The Disunited Kingdom

The UK has voted to leave the European Union (EU). I wrote here some months back that I thought the UK may end up leaving the EU when it didn’t really want to. It now seems that this has happened. I was wrong about the turnout, the debate did engage people. It is perhaps because the ballot paper presented a simple binary choice, where every persons vote counted equally, engaged the electorate, unlike ordinary elections. However it also divided the electorate, not merely because it was close but demographically. Some areas strongly supported remaining in the EU (by 3 to 1) in some places, whilst others were strongly for leaving. Furthermore, opinion polls suggest that the young, (18-25) were for remaining, whilst the old (65+) were strongly for leaving.

The UK is used to such huge divides geographically at elections. Political parties target their policies at areas that support them and exacerbate the economic divide, traditionally called the North-South divide. However in the EU referendum, the divide was different.

Wales voted to leave the EU by 52.5% to 47.5%, close, yet decisive and roughly the same proportion as England. People today, the day after, have been asking a pertinent question: “Why did Wales vote to leave when it is net beneficiary [more EU money is spent in Wales than goes to the EU in fees] and does not have the pressures of net immigration on housing, schools and hospitals [in fact quite the opposite]?” Wales gets more out of being in the EU than it does by being in the UK. Trying to find an answer to this question has been  a puzzle.

However when you look in detail at how the vote was split in Wales, a possible answer emerges. The  university towns with high proportions of young people were for remain (Bangor, Aberystwyth and our capital, Cardiff), as were wealthier areas (Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan). However the big leave support was in the Valleys, being strongest in Blaenau Gwent.

The Valleys are the old industrial heartlands, part of the original industrial revolution, formed in the 19th century to exploit the coal lying beneath, which supplied the iron and later steel production industries. Nearby Cardiff grew as a major world port and was once the largest coal and steel port in the world. People migrated to the Valleys for this work from other parts of Wales, Ireland, England, Italy and the rest of the world. The often brutal nature of the work forged both steel and strong communities.

Heavy industry in Wales declined towards the end of the twentieth century. The Tory UK government, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher took the decision to close down the mines, with the idea to move the UK to a new, modern services based economy. There were strikes and civil unrest, but the government got their way and left the valleys without alternative industries, leaving behind high unemployment and social deprivation, but argued for as a ‘price worth paying’ to give the UK as a whole the economic growth of the late 1980s and 1990s. The people of the Valleys, with a working class tradition, have always voted strongly for the UK Labour party. During the Labour government of Tony Blair, there was hope that the time had come for the support and investment to make the Valleys prosperous one more. However this support never came in sufficient quantities to establish prosperity, the needs of London and it’s financial services industry took priority.

This story of the abandoned former heavy industry areas, is also found elsewhere in the UK, in the North of England and the central belt of Scotland. It is these communities that seem to have voted to leave the EU the strongest, the former Labour party ‘heartlands’. These communities suffer through Tory UK governments, they have kept voting for the Labour party, but in recent times have not been helped by the Labour party. It is not hard to understand why these communities are very angry with the political establishment, especially when the political establishment who seem to only address the needs of the globally connected cities of Cardiff and in particular London. The Labour party has focussed towards population demographics they need to win power in London. so, when the chance arrived for these communities to vote against the UK and European establishment. In the recent referendum, they voted strongly against the establishment.

Really, just because the issue of the European Union was on the ballot paper was irrelevant, it was a chance to kick the smug world of London based politics, to seek radical change. The real cause of the problems in the British economy stem from the UK government, and not the EU. Indeed today, I have heard some people regret their leave vote, giving the reason that they only wanted to punish the establishment.

I went to a EU referendum hustings meeting locally. I was a little surprised to hear from Valleys people (communities created by immigration) complaining about immigration, even though it wasn’t an issue locally in putting pressure on services. I did hear of resentment of immigrants from the European Union. People complained of all the new job growth appearing in the South East of England being taken up by EU migrants. I have heard the points that Welsh people can’t take those jobs because they have families and can’t afford or indeed wish to move from a nice home  to a tiny room, while young EU migrants can more easily. People were asking why can’t those jobs and that investment come to this area, where it’s needed. so, it seems you can be against immigration even when that immigration occurs far away, the ripples of globalisation. The issue seems to be not immigration as such, but the failure of the UK government to invest in the infrastructure a growing population requires. However it was easier for the establishment to blame immigration rather than their own failings.

This phenomena extends beyond these formerly industrial areas to the wider Britain, outside of London. People who have for the last thirty years seen their disposable incomes fall, particularly with the cost of housing continuing to rise above the rate of growth in the real economy. Where once a full-time worker could have a decent home, support a partner and provide for their  children, this is now much more difficult. Faced with the prospect of a continuing decline in living standards and offered the opportunity of profound change, in leaving the EU, many people over 35 have simply voted for it, they perhaps they sense they have little to lose and everything to gain, being in housing debt and hence with no savings or investments. They ‘want their country back’, to live in easier times, where money moved around the community, rather than sucked away elsewhere, where people had time and energy to put back into their communities.

So, despite the differences of Wales compared to England, there has still been a support for leaving the EU, they don’t really want. What the Welsh and English people do want is a change in the political establishment, for a representative democracy, a politics that helps all of the population flourish. The EU was seen perhaps seen as part of that cosy establishment of the wealthy class.

So, why was there support for remaining in the EU in Scotland and Northern Ireland? I think that  was because in Scotland and Ireland there is a real alternative. For Northern Ireland faces the costs of having the border with Southern Ireland closed, as a border of the EU, which would be costly for communities used to regularly crossing the border. Northern Ireland has it’s own political parties, not tainted by the whims of a London centric government. For Scotland, the devolutionist party, the SNP (Scottish National Party) are in power, but again not tainted by London politics. The benefits of EU membership are thus clearer.

Both Northern Ireland and Scotland, have the opportunity of ridding themselves forever from London politics. Northern Ireland can re-unite to form a united Ireland, in the EU, it seems even Unionist communities their are  more people now open to this in the light of Brexit. Scotland looks likely to leave the UK as an independent country and thus retain membership of the EU.

Which would leave the United Kingdom [well no longer united as ‘united’ comes from the Act of Union with Scotland) as England and Wales. However it is possible Wales could follow Scotland’s path, if the reasons for the leave vote are as I’ve described, that Wales did not vote for brexit because people really wanted to leave the European Union.  Plaid Cymru (Wales’ devolution party) are not yet perceived as the alternative to the Westminster establishment, Much of Wales has stuck with Labour and angry that they have failed to deliver change with the limited powers of the Welsh government. In any case the divisions between people of different areas and different ages leave a very disunited kingdom.

There is always hope. Referenda can engage electorates and this seems to have occured, provoking discussions and finding solutions on the ground to problems. If thsi energy continues, real change can happen, as it has in Scotland. The established order can be eradicated to be replaced with a truly representative government, that acts for the people it serves. Anything can happen. Divisions can be washed away and arguably such a process is easier outside of the EU. The campaigns of inflaming racism towards people perceived as immigrants has stoked the far right and further divides communities. It is a risky course, the establishment will not relinquish power without a fight. Victory can be claimed before the real work of reform is done.  Britain is in interesting times.

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