Why Brexit’s main impact on Wales could be to its relationship with the UK
Wales voted for Brexit by the same margin as the UK overall, 52 to 48 per cent, in sharp contrast to Northern Ireland and Scotland.
There is evidence that disproportionate support for Leave among the 21 per cent of Welsh voters who were born in England tipped the vote for Leave in Wales.
Since the Brexit vote there has been much speculation about the impact of Brexit on the UK economy and its impact on the Union.
Almost all the economic studies done so far, including the Bank of England and the IMF, have concluded that all forms of Brexit will impose a significant economic cost on the UK, and that this will be more severe in those regions including Wales which are particularly dependent on trade with the EU.
Before Brexit over 61 per cent of Welsh exports went to the EU, compared to 44 per cent for the UK as a whole.
Sectors like farming and manufacturing have been particularly hit by the loss of the customs union and the single market. The Welsh economy is expected to be significantly poorer over time than it would have been if EU membership had continued.
The economic impact of Brexit is shared to varying degrees by all parts of the UK. But of even greater importance to the long-term relationship of Wales with the UK may be the constitutional impact of Brexit and specifically the impact on the Union.
The shockwaves of Brexit are already being felt in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with renewed pressures for Irish reunification and a second independence referendum. Similar processes are at work in Wales, with self-determination within a European framework drawing increasing support.
Recent polls shows that one third of Welsh voters now support independence, which rises to 42 per cent among voters aged 18-24.
Compared with Scotland, Wales has always had a very different constitutional arrangement with England because of the degree of assimilation that was forced on Wales, merging its laws and institutions with England.
But the devolution bills which established the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament in 1998 have changed all that.
The Welsh Assembly was constituted as a law-making body. It was legitimated, if very narrowly, through a referendum, and now can only be abolished through another referendum.
The Covid-19 emergency has enabled the Welsh Government to show a new assertiveness and effectiveness for which it was rewarded in the May elections. The writ of the Prime Minister of the UK Government did not run in Wales during the Covid-19 emergency, only in England.
This points to why the main impact of Brexit on Wales’ relationship with the UK may yet be constitutional rather than economic. Brexit is a manifestation of a new and assertive English nationalism, and the Welsh, Scots and the two nations of Northern Ireland are reacting to this, defining themselves against it.
The English Brexiters are making a big mistake in their handling of the relationship between the UK Government and the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom, both in relation to Brexit and to Covid-19.
They treat the devolved administrations as subordinates not as equals, which is how UK Governments have always treated the other nations. The unspoken assumption is that England, because of its size and importance, is the UK and that whatever is in England’s interests must be in the interests of the rest of the UK.
This attitude is reflected in the refusal for two decades to set up formal intergovernmental machinery between the four parts of the UK or to understand the new political and constitutional reality of the UK which the devolution settlements of the late 1990s have created . There is a refusal to understand the increasing federal nature of the UK. Covid has exposed those tensions.
Further clashes are likely over post Brexit policy, as the UK Government seeks to push ahead with its single market plans for the UK and makes centralised decisions about spending on infrastructure.
Wales received more funds per head from the EU than any other UK region. The way they were distributed with little local involvement was one of the factors in Wales’ Leave vote.
The UK Government with its ingrained centralised instincts is likely to make the same mistake. Such actions are likely to increase a sense of Welsh identity and a desire for more powers to be devolved to Wales. Take back control is a slogan with many different applications.
Brexit is giving a big push to the forces prising the UK apart because the UK Government acts increasingly not as the government of a federation but as the government of one part of it.
Andrew Gamble is a Professorial Fellow at SPERI, University of Sheffield. Two collections of his essays After Brexit and The Western Ideology have just been published by Bristol University Press.