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.

10 thoughts on “Brexit Wales: Biting off the hand that feeds you

  1. Has the Western Mail in the course of the past decade published many stories identifying and championing the EU for the funding projects in Wales have received? Or have the outcomes of this funding been attributed by the Western Mail to the efforts Labour governments (in Cardiff)?
    I have my perception as to which way the Western Mail chose to cover these stories.

  2. Very good article – thank you.

    A fact that has further hardened the contempt many have for our political class has been the sight of previously fervent Remain MP’s & AM’s abandoning their principles and now meekly going along with the Brexiteer’s plan rather than continuing the fight and risking alienating their electorate/ losing their seats. It takes a back bone to stick to your ideals and tell people they were wrong/stupid/duped and still vote with your beliefs – vertebrae seem to crumble easily these days. I guess the salary is just too good to give up !

  3. Another day, another article on ‘Brexit’ by a disgruntled ‘Remainer’ who still does not understand what happened.

    The irony is that these articles are themselves a perfect demonstration of the real reason ‘Remain’ lost. They simply did not listen – and, more depressingly, they are still not listening.

    Yes, the mainstream media in Wales are weak – mainly because they have become the exclusive preserve of one side of the spectrum and therefore cut themselves off from what people are really saying – but the problem with the ‘Remain’ campaign was the message not the medium.

    The people of Wales heard that message very clearly, the argument, repeated in this article, that they should be grateful for all that ‘European’ money. They heard that argument perfectly – and felt insulted by it.

    A moment’s thought should be enough to see why. A man on the dole does not want to be told that he should be grateful for his for his dole money. For a start, he understands full well that it is not free money but taxpayers’ money, ultimately his own money. More important what he really wants is not dole money but the feeling that he is earning his own money.

    It should have been no surprise to anyone that Wales voted as we did. It was never really about money. It is about self-respect.

  4. I regret the Brexit decision and believe it to be a calamitous error but i differ to a degree with Martin Shipton`s analysis.
    “The Daily Mail has a captive audience” .. no it doesnt people choose to buy it and they do not choose to buy the Western Mail. Martin seems to think that there must be some form of coercion to explain this phenomenon. I am sure that there are many reasons behind the relative success of one publication over the other but could it be that one of the papers has a closer grasp of public opinion than the other?
    Martin correctly acknowledges the importance of perceptions of immigration to the Brexit vote and he then goes on to tackle some of the misconceptions around this issue. However he does this analysis entirely from one side of the argument.
    Yes it is true that the Bexit voting areas tended to have far fewer migrants than the mostly large urban centers that voted remain. This fact widely reported in the Western Mail and Guardian and less so in the Daily Mail. It is also true that the Brexit supporting areas tended to have a larger percentage increase in immigration over recent years. Places like Boston in Lincolnshire and Merthyr had seen very rapid change and they recorded big Brexit votes. This fact did not appear in the Western Mail or Guardian. I am not sure it appeared in the Daily Mail either ( I read it in the Economist ).
    I think I largely agree with Martin on the economic effects of immigration though there is another side to that ledger which he does not to mention. With net migration at 300,000 per annum that is a lot of houses to build and schools and hospitals.
    The paradox is that the liberal media believe that the quality of life cannot be adequately assessed in terms of economics alone and yet they refuse to acknowledge that people may have views on the consequences of rapid immigration that are not economic. Though they may have validity.

  5. If Martin’s thesis that there is a “weak indigenous media” in Wales swamped by the media in London is correct then it wouldn’t matter much what line on EU funding the WM took. Certainly the red-top end of that media will influence perceptions of immigration as they have influenced perceptions on crime. Regular national surveys show concern about crime despite participants reporting perceptions of freedom from crime locally. Certainly local (Welsh) progressive politicians will have difficulty impacting on the local debate when the likes of Gill has the bulk of the popular London media echoing him. How we meet that challenge needs to be addressed, particularly when you consider that the second best known politician in Wales doesn’t exist!

    As regards polititans blowing in the wind, for some it was ever thus, which means that should the wind change direction (and there are signs that it might) they will change with it. The salary probably is too good to give up. Perhaps it should be subject to a 1% cap.

  6. ” 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?” Perhaps they could see the up and coming German led supra-nationalist state and for all the EU money, Wales is still at the bottom of the UK economic pile. Also with Turkey and the Balkan states of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania waiting in line to join the EU how long could Wales plead poverty?

    The reality is that the “European aid” has been squandered by Welsh Labour mismanagement.

    But hey! …..Isn’t it true that; “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

    The disgruntled remainers lament….

    Guide me o thou great redeemer
    Pilgrim through this barren land
    I am weak but thou art mighty
    Hold me with thy powerful hand
    Bread of Juncker
    Feed me now and evermore

    Thank god the people of Wales saw the light.

