The Welsh Valleys encapsulate the antipathy many traditional working-class communities have long felt toward the European Union. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, a region with a long socialist tradition voted to break away from the EU. Perhaps more saliently, it did so against the advice of both the Labour Party and the centre-Left more broadly.
The rejection of the EU by so-called ‘left behind’ communities feels at times like a rejection of the paternalism which has come to define the liberal Left in the twenty-first century. This is particularly true in Wales.
Driving through the undulating roads that sweep across the Brecon Beacons, billboards regularly declare that ‘this road was funded by the EU’, or ‘this project was funded by the EU’. Wales has long been a net beneficiary of the EU budget.
Yet venture down the mountainside to towns like Cwm, Ebbw Vale and Brynmawr, and anti-EU sentiment is ubiquitous. The Valleys supported Brexit, often by a significant margin, and according to a major piece of research carried a year after the referendum, attitudes do not appear to have shifted.
For many on the liberal Left, this was incomprehensible – support for Brexit ran counter to the economic interests of the Welsh towns. It was recently reported, for example, that the Leave-supporting town of Llanelli was set to lose one of its manufacturing plants due to the level of economic uncertainty generated by Brexit. Schaeffler, a German manufacturer of automotive, aerospace and industrial parts, announced last month that it would close its Llanelli plant with the loss of up to 220 jobs.
Subsequent headlines appeared to revel in the misfortune of the town. ‘Leave-supporting Llanelli left reeling as manufacturing industry moves out due to Brexit’, was one headline, shared over 40,000 times on social media. The message was clear: the town had been conned, its working classes duped – the turkeys had voted for Christmas.
Why then, did a town like Llanelli vote Leave back in 2016, with all the potential risks such a decision brought with it? Taking a longer view, Llanelli’s rejection of the status quo is perhaps more understandable. Lee Waters, a Welsh Labour and Co-operative Assembly member for Llanelli, tells me that since 1990 around 30,000 jobs have been lost in the area, putting the – albeit tragic – potential loss of 220 jobs at Schaeffler in perspective.
“When I was knocking doors during the referendum campaign in Llanelli people would often say that they didn’t see how leaving Europe would make things any worse, and they liked the idea of shaking things up,” Waters says. “Orthodox economic policies have done too little to give hope to those that are struggling.”
Indeed, when I visited Llanelli a few weeks after the announcement by Schaeffler, the people of the town I spoke with were, for the most part, resilient. Some didn’t believe the redundancies would happen, whereas others blamed the company for putting profits ahead of local people.
Janice Tanner, a 54-year-old woman who works in a local cash and carry, captured the prevailing mood when she told me that Schaeffler, together with the EU and Westminster – “the whole lot of them” – “don’t give a stuff about South Wales”. The decision by Schaeffler was viewed as merely the latest in a long line of capricious moves taken far away in stuffy offices by those who took little interest in the local community.
In this sense the EU has often been a lightning rod for a more widespread sense of economic malaise. Conversations about Europe very often bleed into more long-standing narratives of industrial decline. “My own personal view,” said Brian, a former miner at Bryn Colliery who now volunteers in the South Wales Miners’ Museum in Port Talbot, “is that it all started [to go downhill] as soon as we joined the EU”. Brian told me doleful stories about the closure of local pits, the disappearance of industry, and the general sense of malaise that loomed over the Valleys.
The Valleys have never recovered from the deindustrialisation policies of the 1980s and ‘90s, enacted by successive Conservative governments after Margaret Thatcher’s comprehensive victory in 1984 over Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers. Today the Valleys remain trapped between an industrial past and a future which has yet to arrive.
The most shocking impact of the sudden economic transformation is discernible in the health of people living in the Valleys. In 2013 it was reported that 10,000 residents of Blaenau Gwent were on some kind of anti-depressant medication, out of a total population of 60,000 – that’s one in every six adults collecting a prescription for drugs like Doxepin, Prozac and Trazodone. Life expectancy in the former constituency of Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain’s National Health Service, is among the lowest in England and Wales.
Trish Richards, who runs the Phoenix Project, a drop-in-mental health clinic in Brynmawr, told me that depression rates among the people she saw were closely related to a lack of regular work. “I’ve had people come to me on zero-hours contracts. They don’t know where they are from one week to the next. Can’t plan. Can’t even plan to go to the dentist in case they get called in to work.”
Yet the sense of malaise in the Valleys cannot be reduced entirely to economics, even if the Left finds it easier to interpret events in this way. Stephen Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon, tells me that while the economic narrative is “really important”, “many years ago [it] spilled over into an issue of what kind of country do you want to live in from a cultural and values point of view”.
Power, he says, has shifted away from small towns, away from the “communitarians”, and towards the big cities and the “cosmopolitans”. “If you’re looking for a classic example of communitarian communities, well that is the South Wales Valleys,” Kinnock tells me. “These are people deeply rooted in their communities with a strong sense of identity and cultural heritage, so they feel that sense of loss even more strongly.”
Speaking to people in the Welsh Valleys, there is a keen local awareness that communities have been in precipitous economic decline for some time. The European Union is not responsible for this decline, but despite the modest injection of EU subsidies in recent years, it hasn’t reversed it.
The Valleys have enjoyed little of the prosperity and stability that Remainers attempted to summon in 2016 when they sought to rally voters to the cause of the European Union. Voters instead wanted something to kick against, and in this sense the EU provided a convenient whipping boy.
During my travels around south Wales – in 2016 and more recently – I heard little of the malevolent conspiratorial talk that has come to characterise grassroots politics in England, with its fixation on an ‘elite’ and an ‘establishment’ that are said to control events behind the scenes. Indeed, across south Wales there have for many years been definite material reasons to want to ‘take back control’, as the punchy anti-EU slogan had it. And you would have had to have had your eyes closed not to see it.
But then, prior to the shock of the Brexit vote, shutting one’s eyes to the conditions in which many outside of Britain’s big cities lived was precisely what many on the liberal Left had become good at.