CARDIFF, Wales—Britain’s decision to exit the European Union has set in motion a long-brewing and multidirectional constitutional crisis. As I write, the party-political machine at Westminster is fumbling into action, sizing up the laborious task of extracting the country from one maligned supranational union. Meanwhile the older union—the Union of the Kingdoms, on whose behalf the Leave campaign has frequently flown the flag—lies in mortal danger. Scotland, having returned a resounding majority in favour of Remain, will demand a second referendum on independence that, if granted, is likely to succeed. More unexpectedly, the referendum result has advanced the popular case for Irish unification, with Northern Ireland voting likewise to retain its place in the EU. The periphery of this fragile and increasingly rancorous national partnership is crumbling, and the question over the coming months will be whether its final demise comes sooner or later than Britain’s divorce from Brussels.
Of the four home nations, only Wales lined up beside England in voting to leave. This result marks a decisive and lamentable shift in the political culture of my homeland, though inevitably it will be relegated down the agenda as the political conversation centres on more urgent dramas in Westminster and Scotland. Nonetheless, for anyone looking to understand the toxic circumstances that led to Brexit, Wales shouldn’t be overlooked.
The poorest country in Britain (just beating Northern Ireland for that dubious accolade), Wales is also the region that has struggled most with the effects of de-industrialization. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government presided over the systematic dismantling of coal and steel, the heavy industries that had defined and united working communities across Wales for the preceding century and a half. Ever since, the country has staggered from regeneration project to regeneration project, factory opening to factory closure, desperately seeking a modern, prosperous, and diverse economy beyond the metropolitan bubble of Cardiff, its capital city. One way or another, it hasn’t come.
Brexit represents a crucible: the point at which this background narrative of vulnerability and grievance—much of it justified—has found a tangible outlet. In large numbers, working-class populations from Newport in the south to Wrexham in the north marched upon the referendum ballot box looking for an encounter that seems to fall somewhere between vandalism and catharsis. Whether for rational, sincere, vituperative, or otherwise muddled reasons, the EU was rejected, and with it some £250 million of funding that Wales receives in surplus every year from Brussels via investment bodies such as the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund.
Recently this money has been spent on a range of national infrastructure projects, from university campuses and road works to urban development in poor towns such as Llanelli and Merthyr. It is simply not true to say that the EU has only benefited students, green energy technicians, and the political class, as is often alleged by those who are angry about the institution. Anybody who has used the Merthyr multi-storey car park—emblazoned proudly with the ERDF and Welsh Government logos, beside the rather beleaguered promise, “Europe and Wales: Investing in your future”—has profited from Britain’s EU membership.
That is not to say, of course, that the abstract experience of being a net beneficiary is easy to understand. For all its valiant or misguided efforts, the European Union has obviously failed to compensate for the loss of mass employment that industrial Wales used to enjoy. After all, what’s the easier calculation to make: how poor your hometown might have been in some parallel universe where we weren’t members of the EU for the past forty years, or how poor you actually feel, relative to the still-living experience of a grandfather who had a skilled, secure and unionized job?
Much discussed over the past week has been the case of Blaenau Gwent and its largest town, Ebbw Vale. For 31 years the constituency of Aneurin Bevan—the founder of Britain’s National Health Service and patron saint of Welsh democratic socialism—Ebbw Vale has been a bastion of the Labour movement, with a civic identity shaped by a steelworks that at its peak employed nearly 15,000 people. That figure comes into sharp relief when you consider that today the population of the whole town is only 18,000, many of whom joined their neighbours across Blaenau Gwent in voting 62 percent to 38 percent in favour of Leave, the widest margin anywhere in Wales.
These are the voters who swung the national result. Going into the referendum we knew that a significant portion of England—whether it turned out to be a narrow majority or minority—would vote to take Britain out of a European Union that has been turned into a national emblem for everything faceless, frustrating, and politically correct about modern life. This passionately pro-Brexit sector of the electorate might have been reasonably diverse, taking in everyone from struggling fishermen to the wealthy small business owners of middle England, but by and large it was assumed to comprise people whose sympathies were lodged to the right of the political spectrum, grounded in a culture of “look after your own” and rugged individualism.
If theirs had been the only constituency to let the dire economic warnings go hang and vote on principle for Brexit, then it seems unlikely that they would have had the numbers to outmuscle the combined Europhile might of London, Scotland, and the larger, more liberal cities and university towns. What no forecaster adequately accounted for was the vehemence of anti-EU opinion and the determination to vote, in parts of the country that have historically been strongholds of collectivism and left-wing thought: the old coalfields of Wales, Yorkshire, and the northeast of England. In an election decided by a gap of four percentage points, or roughly 1.26 million votes, these blighted post-industrial areas were enough to tip the balance.
Make no mistake: Thursday’s result augurs havoc for more than just the British economic and constitutional status quo. Also under direct existential threat is the Labour Party, for more than a hundred years the most competent force for progressive change in the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s diffident, haphazard leadership of the party has come under renewed attack this week, after it emerged just how little understood, or little respected, his ambivalent campaign to remain in the EU has proven to be. Wales lies at the heart of Labour’s problem: increasingly illiberal and angry about the effects of globalisation, it has little time for Corbyn’s signature blend of avuncular welfare socialism and pro-migrant compassion. Yet it’s a country that Corbyn simply cannot fail to lose if he’s to have any chance of leading the Labour Party to victory in a general election that could be called as early as November.
