Civic identity and the referendum

Gareth Evans suggests that the referendum result in Wales was a rejection of the politics of Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

The result of last week’s EU Referendum will go down in history as a watershed in British constitutional history. Whilst opinion polls up to the event rested on a knife edge, fluctuating around a 50-50 split between Leave or Remain, it can be said that the Remain camp went into the night of the 23rd June quietly confident, especially on the back of Ipsos Mori’s final poll which predicted an eight-point lead in their favour. However, as with the Scottish Referendum, the results on the night failed to correspond with predictions, delivering at 52-48% split in favour of Leaving the European Union.

Nevertheless, despite an overall majority in favour of Leave, the result on the night was far from a uniform reflection of the UK as a whole. The result in Scotland, similarly to predictions, delivered a strong vote in favour of Remain, with 62% of the population voting in favour of continued EU membership. Similarly, in Northern Ireland 55.8% of the population backed Remain, as did 59.9% of Londoners. Regardless of these results in favour of Remain, the overall result rested predominantly on the will of the English electorate, itself representing around 80% of the overall population of the United Kingdom.

The results in England, delivered a far larger proportion of votes for Leave; North East (58.0%), East Midlands (58.8%), Yorkshire and Humber (57.7%), West Midlands (59.3%). Whereas the swing in England certainly reflected a significant shift between polling predictions and ballots cast in favour of Leave, it nevertheless reflected a result which was already predicted, that of a Eurosceptic English majority. What is perhaps more interesting is the results from Wales, a nation which has historically been perceived to be pro-EU, reaping large economic benefits and development grants from Brussels and not before showing any major signs of widespread Euroscepticism, at least in comparison to England. Yet the result in Wales delivered a 52.5% vote in favour of Leave.

Whilst it is certainly true that 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, questions must now be asked as to why Wales voted so heavily in favour of Leave, defying pollsters and seemingly going against the economic evidence that Wales has benefitted 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 large scale 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 having large Eastern European communities, as well as large scale economic distress. However, the question must also be posed that the shift in Wales within these Labour heartlands, from Remain to Leave, was also 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. Therefore, it would seem premature to class these voters as primarily Eurosceptic, indeed there are elements of EU policy which influenced the vote – mainly immigration – however, a large proportion of the economic argument seems to have been an attack on Westminster just as much as Brussels.

Whilst there are indications as to why the voters in Wales swung towards a vote favouring Brexit, there lies the question as to why Wales voted so differently from the other devolved regions of the UK, namely Scotland and Northern Ireland. In order to achieve an explanation, it is first necessary to look to the methods of national identity employed within these territories and to compare it to Wales.

On the one hand, we see a strong sense of civic identity existing within Scotland and Northern Ireland – both of which are far removed from each other – but nevertheless demonstrate strong senses of unified civic identity. In Scotland, retention of a proportion of its civic institutions in 1707 (legal system, education, kirk, local government) led to the retention of a method of civic identity which could always be said to be uniquely Scottish. Such an identity is what the SNP have capitalised upon under devolution, focussing not on the banal forms of ethnic identity seen in the likes of Braveheart, but instead on a socially democratic vision for Scotland, which has united the national populace, bringing together highlanders and lowlanders, as well as those to the left or right of the political spectrum. Such an identity, therefore, allows for the vision of a Scotland in Europe, a Scotland which can negotiate using its civic voice.

A similar situation exists in Northern Ireland which, although cast more along lines of religion, still speaks predominantly from a civic position; Republicans seeing a vision of Northern Ireland within a united Ireland, whilst Unionists see the retention of an historic British identity. Therefore, despite the clear voting division in Northern Ireland, both sides seem to demonstrate a degree of civic identity, allowing for two distinctly civic futures for the region. Wales on the other hand seems to be dominated more by party political divisions, each of which prevent the formation of a unified sense of civic identity as seen in Scotland. On the one hand, Wales can be said to be a nation divided by a four-way territorial split; North-South and East-West. The reasons behind such divisions are numerous, however, matters concerning the Welsh language, economic performance, as well as rural-urban divides seem to provide the primary lines of division.

