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.

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