Virtually no one on my Facebook timeline or twitter feed was advocating leaving the European Union. Many were being actively vocal about wanting to stay, and some had even been out in public trying to convince others to vote their way. But then I move almost exclusively in pro-European circles: young, university educated, liberal in politics and outlook, gay. I also work in similarly enthusiastic circles in academia and spend a bit of time in London, where voting Remain seemed like so obvious a choice that it was a no-brainer.
And yet. I went back to my home town of Haverfordwest a few weeks ago, and I chatted to some old friends in the pub, with their families. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more different, and it was one that friends in other non-London, non-academic places were noticing too. Almost everyone I spoke to was quite adamantly for Leave. I just assumed this was unscientific anecdotal stuff, and stuck to my guns that Remain would win with a 10 point margin, as I had been confidently predicting to the few who would listen.
Yet even before the results, and certainly after them, there was lots of talk of a ‘divide’. There were mutterings of an urban/rural divide, a young/old divide, and a class based one. I don’t think any of this quite hits the mark, however. What it’s really about is a divide between lofty and high-minded liberalism (which I am very much part of), and those who don’t have that outlook. My feel from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard is that people voted to leave not solely because of immigration, or because of sovereignty, or because of ‘control’, but because of how a blend of these things is often communicated to them in a way that suggests less liberal views aren’t being taken seriously – as if any concern they might have is irrelevant and trifling. Like the Labour MP who took some calls on the radio in Sawley from people concerned about immigration, and, accidentally whilst still on air, complained that the people (who were probably Labour voters) were ‘horrible racists’ and that she was never going back there – ‘wherever this is’.
I’ve said it before, but there is a sense that in the areas in Wales that I work, grew up, and live in, one senses that MPs of all stripes – very much including Labour – would rather not be in the Valleys, but in some leafy Cardiff suburb (or if not in Islington) clutching an iced latte. The fact that this bubble exists and that it is potentially dangerous, was only exacerbated by those on television and on social media yesterday morning who were essentially saying that those who voted out were uninformed, stupid, driven by prejudice, and not thinking straight. My facebook feed at the moment is full of people explicitly saying that others who disagreed with them were not ‘in possession of the facts’ – and that’s one of the milder examples with the least fruity language.
One of the most significant conversations I had at home was with a friend of mine’s dad who is a retiring and pleasant kind of guy – and a plumber – who said he was definitely voting Leave because he felt if he said that his wages had stagnated for ten years partly because of the competition from immigrant labour, he wouldn’t just be ignored – he would be called a bigot, by liberal types. Now, I actually have no idea if what he says is the case or not, but people need to feel like these kind of concerns are being addressed, and that they are at very least being listened to, not dismissed out of hand
But because liberal people like me think we are on the enlightened wing of the argument, we can become peculiarly resistant to thinking less conventionally liberal views might have some clout or some validity, and I really do think that this surprising vote was a real reaction against that more than anything else.
I think it’s also worth saying that the Welsh vote, which lent towards Brexit, is all part of a pattern and a trend that I have been arguing about here and in my work generally for a while: 1) if we want to see this vote as a small ‘c’ conservative reaction against something, then that is entirely compatible with a lot of Labour voting South Wales, which returned very significant Leave votes; 2) If we want to see it as a big ‘c’ Conservative reaction against something, that is also more compatible with Welsh politics than many think. (The one very interesting anomaly was Monmouth, which I don’t know enough about to offer an easy explanation for); and 3) the Welsh vote reflected English trends, and certainly more so than it reflected anything going on in Scotland. On issues like this, I think it is becoming less, not more, relevant to talk about a unique and specific Welsh politics.