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Brexit or No Brexit, for Many in South Wales Life Offers Few Prospects
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The one million people living in the south Wales valleys, a place that was once the engine room of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, are poorer today than the population of parts of Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

Unsurprisingly, they have few good things to say about anybody in authority – the EU in Brussels, the British government in London, the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff – who have presided over their decline.

The EU may not be the only one to blame for the current state of the region, says Graham Simmonds, an independent local councillor from the Blackwood district of Caerphilly, but “it was the EU against which people decided to push back.”

An electrician in the giant steel plant in Ebbw Vale which closed 17 years ago, he voted Leave as did the majority in the Valleys – usually spelled with a capital V – in the 2016 referendum believing that Brussels, despite its much-publicised largesse, had done nothing effective to regenerate the region, which is home to a third of the Welsh population.

Among those who voted Leave in the referendum, there remains a sense of anger over the area’s deprivation, bitterness at their exclusion from power, and now too a conviction that some fresh act of treachery is being prepared to keep the UK inside the EU.

“It’s the first referendum in British history that the public hasn’t done what the establishment wanted them to do,” says Simmonds. He suspects that Theresa May’s deal with the EU, so far rejected by the House of Commons, along with the possibility of a second referendum, are manoeuvres by the establishment to sabotage the Brexit vote.

“I think we are looking at an establishment coup and they are doing everything they can to subvert the will of the people,” he says.

Such suspicions are widely shared in the Valleys. “If the powers-that-be thought that they could hoodwink the country and get away with it, they would,” says Norman Hopkins, who advises housing tenants in Caerphilly. “When I voted Leave, I genuinely thought they would rig the ballot against us if we looked like winning.”

Underlying this cynicism, amounting at times to paranoia, is a conviction that the interests of ordinary voters will always be ignored. The EU is seen as a remote institution which is the project of a distant political class whose own wellbeing it serves.

“We should have been in Europe properly and not in a way that suited the establishment and the south east of England,” says Simmonds. “We may not be as well educated, we may not be as well dressed as them but we are members of the same country.”

What has happened in the Welsh Valleys is similar to what has happened in other old industrial heartlands in Britain, except that in Wales the impact has been more devastating because the region was already deprived. EU figures show the region is poorer than anywhere in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

In the aftermath of the referendum there was some patronising debate in parts of the metropolitan media about why Wales, particularly the Valleys, should have decisively voted to leave the EU when Brussels had spent at least £5 billion in the Principality since 2000 and currently subsidises it by about £680 million a year.

But there should be no mystery about the success of the Leave campaign in Wales and similarly deprived areas such Cornwall and Lincolnshire: whatever the EU did or did not do in these places, it was not enough to produce a noticeable improvement in peoples’ lives.

Above all, none of those involved in helping the people of the Valleys – be they Welsh, British or European – were able to satisfy their two most important needs: well-paid, secure jobs; and better quality education.

Naturally, the two are interlinked because without an educated work force the Valleys will be unable to attract modern enterprises or – and this may be more realistic – they will be unable to equip the younger generation with the skills they need to find good jobs elsewhere.

Ian Thomas, a psychiatric nurse for the last 29 years, who also lives in Blackwood, has a more nuanced though still negative view of the EU. Along with everybody else interviewed for this article, he believes that the outcome of the referendum “was a way of kicking back” against the status quo and a protest against many grievances that have nothing to do with the EU.

He says that he was “a reluctant Leaver” but, describing himself as somebody on the political far left, he sees the EU as the embodiment of neo-liberal economics that has swept away the old industries in the Valleys and put nothing in their place.

Nonetheless, today he has doubts about how he would vote if there were to be a second referendum. “I would be tempted to vote Remain, having seen the mess that has unfolded,” he says.

He thinks that the debate about membership of the EU that should have taken place in 2016 is only happening now; three years ago people did not really know what they were voting for.

Part of him feels that Britain should not be bullied into holding a second vote, as happened in Ireland in 2008 and Denmark in 1992. But he says he also feels that leaving the EU is turning out to mean “far too much disruption.” He believes the process has fuelled racism and made it difficult for his hospital in the Vale of Glamorgan to recruit essential foreign nurses, who are deterred by uncertainty over their future status.

If there is a second referendum, Thomas believes that this time – in Wales at least – Remain would win with a slim majority, in an exact reversal of the previous poll.

“I think that Remain would win because people have seen the mess that we’re in,” he says. His worry though is that a new vote would embolden the far right, which could pose as the defenders of the previous result; and of “democracy”.


