Why the future of Welsh politics is likely to be much more fractured and divided than its past
Richard Wyn Jones, Director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre
This is a translation of an article that appeared in the July/August of the Welsh language current affairs magazine Barn. Given that readers of Barn will be familiar with these arguments, I’ve added a couple of sentences to clarify matters for those who aren’t. These are identified by square brackets.
Welsh electoral politics in the democratic era has been defined by ‘one-partyism’. Labour has dominated Welsh elections for a century, following on from an earlier period of Liberal hegemony. In international comparative terms, the grip of one-partyism makes Wales a very, very unusual case. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anywhere that is analogous. From which it would be easy to conclude that the people of Wales are unusual homogenous. Yet, by contrast, there would also seem to be broad agreement that Wales is an unusually varied and heterogenous place. There is a long tradition of making a virtue of this heterogeneity – Wales ‘the community of communities’, to use a phrase associated with Saunders Lewis. Another, equally valid way of characterising this is to say that Wales is divided. Divided by class, language, religion (in the past at least), ethnicity and nationality, with divisions between regions and between more rural and more built-up areas further complicating matters.
How do we explain that a country so varied and divided has proven to be stubbornly uniform in terms of its electoral choices? Simply because, in the past at least, the prevailing social cleavages – to use the language of social science – tended to buttress each other forming the base for two, opposing political blocs.
In very broad and no doubt crude terms, the electoral dominance of Welsh liberalism was founded on the support of a religiously Nonconformist gwerin and working-class who tended to speak Welsh and were Welsh-British in their identity. The social foundations of support for their Tory rivals lay among the Anglican and Anglicised middle class for whom Welsh identity meant less or indeed nothing at all. As numerous historians and other observers have pointed out, Labour’s subsequent dominance was an extension and adaptation of this earlier Liberal forerunner rather than some revolutionary overthrow of it. True, the religious dimensions of this hegemonic bloc have faded to complete irrelevance and the Welsh language has been under siege for decades. Yet the interweaving of narratives of class and national identity remains an essential underpinning for Labour’s remarkable record of electoral success.
All that said, it appears that far-reaching social change combined with substantial demographic shifts is now changing our politics – including our electoral politics – in fundamental ways. Rather than combining to underpin two blocs, the various social cleavages that characterise contemporary Welsh society are now giving rise to a politics that is more fractured, divided and, yes, confusing that at any time in our modern history.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would seek to deny that economic changes have not only fundamentally transformed the labour market but are also having their effect on class identities. Similarly, if you’ve missed the fact that there’s been a very substantial influx of population from England into parts of Wales then you’ve clearly been living under a stone for a few decades. This, of course, in a period in which it would appear that the English are becoming more aware of their English identity. This in part, at least, as a reaction to national ‘revivals’ across the Celtic periphery of the state and the ensuing political developments (not least, devolution.)
I’ve referred to many different aspects of the politics that is emerging from these various changes in previous columns [in Barn magazine], but drawing some of these elements together is a way of reminding ourselves of the strikingly different political terrain into which we are now emerging.
Let us start with Brexit, without doubt the most significant constitutional development in the recent history of the state and most significant economic challenge since the Second World War. The fact that Wales voted to leave the European Union despite being so dependent on the single market and European Structural Funds appears to have been a shock to many. But we will not understand why this happened until we recognise the centrality of national identity – and attendant nationalisms – in underpinning the result (Table 1). Those who feel strongly Welsh but without feeling the same attachment to Britishness voted heavily to Remain. At the other end of the spectrum, the substantial minority in Wales who feel both strongly English and strongly English (the English British) or strongly English only tended to vote to Leave (like their equivalents in England itself).
Another group that voted heavily Leave were the Welsh British – those who feel both strongly Welsh and strongly British. This underlines the fact that, on international matters at least, many of the same attitudes that align with Englishness in England (and indeed Wales) also align with Britishness in Wales and Scotland.
