Brexit Wales: Biting off the hand that feeds you

Martin Shipton argues that cultural and communication gaps, and a weak indigenous media, led to a surprise Brexit result in Wales

One of the most startling elements of the referendum result was that Wales voted Leave. Why did the UK country that has benefited most from European aid decide to reject the body that has poured billions of pounds into it?

IN Wales it wasn’t a case of biting the hand that feeds you, but of biting off the hand that feeds you.

The vote for Brexit in the UK country that has profited more than others from the EU in financial terms is a shocking tale of how an alienated and ill–informed electorate made a decision based on misconceptions that is almost certainly against its own best interests.

It also illustrates the worrying cultural and communication gap that exists between large sections of the population and their elected representatives, as well as what can happen when a weak indigenous media is swamped by opinion formers based in London.

Many Remain voters in Wales, as well as in the rest of the UK, were astonished that despite billions of pounds from EU aid budgets having been ploughed into the Welsh economy since the turn of the century, the country voted Leave by 52.5 per cent to 47.5 per cent, with 17 of the 22 local authority areas wanting out.

Brexit warning signs

Yet for several years there had been warning signs that the perception of Wales as a country with a predominantly left of centre and outward–looking political culture was an inaccurate caricature.

Wales came a little late to the Ukip table. In 2007 Nigel Farage spent a disappointing evening chain-smoking at Cardiff’s Welsh Assembly election count, convinced that “one or two of our guys” would win seats. When they didn’t., the established parties asserted complacently, and certainly prematurely, that Wales wasn’t Ukip territory.

Conventional wisdom insisted that with all the EU aid money Wales had received, the country was impervious to the Europhobia that by then had become endemic in much of England.

Two years later, however, Ukip saw its first MEP elected in Wales, comfortably winning the fourth and final seat thanks to the d’Hondt electoral system.

Five years later, Ukip stunned everyone in the political class by coming within less than 5,000 votes in an all–Wales constituency of topping the poll at the 2014 European Parliament election, pushing the Conservatives into third place and Plaid Cymru into a humiliating fourth.

With this result the penny finally dropped that Ukip posed a real threat to the settled order, even though plenty of politicians and commentators were prepared to console themselves by arguing that many of the party’s voters backed it not out of hostility to the EU as such, but because of some general sense of disaffection with aspects of modern life.

At the Welsh Assembly election in May 2016, Ukip won seven PR seats across all five electoral regions. With a seamless transition in political campaigning to the following month’s referendum, politicians on the Remain side quickly encountered hostility on the doorsteps of a kind they had never experienced before.

Huge concern — but tiny number of immigrants

Plaid Cymru AM Simon Thomas later told how he had met huge concern in Pembroke Dock — a town with a tiny number of immigrants, EU or otherwise — about foreigners who were supposedly a serious drain on public services. Only a few days after hearing such comments did he come to the conclusion that by reading the Daily Mail’s website first thing in the morning, he would be able to guess what would be quoted back to him as he canvassed housing estates a few hours later. So far as the local situation in his Mid & West Wales region was concerned, the perception was miles away from the reality.

Official statistics tell us that Wales receives around £680m in EU funding annually. The bulk of the money comprises receipts under the Common Agricultural Policy and Structural Funds (regional aid distributed to poorer regions of the EU), with the balance made up from Horizon 2020 (a research and innovation programme) and other smaller, but economically significant, pots of funding such as Creative Europe (a cultural support initiative). This means that the funding received in Wales is greater than the amount contributed by Welsh taxpayers via the UK’s payments into the EU budget.

According to the Welsh Government, EU funded projects have, since 2007, helped support nearly 73,000 people into work and 234,000 people to gain qualifications. They have helped to create nearly 12,000 businesses and some 37,000 jobs.

Figures of this kind were, of course, quoted frequently during the referendum campaign by First Minister Carwyn Jones and other Remain–supporting politicians. But as with the large amounts of EU money spent on infrastructure and community projects in Wales, if you didn’t see yourself as having benefited directly from such spending, messages of this kind had little resonance for those living in deprived communities.

And in comparison with the extensive coverage given to assertions from the Leave campaign that billions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money sent to the EU would be far better spent on the health service, together with negative perceptions of EU migration, Carwyn Jones’ advice to the people of Wales was barely noticed.

Equally, if like many people in the poorer parts of Wales — most of the country — you were on low pay or working on a zero hours contract, you’d be unlikely to be impressed.

Figures relating to voters’ attitudes towards EU migration in Wales further demonstrate the gap between what was real and what was imagined:

  • Recent survey data suggest that people in Wales are less sympathetic to EU migrants than people in other parts of the UK. One survey found that 71 per cent of respondents from Wales thought that EU migrant workers brought more costs than benefits — a larger proportion than in any other part of Britain.
  • As many as 86 per cent of people in Wales believe that immigration should be reduced — again, a higher proportion than any other part of Britain.
  • Yet in fact a lower proportion of people living in Wales are migrants than is the case in the UK as a whole. In Wales 2.6 per cent of the population are EU migrants and 3.2 per cent are non–EU migrants compared to the UK average of 5.2 per cent EU migrants and 8.5 per cent non–EU migrants.
  • In the last decade the proportion of EU migrants has increased in Wales, but more slowly than the EU average.
  • Most long–term EU migrants come to Wales to work, with more than half reporting that they already had a job to go to on arrival.
  • Working age EU migrants in Wales are more likely to be in work (79 per cent) than the rest of the population (71.3 per cent).
  • Wales is home to 4.8 per cent of the total UK population but just 2.3 per cent of the UK migrant population. This means that it has a smaller share than every other part of the UK except the North East of England (ONS 2015).

