Some years ago I watched a group of boys arguing over a bag of sweets. The boy whose sweets they were was adamant that nobody else was going to have them. Despite his friends imploring him to share at least some of the sweets, the boy refused. Things deteriorated into a minor brawl as the other boys jostled and grabbed at the bag of sweets in an attempt to prise them from the boy’s hands. But still he refused. Finally, when all prospect of sharing the sweets had faded, one of the boys dashed in and slapped the bag of sweets onto the floor, where he proceeded to trample them into the mud.
Why do I relate this tale in an article about Brexit?
Because I believe it says a great deal about why Britain voted to leave the European Union and why the current focus on the economic damage that Brexit will do wholly misses the point.
The standard view of Brexit is that it was little more than “Turkeys voting for Christmas.” Ill-educated people, bamboozled by the wicked tabloid media and egged on by duplicitous politicians, were effectively conned into voting against their best interests. Consider the South Wales valley town of Ebbw Vale where 62 percent of the population voted for Brexit:
“According to the local council, the area received $9.68 million (£7.3 million) from the EU between 2007 and 2013 to invest in education, not just for schools but also for additional education facilities and training. The EU has pumped in $192 million (£145 million) since the steelworks closed in 2002 and brought an end to the local area’s main source of income. The town centre boasts a brand new silver statue of a dragon — the Welsh national symbol — and shiny silver balls that line the main street. Both were built with $5.9 million (£4.5 million) in EU funds for physical improvements to the town’s centre. Then there is the $105 million (£79 million) in EU funds that supported development of a new divided highway between Tredegar and Brynmawr, which has opened up employment and business opportunities across the South Wales Valleys.”
This is in line with the thinking of the pro-Remain Guardian, which has also gone out of its way to portray working class Leave voters in ex-industrial regions like Ebbw Vale as, for want of better words, a bunch of thickos:
“It’s a town with almost no immigrants that voted to get the immigrants out. A town that has been showered with EU cash that no longer wants to be part of the EU…
“Wales isn’t just a net EU beneficiary, EU capital funding has been an essential part of attracting firms to come here. All around town are signs marked with the EU flag for the Ebbw Vale enterprise zone. The website notes that as an EU tier 1 area, ‘companies can benefit from the highest level of grant aid in the UK’”.
This plays into the wider pro-Remain narrative that leaving the EU (and especially the Single Market) will be economically disastrous. This is undoubtedly true since, despite a larger part of Britain’s trade going outside the EU, the impact of a so-called “hard Brexit” deal or no deal at all is going to have a massive impact on the 44 percent of the UK’s exports that go to other EU countries. Nor should we ignore the probability that at least some of the firms (like, for example, the City of London banks) are only able to trade with the wider world because they enjoy a stable base within the EU.
All of this re-hashing of what is essentially David Cameron’s economic “project fear” misses the point. Indeed, the growing clamour for “transitional arrangements” or even a second referendum when the Brexit negotiations are complete has the potential to be politically explosive because it will demonstrate to the most disenfranchised groups in our increasingly unequal society that democracy is merely a façade and that they were correct to say that “voting changes nothing.”
Consider for a moment the more nuanced analysis of the impact of EU membership on Ebbw Vale set out by the Bevan Foundation:
“A huge deal has been made of Wales’ EU structural funds over the years. Such has been their prominence that a row over match-funding toppled Wales’ first First Minister, Alun Michael, in 2000. And they’ve taken up an inordinate number of headlines and Assembly debating time ever since.
“They frankly don’t deserve this coverage, because the actual spend – about £4 billion over 20 years – is a drop in the public spending ocean. The average annual allocation of about £200 million (i.e. £4 billion divided by 20) is just 1.5% of the Welsh Government’s budget. Indeed EU funds are tiny compared with mega-cash splashed by the UK Government, like £9 billion on the 2012 Olympics or £14.8 billion spent over nine years on Cross Rail 1. Even England’s Regional Growth Fund – which may well have passed you by – beats Wales’ EU funding with £3.2 billion over five years.
