Wales’ Brexit vote had deeper roots than many are willing to admit
Martin Johnes, Professor of History at Swansea University
The Brexit vote was a profound shock to those who like to believe that Wales has a distinctive and progressive culture. It is little wonder that people looked for someone to blame. The London media and elderly English migrants were favourite scapegoats, but the reality of Wales’ Brexit has much deeper roots.
Knowing quite why people vote the way they do involves a degree of speculation. But it seems accepted that Brexit was about far more than just the EU. The fact that the Welsh leave vote was highest in post-industrial districts, and especially the coalfield, suggested that it owed much to the sense of anger or marginalisation that has been created by the economic problems of those areas.
There has been a tendency to blame this on Thatcherism but the coalfields have been in decline since 1920, the year employment in the Welsh coal industry peaked at 290,000. The depression of the interwar years was devastating and led to mass unemployment and migration away. Nationalisation in 1947 did bring some respite but many small collieries continued to close and investment was concentrated on the larger pits.
Even then, government economic policy centred on the need to diversify the economy beyond coal and thus avoid a repeat of the interwar problem of what happens to single-industry communities when that industry collapses.
For three decades or so, diversification concentrated on developing manufacturing, but this was not a long-term solution. The new factories were often branches of larger companies and thus vulnerable to closure when the company struggled or sought to move production to cheaper foreign fields.
The lure of cheaper production costs abroad also made Welsh manufacturing companies vulnerable too. Moreover, the new factories tended to be concentrated in the lower valleys, nearer to ports and the major rail and road links.
The coal industry continued to decline. Between 1948 and 1970, the number employed in Welsh mining fell from 128,000 to 50,000. Miners were offered transfers to the pits that stayed open, while factory jobs also avoided the emergence of a significant unemployment problem. But none of this changed the fact that coal was coming to an end.
By 1979, there were just 29,000 people employed in coal mining in Wales. The Conservative party may have applied the fatal blow in the 1980s but the coal industry had been in terminal decline for years before Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.
The communities that lost their pits did not die but they lost much more than a source of employment. With the closure of a colliery might come the closure of the miners’ welfare hall, places that had been social, cultural and intellectual centres of local life. Some villages became communities of commuters.
The effects on communal life and identities were exacerbated by the rise of television, which meant that people stayed at home more in the evening to the detriment of communal activities such as choirs and clubs.
Making things worse were the modern problems of youth crime, falling chapel attendance and the disruption caused by the replacement of older housing stock with new estates. Paradoxically, outsiders began to look at industrial communities as backwards places, cut adrift from modernity.
Not everyone bemoaned the changes. Miners knew how dirty and dangerous working underground was. Individualised leisure could be just as fun as community activities. Younger people often saw industrial communities as places to escape rather than be proud of.
But older people felt the worlds they had grown up were disappearing. And, once the alternative sources of employment began to dry up with the economic recession in the 1970s, the general sense of a whole society being left behind spread to the young too.
Studies in the Rhondda at the start of the 1970s found people who felt a lack of leadership, a nostalgia for the past, a sense of not belonging and of anti-authoritarianism. Delegates at a 1973 conference about the future of the valleys reported that people felt deeply stigmatized and apathetic. They listed the problems of their communities:
“Vandalism, industrial closures, unemployment, poor housing, bad urban planning, large estates with no sense of belonging, withdrawal of locally based essential services, having to travel to register complaints, remote central government, decision-making away from the people, lack of civic pride, pollution, run-down of social amenities.”
In 1974, Mid Glamorgan County Council’s education director wrote bluntly to the Secretary of State for Wales: ‘The Valleys are dying.’
This was not unnoticed by those in power. There were government and third-sector schemes to encourage investment and improve communities. The coalfields had vast sums of money invested in them. Landscapes were restored, and hillsides were cleared of slagheaps. There were new roads and grants aplenty for the modernisation of housing and the opening of factories. Money came from the Welsh Office, Westminster and Brussels.
But much of this seemed to be window dressing. Nothing was done to address the fundamental problem that the economic reason for the existence of coalfield communities was gone. The local economy needed to be reinvented and rethought but anything radical would probably have faced the opposition of the National Union of Mineworkers.
It seemed unwilling to face the fact that coal was an industry rooted in the past whose time was coming to an end. Thatcherism at least identified the right problem but it came up with the wrong answer.
New roads and new community facilities did not prevent the sense of communities in decline. Physical infrastructure is important, but it is only part of a solution and it can, perhaps, give the impression of being crumbs from someone else’s wealthy table.
Communities are built from the bottom up. The miners’ welfare halls mattered to people, not just because of what they offered, but because they were partly financed by the deductions made from miners’ own weekly pay packets. This created a sense of ownership.
So much of the investment in the coalfield failed to give people anything that resembled this or the dignity that went with it. It failed to give people the skills and confidence they needed to take their futures into their own hands.
It failed to prioritise that what mattered was not jobs at any cost but jobs that did more than pay a wage packet, jobs that gave people a sense of worth and which people felt proud of. It failed to tackle how removed from power many felt.
Devolved government has not been much better at solving the problems of post-industrial Wales. It’s easy to blame this on a lack of power but even independence would probably replicate the dominance of London with the dominance of Cardiff. Assuming things will automatically be better by moving power from London to Cardiff is as naïve as assuming the same of transferring power from Brussels to London.
The most important dimension of power is not where it is located but what is done with it. Deindustrialising and post-industrial Wales suffered repeated failures at the hands of those with power and Brexit was its response.
The sense of frustration and marginalisation that exists in post-industrial Wales is not universal. In Blaenau Gwent, the Welsh county with the strongest leave vote, 38% of the turnout still voted to remain. Nor should the leave vote be blamed on such areas alone. There were more leave votes in Cardiff than in Rhondda Cynon Taf. But this does not change the fact that Wales’ Brexit vote owed much to the social and cultural impacts of the historic failure to replace and move beyond coal.
Brexit was a product of how people across the former industrial heartlands of the UK have been failed by an economic and political system that has the wrong priorities. It is a product of a failure of politics, economics and imagination.
Stopping Brexit will not change this. It might prevent the economic difficulties getting worse but it will do nothing to solve the problems that caused the vote in the first place.
Martin Johnes’ new book England’s Colony? will be published in March and an accompanying BBC series begins on 11 March. Both explore Wales’ historical relationship with England.
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