The EU became a scapegoat for economic and social ills that have deep roots in the political and economic history of Britain. Leavers denounce it as an undemocratic Leviathan while Remainers praise it as a bastion of moderation and good sense.


Yet its real impact has always been more limited than voters – often influenced by decades-long demonisation of Brussels by the dominant, right-leaning section of the British press – have appreciated. The EU subsidy of over £5 billion for a small country like Wales, with its population of three million, sounds impressive; but it is over a twenty year period and is dwarfed by the much larger UK subsidy to Wales under the Barnett formula, which allocates government expenditure in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The most important point is that whatever the UK, EU or anybody else did for the Welsh Valleys, it was ultimately insufficient.

Shops, always meagre in size and now closed, line the depressing main streets of former mining towns like Tonypandy. Deprivation was always endemic here: Welsh miners got lower pay than in other parts of the country until a few years before the mines were closed in the wake of the miners’ strike of 1984/85.

The entrances to the pits have been grassed over or maintain a ghostly existence as heritage centres. There have been a few improvements such as the removal or landscaping of enormous spoil tips.

“When the mines were here you would not have wanted to put your foot in the river [because it was polluted with coal dust],” adds Hopkins, “but now you see fish in the water and kingfishers and herons are flying about.”

This is comforting in a way, but prettifying these grim-looking towns, where rows of small miners’ houses are crammed onto the steep sides of the valleys, somehow serves to enhance rather than reduce the sense of desolation and abandonment.

People living in rural west Wales are at one with the families of former miners and steel plant workers in believing that the EU has never done much to help them. Michael Douglas, 22, and now a student at Birmingham University, comes from a countryside village with a population of 300 where he says that little ever happens. He used to take an hour-and-a-quarter bus ride twice a day to get to college. He agrees that there may have been high investment by the EU in this part of Wales “but I don’t feel it where I live.”

Hostility to the EU is fuelled by resentment against its perceived authoritarian and undemocratic ways. Douglas is unhappy that people in member countries do not have a voice in deciding its leadership. He echoes the Leaver argument when he says: “being in the EU means that we have to do deals with the EU and, if we had been able to do deals with China, India, Brazil, Australia, then we would have had higher growth.”

One continually hears the argument from Brexit supporters in the Valleys that the EU needs Britain more than Britain needs the EU and, whatever the threat of a no-deal Brexit, the Germans and French will always want to sell their cars and cheese in Britain.

There seems to be no understanding that Britain might be in the weaker bargaining position when dealing with an organisation of 27 countries and 500 million people. Failure to negotiate a better departure deal is blamed on the incompetence of Theresa May, who is suspected of being a covert Remainer, or treachery on the part of establishment officials.

In truth, the EU has been over-sold as a force for good and evil by both its enemies and friends. A sceptical Ian Thomas says, “I have friends who speak about the EU as if it was a benign socialist organisation that is all about giving us clean beaches, recycling and trade union rights.”

He points instead to the crushing austerity measures imposed on Greece by the EU that even the IMF found excessive and quotes the former Greek minister and economist Yanis Varoufakis as describing the EU’s mistreatment of Greece as “economic waterboarding.”

Paradoxically, the EU might be more popular if it had been the hands-on economic regulator that its critics accused it of being. Though a Leaver, Simmonds says that if Britain had been signed up to the EU Social Chapter then it might have been more difficult for the owners of the Ebbw Vale steel plant to close it down in preference to shutting down a similar plant in the Netherlands. As it was, they shut it in 2002 with the loss of 850 jobs in the plant and 1,250 among contractors.

“For us it was like getting a brick in the face – it stops you dead and we still haven’t recovered,” Simmonds concludes.

EU officials would no doubt argue that there was nothing much they could have done to keep heavy industry going in the Valleys or anywhere else in Britain. But local perceptions are dominated by the catastrophic episodes of de-industrialisation and, if the EU could do nothing about them, then it was inevitably seen as peripheral or irrelevant.

The EU doesn’t get all the blame for deprivation in Wales, however. For almost a century its politics have been dominated by the Labour Party, which has tended to treat its Welsh constituencies as if they were rotten boroughs.

“We are one of the most deprived regions of Western Europe and Labour have been in power here for 97 years – I can scarcely believe it,” says Simmonds, arguing that it is not in Labour’s interests to see anything change because it is sitting pretty in these constituencies.

He recalls that it was Labour indifference to the interests of its voters that brought him into politics twenty years ago.

