Government and its increasingly stumbling attempts to deliver on Brexit. But don’t expect them to regret voting for it.
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