So Wales voted leave. Cue much handwringing, shame and self-loathing, particularly for those of us who were in France when the results broke. Two weeks of being patted on the back, partying and singing alongside amazing people from all over Europe, who went out of their way to tell us how they were cheering on bold little Wales. After all their hospitality and warmth, the referendum vote felt like we’d spat in their faces.
But it wasn’t as simple as hating our European friends. We know why Wales voted leave (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-wales-eu-referendum-vote-leave-uk-ignored-by-westminster-a7102551.html; http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-britain-eu-subsidies-20160701-snap-story.html; http://www.iwa.wales/click/2016/07/brexit-party-sophistication-ignored-electors/). The reasons for the Leave vote in Wales were the same as they were in England (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n15/john-lanchester/brexit-blues).
The difference with Scotland is that the Scots have a left leaning popular movement to channel their discontent, and a public sphere which isn’t rabidly xenophobic. Wales and England don’t.
What was significant was how much of a surprise the vote was for Wales’ political class. Devolution has spawned a bloated political and bureaucratic stratum. They have obtained well paid comfortable jobs and bought houses in leafy suburbs as their countrymen, promised a new deal by devolution, have become further immiserated. Elite bafflement at the depth of the anger in the rest of Wales demonstrates the chasm between Wales’ elites and ‘the rest’. This divide is increasingly spatial: the gulf between Cardiff and the rest of Wales mirrors London’s increasing detachment from the rest of England (http://www.iwa.wales/click/2015/11/is-wales-a-nation-or-a-city-state/). Cardiff and its commuter belt has for some time now been a shiny, neoliberal oasis within the most deprived region of Western Europe (http://www.egrg.rgs.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/egrg_wp-lovering.pdf). Although less than half an hour’s drive away, places like Pontcanna and Lisvane seem like a million miles away from the valleys to their north.
For those of us from ‘the rest’ of South Wales, the anger and alienation felt towards ‘the establishment’ (both London and Cardiff) has always been palpable, and so although the result was disappointing, it was not really a surprise (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexitvote/2015/12/17/no-more-welsh-effect/).
But what’s done is done. The real issue now is what will happen to Wales now, politically and constitutionally.
Wales voting like England further blurred the already fuzzy boundaries between the two countries. The Washington Post reflected on what a post-Brexit, post Scottish UK would look like. They came up with the name Wangland to describe this state (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/29/what-a-real-brexit-britain-would-look-like/?tid=sm_tw).
Whilst The Washington Post saw the possibility of Wangland as fantastical, they weren’t too far off the mark. The reality is that Scotland almost certainly will leave. Wales, England and Northern Ireland will be left. And a border referendum in Ireland is by no means impossible (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/brexit-border-poll-unlikely-for-now-but-that-may-change-1.2700593).
The post didn’t elaborate on how Wales would fare within ‘Wangland’.
Here’s what I think is likely.
When Scotland leaves, the Tories will rule England- and therefore ultimately Wales too- for the foreseeable future.
In the very near future, further powers will be granted to the Assembly by the latest Wales bill (https://constitution-unit.com/2016/07/26/the-wales-bill-2016-a-marked-improvement-but-there-are-fundamental-questions-yet-to-be-resolved/). These will be presented as a triumph. But there will also probably be a reduction of block grant in real terms (i.e., less money from Westminster) (http://www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/cr-ld10630/cr-ld10630-e.pdf) and no readjustment of the unfair Barnett formula to take into account Wales’ unique needs (https://fullfact.org/economy/how-barnett-formula-flawed-favour-scotland-and-northern-ireland/). Ultimately this will lead to a sharpening of what we call devolution of the axe (http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2013/05/06/new-labour-and-the-devolution-of-the-axe/): cuts to public services will increasingly have to be implemented by the Welsh government and by Welsh local councils. Responsibility for austerity passes from Westminster to Cardiff Bay to local and city councils. Cardiff council is already implementing cuts (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-35562223) and these will get deeper. ‘Austerity’ will start to become tangible even for the few who have thus far been inoculated from it. The city will get even dirtier- this is not a coincidence but a direct result of cuts to vital departments.
For Westminster, this is a perfect scenario. Wales’ problems will be out of sight and out of mind. They will be able to blame the Assembly for any problems.
This dystopian spectre of ‘Wangland’ has struck fear into the hearts of many. Not only the prospect of being left alone on an island with the Tories, but also the possibility of absorption into England- ‘Cornwallisation’.
The vote has shocked Plaid Cymru into action. Belatedly, they have come out for independence (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/27/its-time-to-put-welsh-independence-on-agenda-leanne-wood), hoping that people will be attracted to the notion of an independent Wales in Europe, as people are in Scotland. Plaid’s logic is clear and understandable: people are clearly angry- and in voting leave, have already demonstrated their hostility to the political consensus and their openness to radical solutions and simple messages. Surely this dissatisfaction with the status quo can be channeled into support for independence, as it has been in Scotland?
If only it was this simple.
Sadly, fear (http://crookedtimber.org/2013/10/01/the-history-of-fear-part-1/) and desperation can just as easily produce a deeply reactionary conservatism as it can a hopeful, progressive politics. Poverty and alienation may just as easily force people into the ‘rational’ decision to cling to the status quo and reject a radical progressive vision of the future, which they believe may be even worse. Their precarity forces them to cling to the little they have- stick don’t twist.
During these moments of crises, no outcome is inevitable. People are not innately pre-disposed to fear (choosing a reactionary future) or to hope (embracing radical options). Instead, who wins depends on the existing balance of forces during the moment of crisis (http://coreyrobin.com/2015/12/04/we-need-to-pay-more-attention-to-politics-when-we-talk-about-the-politics-of-fear/).
As has been perceptively pointed out elsewhere by @piercepenniless(http://wire.novaramedia.com/2016/03/democracy-borders-and-brexit-can-europe-solve-its-crises/) it is not Brexit itself but rather its timing which is the biggest disaster. In England, at the moment of crisis, the right has the upper hand, and so is more likely to capitalise and strengthen during this period (this has been made an absolute certainty by the implosion of the Labour party). In Scotland, the left does. Had Welsh devolution been ‘done properly’, Wales could now be in a similar position to Scotland. As it is, there are no guarantees of a progressive future: Wales may very well begin to embrace right wing populism- following a long established pattern in the US (http://www.tcfrank.com/books/whats-the-matter-with-kansas/) and other former industrial areas.
Indeed, the abject failure of devolution in Wales (although of course it was never meant to succeed- http://www.iwa.wales/click/2015/10/devolutions-passive-revolution/) makes it very possible there may in fact be a backlash against devolution and a renewed Unionism.
Sadly, the lack of a Welsh media, coupled with Plaid’s tainted public image (http://pedryndrycin.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-racist-nationalist-in-wales-as_23.html), makes this (for the moment at least) a more likely future outcome than a march towards independence.