“I hope you are going to laugh when you hear what happened,” he says, explaining that in the mid-1990s he had noticed large and alarming increases in his council tax, which he worked out was the result of an error. He went to a Labour councillor, whom he had known for twenty years, who said: “Leave it to me.” He waited for four weeks and then returned to the same man only to be told: “I didn’t do anything because I didn’t think it was worth it.”

Outraged by this, Simmonds spoke to somebody he had played football with, who arranged an interview with a senior council official, who in turn agreed that a mistake had been made and would be put right. Still fuming, Simmonds called at the house of the councillor who had failed him and said: “if nobody stands against you in the next election you are looking at the man who is going to take your seat off you.”

Simmonds believes that education is crucial if there is to be any salvation for people in the Valleys.

“If we don’t have a skilled workforce then we are doomed to dig holes in the ground and put one brick on top another,” he says. “The world has moved beyond all that and all reasonably developed countries have a skilled workforce.”

Even if well-paying jobs never return to the Valleys, education would provide an escape route to other places where there are jobs.

Michael Douglas from rural west Wales, now studying at Birmingham University, says: “I have some friends at home who didn’t go to university. Yeah, they have a job. Yeah, they’re making money, but it’s not ever going to be anything big.

“I feel the best option [for somebody from west Wales], if you want a prosperous life, is to emigrate somewhere else.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Economics, Ideology • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU, Poverty 
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  1. anonymous[191] • Disclaimer says:

    You will never be able to please everyone whether Britain is part of the EU or independent. In the case of Wales or any place with old-fashioned industries that were closed down, it’s a matter of economics. The only thing that can be done, is to educate the unemployed in industries that produce products or services that people want to purchase. The psychiatric nurse wants to foster conditions that make it attractive for foreign nurses to come and work in Welsh psychiatric hospitals. I say start a new industry in Wales, bring in the world’s crazy people and make Wales a center for psychiatric excellence.

  2. Gordo says:

    Always plenty of money to bale out the bankers, no money at all to upgrade and protect our industries which provide real jobs with decent wages.

    • Agree: RadicalCenter
  3. ““We are one of the most deprived regions of Western Europe and Labour have been in power here for 97 years – I can scarcely believe it,” says Simmonds, arguing that it is not in Labour’s interests to see anything change because it is sitting pretty in these constituencies.”

    Sounds like Chicago. The Teachers Unions, Fire Dept Unions the Cop Unions have driven taxes to outrageous levels. The Mayoral election is next week in Chicago: the Chicago Tribune is supporting another Daley. IL Gov. “Jelly Belly” Pritzker is going for another progressive income tax. None of the Mayoral candidates has enough guts to support the Second Amendment.

    • Agree: Philip Owen
    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  4. I am Welsh. Originally from rural South Wales. My working life has taken me at times to Durham, Rugby, Bristol, Cambridge, Idaho, Colorado, Cupertino and Saratov Russia but sometimes I have managed to get back to Wales in between. I stood for Parliament in Merthyr Tydfil in the Heads of the Valleys where I worked in product development in data storage devices at the time. Wales is the one region in the UK which has a trading surplus in good’s with the EU. It is one of only 4 that has a goods trade surplus with the world. Brexit is lunatic for Wales.

    I now live in Bridgend, a slightly prosperous manufacturing town in South Wales but on the M4 motorway. Since Brexit was announced, here in Bridgend, the following have announced closures or cancellations of investment: Ford (engine plant), Sony (assembly line), various Airbus suppliers (seats, wiring systems), data centres (UK may no longer be safe haven).

    Wales has always had an above average production of graduates per head. English schools were once famously populated by Welsh school teachers. Years of brain drain have had an effect. What has been neglected are craft skills and transport infrastructure. There was absolutely no culture of spin off from the large University sector. From 1130 to 1926, Wales was at the leading edge of the Industrial revolution. Iron, copper, railways, locomotives, ironclads, petrochemicals, radio et al. From 1926 to the early 1970’s there was no investment in new industries on any scale. From the 1970’s US, Japanese, even German firms set up manufacturing plants to serve the EU but Slovakia is now a serious competitor (geographic heart of Europe next to Germany not on Atlantic fringe) and now Brext. Since the early 1990’s the Universities have been pushed into generating spinoffs and there is now a substantial layer of very high tech firms but they are still too small, too few and too demanding of skills to deal with the left behind in the iron, coal and steel towns. For the highly qualified, house prices are low, there are beaches, mountains and Cardiff is a major cultural and retail centre.