  7. The role of print media in Wales can be discussed and where necessary the blame for this region of the UK voting OUT can be put on the Daily Mail and similar publications. If the ‘right wing’ press distorted the discussion about the EU in a ‘negative’ fashion then surely this was ‘counterbalanced’ by the BBC in Wales and presumably S4C as well.The FM was hardly ‘balanced’ in his views of the EU,and PC was extremely supporting of us staying in the EU,however the result showed how out of touch our local politicians are with ordinary welsh people.In discussing with ‘elderly’ friens like myself the clear impression was that the majority would vote OUT as since the first referendum in 1970’s we have (ordinary plebs life me) been told a ‘pack of lies’ about the loss of sovereignty from UK to Brussels and largely in elected politicans/civil servants like Juncker/Delors etc etc.The main decision on our membership/participation was concerning the EURO and it was Gordon Brown who put a stop to that ‘project’ which was integral in the creation of a European state based in Brussels which was never approved of by the population of the UK as a whole.If we survived after 1945 when we spent all ‘reserves’ in the USA,took on huge borrowings to fund war and rescue Germans/French from themselves then we can survive/prosper in the brave new world.

  8. The spread of opinions in the comments is illuminating and when taken together with the piece, underline a point that has not been addressed sufficiently. The ‘leave’ vote in Wales was a general rejection of the dominant political outlook since 1979 (if we need to put a date on it), where ‘cost’ counts, and ‘value’ is ignored. Public service, the ‘greater good’ and broadening prosperity have been the prices paid, culminating in the withering austerity of recent years. In that respect most Leave votes were sincere, thought-through votes. ‘All this’ needed to be brought to an end – though they may have varied widely in the evidence they adduced to make their point. It was not, though, a vote about the European Union, of which people are generally quite lacking in knowledge (still).

    The UK is a two-party state run by the Duopoly. The evermore effective promotional machinery of the two main parties in recent years have spun the Duopoly beyond its logical limits. One party in government for a while, and then the other – neither seriously undermining the other lest they upset the balance. This is a function of FPTP voting and an extreme focus on a single political level – the UK parliament – because this gives a more easily maintained continuity to the Duopoly (accounting, in part, for the apparent impotence of our National Assembly). Nuanced debate in the face of such a savage binary context is difficult – ‘if you don’t agree with me then you must be one of them’.

    The referendum gave voice to an electorate who had had enough of this crazy system – and its austerity and the ceaseless attack on the public realm. This voice spoke again loudly in the GE this year – effectively “no, you still don’t get it, we don’t want more of the same arrogance of ‘strong and stable’ government”. The mantle of saviour was thrust upon outsider Corbyn because public perception did not equate him with the Duopoly.

    There are people outside the Duopoly who have political solutions, and politics, though still a dirty old trade, needs to deal in HOW we live our lives – justly, equitable, fairly, prosperously – as the preceding comments suggest. Welsh political life needs to reflect this. As long as people in Wales think of themselves as only poor Western Englandandwalesers, then that is all the discourse we will get. Politics in Wales must lead in getting people to consider other parameters when deciding how to exert political power, and Martin Shipton makes this point succinctly.

    On the matter of the EU, no-one, by now, seriously thinks that leaving the EU is sensible, wise, prudent or remotely affordable, and somehow ‘respecting’ a deeply flawed and dishonest referendum does nobody any good. Politicians, in mending their ways, and in seeking to improve the quality of life in Wales, must bring this Brexit nonsense to an end quickly and thoroughly. We cannot afford it.

    Neither will our children.

  9. The right wing of the Tory party wanted to leave the EU for coherent reasons. They resent the level of regulation of business on working conditions, health and safety, environmental standards and the level of taxation and welfare provision in European states. Their vision is of an unregulated free-market economy in which business can do as it likes and the devil takes the hindmost. Whatever you think of that vision it is not shared by the majority of the working class in Wales who would surely not benefit from its implementation. As for sovereignty, people in Merthyr have absolutely no control or influence over who forms the next British government under the first past the post UK electoral system. They also didn’t notice that the people who want to be free of Europe are perfectly happy to to be the 51st State of the USA and follow the Americans in any ill-advised venture they get up to. So why did they take out their reasonable frustrations on one of the few institutions that was doing them any good? No point in being pious about it. They were taken for mugs and played the part to perfection. But that’s ok. Some people will only learn the hard way and bad things have to happen before they pay enough attention. We are all going to get a lot wiser in the next year or two.

  10. Well, that’s Merthyr boys (and girls) for you … just can’t stop them rising

    Perhaps they saw Brussels as a 21st century Cyfarthfa Castle and sovereignty in a first past the post system better than an EU dictatorship. They were also probably fed up with their “European aid/Objective 1 Funding” being squandered by Welsh politicos in Cardiff Bay.

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