These days, it is tempting for those of us who voted Remain to be a bit smug about “Bregret”, taking it as evidence that we were right all along. But such smugness was partly what caused Brexit in the first place. For so many voters, Brexit was not just a rejection of the EU but also of the British political establishment and its ways of doing things — ways that have failed far too many working-class communities for far too long.
This was particularly true in Wales. Here, the Leave vote was strongest in post-industrial communities that successive governments in London and Cardiff had failed. These areas had benefited from EU investment, but it had done little to alleviate the corrosive social, cultural and economic effects of the decline of the coal industry.
In the 19th century, coal made modern Wales. It created a modern economy and a population boom, transforming rural communities into vibrant, industrial towns, each with a fierce sense of pride in themselves, their class and Wales itself. They were British places too: proud of their King, Country and Empire, proud that so many Royal Navy ships ran on Welsh coal.
In 1920, the number of miners in Wales stood at 290,000. Lured by cheaper production abroad, however, the United Kingdom they helped build turned its back on the Welsh coalfields, and decades of decline followed. The depression of the interwar years was devastating and led to mass unemployment and migration. The nationalisation of the industry in 1947 gave the miners some respect back, but it could not stop the decline of an industry gradually being replaced by oil. Between 1948 and 1970, the number of Welsh miners fell from 128,000 to 50,000. In 1974, a memo from Mid Glamorgan County Council to the Secretary of State for Wales said bluntly: “The Valleys are dying.”
As colliery after colliery closed, a slow-burning sense of anger started to grip communities that rightly felt forgotten and neglected. And as the industry that created them disappeared, many places worried they had no future. When Thatcherism arrived and finished the coal industry off, this anger intensified. Whereas previous governments had at least tried to manage the change, Thatcher seemed to relish hammering communities already on their knees.
The Brexit vote in post-industrial Wales owed much to this history. Voters there were disillusioned and looking for the better future so long denied to them. And that is what they were promised. They were sold a vision of a world where Wales and Britain had dignity and self-respect again, a world where there was a better economy and more money for the NHS. They were sold scapegoats for their ills: red tape and bureaucrats, immigrants and foreigners.
Three years on, the promises have not come true. Across the UK, the NHS has got worse, public services are on the brink, and inflation is fuelling a cost-of-living crisis. But in Wales, equally important — but less obvious — has been the way Brexit has distracted voters from the problems of devolved government. Particularly when it comes to discussions around the nation’s failing NHS, Welsh Labour must surely be thankful that voters’ eyes have focused on Westminster and Europe. And when attention does turn to their record, Welsh Labour points, not entirely unreasonably, to the lack of funding it receives from the UK government. Indeed, because so many Welsh Labour voters supported leaving the EU, it suits Wales’s strongly pro-EU government to blame Westminster rather than Brexit for its litany problems.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Brexit also failed because of its Anglo-centricity. In their arguments, its prime movers and shakers paid little attention to the parts of the UK that are not England. It does not seem to have occurred to most of them to consider what might happen to the UK’s land border with the EU and how Brexit would intersect with the Good Friday Agreement. Brexiteers outside England should have known better, but they too seemed too distracted by ideological dreams to think much about the practicalities. The result was political turmoil and the effective end of the UK’s own single market.
In Wales, this gave a shot in the arm to those who seek independence. This may remain a minority cause, but Brexit showed that radical political change can happen. For many Remainers, Brexit has destroyed the liberal European United Kingdom they felt attached to; for some, independence offers an appealing route back to more tolerant politics. Meanwhile, for many Leavers, the failures of Brexit is yet another case of London politicians letting them down. For those who haven’t given up on politicians entirely, independence can feel the only hope they have left. Some feel they have little to lose.
For a while, Yes Cymru, the focal point of the independence movement, rode on the coattails of the disillusionment of Leavers and Remainers. But it has ridden into its own problems. A group of socially-conservative members became alarmed at Yes Cymru’s adoption of what they saw as socialist causes and they staged something resembling a progressive coup. In doing so, they destroyed the group’s momentum. Like Brexit, the cause of Welsh independence has been undermined by lack of consensus over what it is actually for.
Nonetheless, now Brexit has put independence on the table of mainstream debate, it is unlikely to go away. In these debates, the mistakes of Brexit ought to be a cautionary tale. Those who seek Welsh or Scottish independence must learn that people’s fears about the practicalities of major constitutional change should be addressed, not dismissed as nit-picking or a “Project Fear”. They should see that winning a referendum has to be a beginning, not an end. And they should understand that sovereignty alone achieves little unless the power of the state is harnessed to direct and temper the markets.
Away from the ideological and political games, many people’s lives in Wales continue to worsen, and the economic pain is deepest in the very same marginalised communities — particularly in the southern coalfields — whose support enabled Brexit in the first place. According to UnHerd’s polling, the majority there now seem to regret Brexit. In 2016, Blanau Gwent was the region’s capital of Brexit, with 62% voting to leave the EU. Today, only a third don’t think it was a mistake.
Yet this whole sorry affair is further fuelling what made them vote for it: a sense of anger at being let down by mainstream politics. And they are right to be angry. For decades, post-coal Wales has been let down by Left and Right. Successive governments have spoken warm words about regional policy and levelling up. At times, significant money followed those words. But it was never enough and far too often it was spent on things rather than people. It did nothing to address how free markets could not undo the damage free markets had done.
There are no easy answers to the problems of the UK’s post-industrial communities. Some Brexiteers did at least recognise that the UK needs radical change, but that change is yet to appear. In Wales, it is little wonder that people regret; there is much to regret.