Why so unappreciative?

The contrast between what many people in Wales were prepared to believe about the economic impact of migration on their communities and the objective reality is clear. But how can this be explained? And why weren’t they more appreciative of the EU aid money that had helped to rejuvenate their communities?

What cannot be avoided is the fact that a disconnect exists between those who see themselves as part of a reborn nation that has acquired the trappings of a quasi–state, and those for whom the Welsh Assembly is a dimly understood entity whose relevance to their lives is barely, if at all, apparent. The disconnect is a fruitful ground for misunderstanding.

In May 2014 an ICM poll for the BBC revealed that less than half the population of Wales realised that the NHS in Wales was run by the Welsh Government: just 48 per cent correctly answered that was the case against 43 per cent who thought it was run by Westminster.

In March 2016 a YouGov poll for Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre showed that Nathan Gill of Ukip was Wales’ most recognised MEP: just 16 per cent could name him. Runner-up was the fictitious Elwyn Davies, “recognised” by 12 per cent.

Journalists often like to scoff at politicians, blaming them if voters don’t recognise who they are, or cannot distinguish between their election promises.

But in Wales the weakness of the indigenous media is a bigger factor. In 2016 the average daily sale of the Trinity Mirror–owned and Cardiff–based Western Mail fell to just 15,259 copies. In June 2016 the North Wales Daily Post, also owned by Trinity Mirror, decided to make its Assembly reporter redundant.

The Daily Mail has a captive Welsh audience

While London–based papers do not publish separate sales figures for Wales, industry sources are unanimous in saying that the biggest seller is the Daily Mail, well–known for its hostility to the EU.

None of the London “nationals” employ reporters based in Wales, although a Guardian reporter who lives in the west of England does cover significant Welsh political stories. In the main, however, the more than 90 per cent of newspaper buyers living in Wales who choose to buy a title published in England, will find out little about decisions affecting their lives made by the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly.

When Carwyn Jones, therefore, set out the economic case for continued membership of the EU and warned about the negative economic consequences of Brexit, many of the voters he would have wanted to reach did not hear him. Instead they were reading anti–EU stories in the Mail, the Sun and the Express.

Days before the referendum Jones visited the Cardiff City football stadium with Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood for a joint media appearance in which they both said how important a Remain vote was for Wales’ economic prosperity. But Wood appeared to lack confidence in the prospect of victory. She had been shocked by the number of people who weeks before had helped her secure a famous victory in the Assembly election over a Labour Minister in Rhondda, but were now saying they were intending to vote for Brexit.

Backing a pro-EU politician — and then voting for Brexit

Voting for the fervent EU supporter and Welsh nationalist Leanne Wood in May and for British nationalist Brexit in June may seem to defy logic, but Wood wasn’t prepared to criticise those who did so. In a speech delivered nearly two weeks after the referendum, she said: “Most of the Leave voters I have spoken to during the campaign and since the result did so chiefly because they wanted change, felt voiceless, and are fed up with being taken for granted by an out–of–touch political establishment. I get that and I respect that.”

When speaking on July 4 2016, she was also careful when referring to a spike in hate crimes against immigrants,  to make the point that most Leave voters were not racists.

Welsh Labour didn’t got the message that the majority of voters in Wales would vote Leave until the ballot boxes were opened. On the evening of referendum day, former Cabinet Minister Peter Hain rang the Western Mail newsroom to say feedback was good for a Remain vote.

Since the referendum, Carwyn Jones has maintained a more coherent stance than Labour in Westminster, consistently arguing that Wales’ future prosperity depends on retaining “unfettered access” to the European Single Market. He has adapted his pre-referendum pitch, repeatedly making the point that while the people of Wales voted for Brexit, they did not vote to be “done over”. He has defined his mission as seeking to retain full access to the Single Market while adapting free movement of labour rules so that people seeking work would only have the right to move to the UK if they had a pre–existing job offer.

Whether those he hoped to influence before the referendum are any more aware of Jones’ latest position on Brexit is doubtful. There is no evidence to suggest they are doing any more than reading the same English newspapers.


This essay forms a chapter in a newly published book called Brexit, Trump and the Media by various authors, published by Abramis at £19.95.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer





Martin Shipton is Chief Reporter of the Western Mail. An ardent but not starry-eyed supporter of devolution, he has covered the National Assembly for Wales since its inception in 1999. He is the author of Poor Man's Parliament (Seren, 2011), a history of the Assembly's first decade. His biography of Viscount Tonypandy, Political Chameleon: In Search of George Thomas, will be published by Welsh Academic Press in September 2017. A graduate of York University and Cardiff's Centre for Journalism Studies, he has won many awards for his journalism including UK Reporter of the Year.

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