Bringing this potentially fatal mismatch to a head, Chris Bryant has led the charge of Labour frontbench politicians in resigning from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet this week. Bryant represents the constituency of Rhondda, a former coal-mining Welsh valley that voted 54-46 percent in favour of Leave—less clear-cut than the result in Ebbw Vale, but still a startling bellwether.
Jokes about the Rhondda’s fervent loyalty to Labour have taken several forms over the years. My father, who’s from Treorchy, a town near the top of the valley, used to tell me that you could pin a red rosette on a mop and it would still beat the Tory candidate in an election; other versions say that you don’t count the vote in the Rhondda, you simply weigh it. Bryant himself seemed to confirm the truth behind these jests when he was elected MP in 2001; openly gay and a former Church of England curate, he’d have been nobody’s easy choice of candidate on the hardscrabble streets of Treherbet and Tylorstown. Despite recording healthy margins of victory in every general election since, Bryant thinks the situation is deteriorating. In a radio interview on Monday, he reported on the uphill task of campaigning in the Rhondda while Corbyn remained as the divisive party figurehead: “On the doorstep, in my constituency, every second person said: ‘Look, mate, I’m Labour through and through, but I’m not voting for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’. Every second person.”
Implicit in Bryant’s narrative of Labour Party decline is the rise of UKIP, the populist, right-wing insurgent party led by the Trump-like Nigel Farage. In this year’s elections to the Welsh Assembly—which, in hindsight, should have been taken much more seriously as an indicator of what might happen in the referendum—UKIP claimed seven seats from a starting position of zero.
This alarming signal was soon absorbed into the complacent noise of post-election horse-trading, as a divided Assembly wrangled over the composition of its new administration. Labour had suffered a small but decisive setback, losing one seat to dip below the halfway mark of thirty seats required to command a majority in the chamber. That now seems less like a blip than a distress flare, with the modest but buoyant UKIP vote in the local election metastasizing into a much wider protest at the national referendum ballot. Those swelled ranks of Leave voters—not all of them automatically sympathetic to UKIP, by any means—can no longer be taken for granted as Labour supporters.
Finally, there is the strange case of Plaid Cymru, the so-called Party of Wales. Led by the dynamic and popular Leanne Wood, Plaid ticked over reasonably well in the Assembly elections, picking up an extra seat to become the second-largest party in Wales, a result that still fell well short of the mandate required for the party to press the case for Welsh independence that is its mission.
At one point Wood appeared to hold the balance of power, when it seemed she might galvanize an unlikely coalition of Plaid, Conservative, UKIP, and Liberal Democrat Assembly Members to oppose the minority Labour government. With this plan thankfully shelved, and in the aftermath of the referendum result, Plaid’s position is now awkward to say the least. Like its sister organization, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid has long argued that the future for Britain’s smaller nations lies outside of the United Kingdom but inside the broader tent of the European Union. The SNP—due in no small part to the skill and success of Nicola Sturgeon, a leader Wood is often compared to—has very nearly brought the Scottish nation around to the wisdom of that cause, with an independence mandate dropping tantalizingly into reach following the country’s emphatically Remain result. Wood, on the other hand, has to contend with a Welsh electorate that has just revealed itself to be profoundly Eurosceptic. Her contention this week that the discontent unleashed by the vote suggests a submerged appetite for independence flies in the face of reality.
It’s an interesting question why Scotland has succeeded in developing a mature and effective nationalist movement while Wales, as yet, has not—a question that might be better suited to historians than political commentators scrambling to make sense of a turbulent present. Whatever the case may be, it seems likely to me that we are heading towards a partnership of England and Wales not seen since before King James VI of Scotland attempted to unite the crowns of England and Scotland, a painstaking process that was only completed a century later with the 1707 Act of Union.
That partnership makes very little geographical or economic sense anymore, and I wouldn’t give tuppence for the prospect of a “liberated,” right-lurching England keeping Wales in the manner to which she became accustomed through the European Social Fund. We may well come to rue our decision, but for now the analysis has to be clear, energetic, and free of self-pity. A worse outcome yet would be to turn this complicated referendum into a fatalistic vote for xenophobia and cultural myopia.
I grew up with a particular myth of Welsh exceptionalism, and it’s only over the past few days that I’ve come to question it properly. It held that whatever happened across Britain, Wales had forged over many hard years a rival culture of communality, fair play, justice, and respect. As of last Thursday, this founding myth seems threadbare at best. I can’t condemn the poor of my country who voted Leave, though I can and will mourn the wider forces that so perverted their concept of self-interest. Historically we have been a nation that has developed honourable systems of mutual self-reliance and cultural expression in the face of greater adversity than we face today. However, from workers’ institutes to male voice choirs, these have only flourished when we have knitted together and admitted influences from the wider world. The only regeneration now possible will require us to rediscover these dormant values, scrape off the thick crust of myth that covers them, and update them swiftly for the 21st century.