On this basis, the parties of Wales each cater to a distinctly different area of Welsh society, and so fail to cross social divisions and provide an umbrella of unified national policy, falling short in echoing the cross-community message of the SNP. It can be said that the result in Wales was more a rejection of the politics of Westminster and Cardiff Bay, as opposed to Brussels. Of course, issues such as immigration from the EU focus high on the agenda, but one must ask as whether or not this would be the case if Wales shared the progressive socially democratic vision of the Scots. It is not to say that the people of Wales were wrong to vote Leave, but rather that the fact that Wales did, seems to suggest a lack of unity or belief in devolution, for the general precedent set forward by devolution in Scotland, Catalonia, or the Basque Country has been one of economic prosperity, civic identity and progressive politics under the umbrella of the supra-state, a vision which at this point is clearly not shared by a majority of the Welsh electorate.

Gareth Evans is a PhD Candidate (Law), Aberystwyth University. His thesis examine the effects of devolution on the constitutional order of the United Kingdom.

7 thoughts on “Civic identity and the referendum

  1. I hate to mention the “I” word. No, not Independence but a total (and often quite proud) willful ignorance amongst sections of the Welsh electorate. I live in Newport and it was illuminating to participate and follow the debate in the local press. Wales (in recent mythology) prided itself on its thirst for knowledge. Now the reverse is often true. A culture of self hate manifest as vindictiveness and morbid self pity. Post Fact politics, division and xenophobia as a useful component of Late Capitalism? The new localism.

  2. Thank you for the article. It’s an interesting thesis but unfortunately I’m not entirely sure the evidence backs it up. I find it hard to accept the theory that this was a vote against Cardiff Bay when the electorate voted overwhelmingly for the status quo just a month beforehand. Far more likely in my opinion is that Wales simply wasn’t on the agenda in this referendum – little mention of it was made in the campaign. I’ve made this point on my blog and I’ll quote the relevant passage so that I don’t have to repeat myself:

    “People voted Brexit in the British interest because the arguments were not presented to them in a Welsh context. We can point to a few reasons for this. The first was the disastrous 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 all ‘air war’ conducted through the TV, radio and internet, and Wales barely got a mention. What little investment there was on the ground found its way to those areas thought most likely to vote ‘Remain’ – Scotland and large urban areas, of which there are very few in Wales.”

    You’re entirely correct that Scotland and N. Ireland’s political institutions have led to a stronger sense of civic nationalism in those areas. However, I always feel that the split between different parts of Wales has always been over-emphasised. Compared to most of the world’s countries, Wales is a remarkably homogeneous country. If India, or China, or South Africa, can forge a national identity out of the bewildering cultural and linguistic variety within their borders, then there’s no reason why Wales can’t. This ‘many Wales’s’ is becoming something of a cliché that we need stop relying on.

    I’m also doubtful to what extent there is that much of a party-political split between different parts of Wales. The politics in Cardiff Bay is very consensual – too consensual – and in many ways it’s difficult to put a cigarette paper between Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

    What is lacking is, as you say, strong political institutions, but also a strong media that could reproduce daily a sense of imagined community that would bind the people of Wales together despite their – pretty small – differences.

  3. Interesting and perhaps something in this, but I think it’s extrapolating things a little bit too far perhaps. The thing that has been mentioned on here more than most of late, has been the media deficit. I would be interested to see the breakdown of paper readership to age groups and regions of Wales as well. The younger age groups may not be consuming the same media as the older age groups perhaps? (well most probably with the perception that the younger age group don’t even buy newspapers these days and have a more diverse range of ways of discussing and debating things as well – but I don’t have any data).

    Also you might see a divide between pre and post devolution generations in how they view these things. I know of a lot of people who have now changed their minds once they heard the result, particularly when they heard it was Wales and England backing Brexit and Scotland and Northern Ireland wanting to remain. No-one in the campaign ever hinted that maybe we should vote differently to England – it wasn’t a valid argument, but it would have swayed votes.

    I also think that a lot of very good people genuinely wanted someone to give them a lead on this one and they didn’t get it. It’s easy to blame the media, but there was a vaccuum and no-one else was banging the drum with real enthuisiasm to remain. This was more important than the assembly elections, yet because of all the ridiculous timings our AMs were not focussed on this campaign at all.