“EU funding pales even further into insignificance when the huge problems Wales faced are taken into account. Over the 1980s and 1990s parts of Wales had seen their local economy devastated as a result of coal and steel closures and multiple recessions. In truth, EU funding simply wasn’t enough to address problems on this scale.”
This chimes with the personal views of Leave voters in Ebbw Vale interviewed for Nick Clegg’s piece for BBC Newsnight. In the video, Phil Edwards, leader of the Ebbw Vale Business Forum highlights the misspending of EU funds on such things as the dragon statue in the town centre and the new lift on the side of a reclaimed slag heap:
“You can’t complain about it in one sense. But it is pretty, that’s all it is, it’s cosmetic. If someone is dying you don’t give them cosmetic surgery to keep them alive, that’s not going to help. The town is dying, the borough is dying and it needs employment. It doesn’t need pretty bollards and wonderful-looking dragons and a clock that doesn’t tell the right time.”
The Bevan Foundation makes the same point:
“The statistics on the economy speak for themselves. Despite 16 years of the EU’s maximum level of help, Blaenau Gwent – the most pro-leave local authority area in Wales – saw a decline in the number of jobs in the area. Neighbouring Merthyr Tydfil, Caerphilly and Torfaen, also leave-voting areas, saw barely perceptible growth (2 – 3,000 more jobs in each). If these towns were ‘showered with cash’ it appears to have gone straight down the drain.
“Throw into the mix some of the sobering figures on earnings, which show that a male on median wages in Blaenau Gwent is now more than £71 a week worse off in real terms than in the early 2000s, and it’s pretty clear that whatever else EU funds may have achieved, they didn’t boost the fortunes of Blaenau Gwent and many other parts of Wales.”
We need to be clear here that the people of places like Ebbw Vale are not typical of the UK’s Leave voters. Most of the vote to Leave came from UKIP and Tory extremists across Britain’s rural shires. These are the people who got seriously drunk on the Kool-Aid served up by the likes of John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan – the kind of Tories who haven’t got over the demise of the British Empire, and who somehow expect the return of the British Commonwealth and a queue of Jamaican, Indian, Burmese, South African and Canadian consumers desperate to import goods from the UK once it leaves the EU.
What voters in Britain’s ex-industrial districts represent, though, is the 10-20 percent of voters that tipped the balance in favour of Brexit. And the reason they did it was much more visceral than the mainstream (largely uncritically pro-Remain) media are prepared to give them credit for. They are not concerned that the government’s attempts at negotiation are falling apart at the seams or that Britain’s lead negotiator caved in at the first sign of pressure. That was precisely the point.
These are Britain’s precariat; the people who gave up voting in general elections because they long ago realised that no matter which party was in government, their economic depression was endless. Like the boys in the story I related at the beginning of this article, they knew that they were never going to get a share of the economic sweets. What they were doing was, in effect, knocking the sweets onto the floor and proclaiming that “if there aren’t enough sweets to go around, then nobody will have them.”
This, of course, is why trying to change the outcome by focussing on the economic impact of Brexit will not work. The head bangers on the British political right do not believe it; while a growing, impoverished UK precariat is past caring.
For entirely selfish reasons, last year David Cameron gave them the opportunity to bring about change in the only lawful way open to them. Since nobody gave a damn about their dire economic straits, they chose to inflict something similar on the rest of the population… just maybe if everyone else was forced to face the reality of economic insecurity, then perhaps the Marie Annoinettes within the complacent Westminster Bubble might get off their backsides and do something about it.
This is where Remain campaigners need to focus their efforts – explaining how their vision of continued EU membership can bring about change to regions that have been ground into the dirt for decades. It is a vain hope, of course. But if their vote for change is ignored, all that is left to them is the mob and the guillotine.