Table 1. 2016 Referendum Vote: Leave by Strong National Identity
Two other national identity groups require our attention. The first is that group of people with a strong claim to Welsh national identity but who nonetheless identify as strongly British only (as a proxy, the table includes those born in Wales who identify as strongly British only.) This group also voted heavily Leave. In complete contrast, we find a group with a strong claim to English identity but who nonetheless who choose to identify as strongly British only (as a proxy here, we use those born in England who identify as strongly British only.) Like those in England who identify as British only, they also tended to vote Remain. [In this way, Wales’ ‘English’ minority is large enough to allow us to see the national identity and attendant political differences that characterise English society being reproduced west of the border too.]
But while the views of the Welsh British, the English British, and those who might identify as Welsh but who regard themselves as British only (the British only, not Welsh) are aligned on Europe, this does not mean that they agree on other important political questions. Table 2 shows the different attitudes to Wales constitutional future by national identity (NB this is 2016 data and uses a question that would seem to elicit the lowest levels of support for independence.) As is immediately obvious, whilst the Welsh British tend to be Eurosceptic they also tend to supportive of devolution and, indeed, further devolution. The English British in Wales, by contrast, tend to be both devosceptic and Eurosceptic. The most hostile to devolution, however, are the ‘British only (not Welsh)’. Indeed, these would appear to be the Welsh version of north America’s empire loyalist: those who moved to Canada rather than live in the independent United States and whose descendants to this day still defiantly fly the Union Jack.
Table 2. Constitutional Preferences by National Identity (2016)**
Differences between national identity groups are not confined to constitutional matters alone. Table 3 maps social values using two scales that will be familiar to those interested in politics: the left-right and the libertarian-authoritarian scales. We can see that those who regard themselves as Welsh only are significantly more left-wing and libertarian than the rest of the population. In comparison, the Welsh British are slightly less left-wing but substantially more authoritarian, whilst the British not Welsh tend to be yet further to the right. The British not English, in turn, are a little more left-wing (though not as left-wing as the Welsh only or the Welsh British) but substantially more libertarian than the English British, with the English only being the most authoritarian of all. [Here is another example of the ‘English’ minority in Wales reproducing in itself the differences we find across the population of England proper.]
Table 3. Values and National Identity (2016)
Given these fundamental differences on some of the most controversial political issues of our time let alone social and economic values, it should be no surprise to learn that there are also fundamental differences in voting behaviour. Our final table, Table 4, shows the relationship between national identity and voting in the 2017 general election. This was, of course, an unusual election with support for the two main British parties substantially higher than in recent times. It’s currently hard to envisage any straightforward repeat and more recent data would almost certainly show higher support for Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats let alone the Brexit Party. The point to note, rather, is the substantial even fundamental differences between the different national identity groups in Wales. The nature of the electoral battle among the Welsh only, for example, is clearly totally different from the battle among the English British.
Table 4. 2017 General Election Vote by National Identity**
Beyond supplying some (hopefully) interesting data for political anoraks to consider and argue over, it’s fair to ask what is the point of this analysis? My own view is that it underlines the extent of the challenge facing every political persuasion in Wales. Take the long-dominant Labour Party, for example. In a country that is polarising and, indeed, Anglicising, for how long will it be possible for that party to continue to satisfy its traditional support-base among the Welsh and the Welsh British whilst also addressing its strikingly low levels of support among the electorally-significant English British? The Conservatives will no doubt hope to benefit from the Eurosceptic sentiments prevalent among the Welsh British, but will this be enough to compensate them for any loss of support among the more Europhile British not English? And how can those who support Remain persuade the Welsh British – surely the key group in Wales in any second referendum – that Brexit may well threaten their hopes for the future of Wales? Finally, there’s the issue of independence. The recent upsurge of enthusiasm and activity is genuinely striking but how do supporters of a ‘Free Wales’ increase support for their cause beyond the Welsh only? Because – not to beat around the bush – this is simply not a large enough demographic group on which to base a successful campaign.
Beyond this, observing the way that political attitudes, social values and voting behaviour vary so fundamentally along national identity lines suggests that the future of Welsh politics is likely to be very different from its past. In many ways, Wales is now home to the most varied and heterogeneous patterns of national identity of any country in these islands. Because of this, we can expect that its internal politics will also be the most fractured and divided. Is there a way, one wonders, of bridging these divides?
** Lack of data precludes the inclusion of English only