  4. Interesting article and perspective and I realise it is only an ‘academic’ exercise by a young proto-academic but the words ‘barn’ and ‘door’ spring to mind. If such fairly obvious thoughts were also in the mind of ostensibly experienced Welsh Remain political campaigners why was it not part of any strategy or action?
    If devolution in Scotland, Catalonia, or the Basque Country has been one of economic prosperity, civic identity and progressive politics why has this not been messaged to the Welsh populace (with blunter implements) and who is to blame for this? Five Y Fro areas voted remain so that also says something – Plaid better at the ‘vision’ thing than Labour.
    Having played, in the past, a small role in the roll out of a couple of EU projects I can quite understand the bemusement and disenchantment of people at the disconnect (word of the decade!) between ‘EU funded’ shiny new buildings, infrastructure developments and projects of various sorts and ‘real life’.
    The main problem with the disbursement of EU funds is the bidding process and subsequent allocation. The funds are only allocated to Projects that have been dreamed up by public sector professionals who have learned how to write the correct words and 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. They just look good on paper and have the backing of council or government jobsworthies. Following successful bidding for funds then ‘delivery’ elements are put out to tender. The successful bidders, invariably large corporations with whole departments focused on this, have next to zero interest in ‘the public good’, they just want the money. That’s fair enough, it’s business and creates employment (of a sort) but again it contributes to that misunderstanding, suspicion and disconnect between the populace who is supposed to be the beneficiary and the government/councils who are the actual beneficiaries. Those lovely shiny plaques and photo opportunities!
    It seems that those governments, like Scotland, that have managed to communicate better with their populace and been able to deliver EU funded projects that have ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ to their communities will have a populace that will have voted to remain in the EU. In Wales this hasn’t happened. Sad.

  5. There is certainly less sense of civic identity in Wales than there is in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but there is no solid evidence of a causal link between this and the ‘Leave’ victory.

    That victory was not, in fact, a great surprise. The situation was reminiscent of last year’s General Election in that, to those of us who were actually listening to what people around us were saying rather than to the pollsters, a ‘Leave’ victory in Wales actually seemed more likely than in the United Kingdom as a whole.

    The causes are many and complex. The major factor was the growing gap between the professionalised political class, the self-styled ‘elite,’ and the people it is supposed to represent – especially between the two main national parties and their respective bases.

    This was exacerbated by the ‘Remain’ campaign successfully encapsulating everything people dislike about the Establishment. They threatened. They abused. They hectored. They assumed an air of unjustified moral and intellectual superiority – in fact, even after their defeat, many of them still do. The subtext of their whole campaign was ‘Anyone who does vote for us is a racist and an idiot.’

    The subtext of the ‘Leave’ campaign, by contrast, was one of empowerment, ‘Voting against your masters means you are strong.’

    Devolution seems to have made little difference, one way or the other, in the Welsh result. That says something in itself.

  6. Wales was perhaps more aware of, and more sensitive to the popular political campaigning that preceeded the referendum, than were Scotland or Northern Ireland, which still seek to establish their own identities and have different outlooks than the rest of the United Kingdom. Wales was perhaps more influenced by the success of UKIP in England. Wales might have had more UKIP friendly voters, and also more Conservative voters in favour of the Brexit campaign, with its catchy title and its bold prejudices, graphically illustrated in some of the national newspapers prior to, and during the campaign. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were tenacious and appealing campaign leaders. The referendum campaign as a whole, both informal and formal, coincided with unprecedented and mis-managed mass migration to Europe, and with EU newly open markets and movement within the union. It also coincided with civil security threats and breaches, with tightening security measures, with greater surveillance and suspicion, with arrests of suspected terrorists. And there was effectively a war in the Middle East which was left to fester until it spilled over into Europe.

    There are no doubt other factors; perhaps the dismantling of trade union power and of local government, and closing of civic buildings, all over a period of years, contributed to a lessening of political discussion, knowledge, and political understanding in the population.

    Wales’ Assembly government doesn’t appear to be as lively as that at Westminster, and perhaps at Edinburgh and Belfast too. Perhaps people in Wales didn’t appreciate how much might be at stake? Like the EU in Brussels?

  7. Cherry pick your evidence in order to justify the conclusion you wish to arrive at. Scotland, Catalonia and the Basque country have GDP`s which are similar too or better than their states and this position predates devolution and predates progressive social democratic government. Gareth may have the cause and the effect in reverse order.
    Northern Ireland has a land border with the EU and hence the reintroduction of trade barriers would have very obvious effects.
    “No widespread show of euroscepticism in Wales” really? So why are there 7 UKIP AMs and why did UKIP do so well in the last(sadly the very last) European election?

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