    Transport infrastructure was criminally neglected. Mineral lines for transporting coal have still not been converted to passenger traffic despite the layout being perfect to create a metro area of 2m people; a population well able to sustain itself if properly networked and having the right exchange rate. Connections to London could potentially be very good. In the days of steam, London was 90 minutes from Cardiff. This is being addressed but the English HS2 project is sucking away all the funds. The EU was the only reliable provider of structural funds.

    • Replies: @republic
  5. @Joe Stalin

    You are right. The oversized public sector overpays and works entirely for the benefit of the unions. For example, in the rest of the UK, exam performance of individual schools is published. In Wales the data is suppressed. It causes stress to teaching staff. The Welsh Assembly is rated one of the best LGBT employers in the UK. Fine, even good, but topping economic development, education or health tables is their principal reason for existence. The WAG is goin gfor points for style before there is any substance.

    • Replies: @DavidH
  6. republic says:
    @Philip Owen

    Are there any migrants now in Wales, or is it still 100% ethnic Welsh ?

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  7. @republic

    Cardiff has the oldest mosque in the UK. During Ramadan it is impossible to get a taxi after dark. The West Indians arrived on the banana boats. This has been so since the 19th Century. Cardiff was a seaport serving one of the world’s top booming economies. Many Lascar (Yemeni/Malay/Chinese) seamen ended up in Cardiff..

    Outside Cardiff and to some degree, Newport, another seaport, there was very little immigration from outside the Euro-Atlantic world which includes Russia – Jews, Latvians. The only coloured people outside the ports were some American blacks and some self employed Jamaicans in Port Talbot. One made it big in the music business. Bob Marley’s father was Welsh.

    Swansea, another major port had no non Euro-Atlantic migrants worth counting. In the 21st Century the UK government has had a policy of dispersing asylum seekers around the UK. They quickly head to London, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport or in the North to Liverpool.

    Many doctors tend to be Indian. One of the candidates to be First Minister was of part Ghanaian descent. He spoke good Welsh and was locally educated. Cardiff University because of the Mosque, has been exceptionally good at attracting overseas students since well before it was a major money earner. It is therefore able to demand high standards. It has been the top University for Malaysia and some of the Gulf countries for generations. Aberystwyth, a University far over the mountains on the coast, gets Malaysians studying agriculture and librarianship.

    • Replies: @Ken Roberts
    , @republic
  8. @Philip Owen

    Thank you for your excellent description of the economy in Wales. Much appreciated. It is a mystery to me why Wales does not get better treatment / more respect in the UK. Here in Canada, Quebec has successfully negotiated and received a fair share of what’s going on, economically etc.

  9. republic says:
    @Philip Owen

    Many thanks for that detailed reply.

    Total Welsh local authorities: 3,086,200, (total), 2, 939,500 , (white) 145,800 ;(non white) 5%

    So Wales is 95 % White now?

    16% non white in Cardiff, 10% Swansea

    Is the political leadership in Wales similar to that of Ireland who wish to rapidly increase the non-Irish population?

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  10. Economic assistance that goes to wage-undercutting, male-breadwinner immigrant households in the cities and to womb-productive, single-breadwinner moms in the city & the country, working in the part-time, low-wage office jobs and other service-sector fare that replaced the household-supporting industrial jobs, does not help everyone.

    The womb-privileged handouts of the fake-feminist era do help cheapskate employers.

    The handouts provide employers with a labor force that is willing to accept low pay and inadequate hours due to unearned income from government that covers their major bills, while hurting many of the people who actually turn out to vote—i.e. people who need for wages alone to cover all household bills. The reliable voters are not mostly young, childbearing-aged women.

    But hey, voting does not matter in jolly ol’ England any more than it does in its spin-off, the USA.

    A good way to divert criticism from the subversion of democracy by cunning elites who benefit from the economic status quo is to dismiss the truth-telling of the serfs as a psychiatric disorder.

    Many elites have non-marketable degrees in social sciences, with high spousal income on top of safe, family-friendly, absenteeism-friendly government jobs that are not subject to market forces, making it easier for them to side with the Establishment. It is a little harder for those depending on one, earned-only income in this churn-job economy to do it.

    As long as psychology is the subject, another good way to stealthily silence the serfs is the psychologically abusive tactic used by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, two neoliberal chaps who favored globalization’s displacement of huge numbers of citizens in the labor markets of two established and still-middle-class-at-that-juncture economies. They favored sending millions of household-supporting jobs to the cheap labor pools in the Third World, where some of Clinton’s deep-pocketed campaign contributors were located.

    The smooth-talking Clinton also used this indirectly abusive tactic during the debate over NAFTA, which increased the number of illegal / illegal immigrants who do not need higher pay due to their layers of monthly welfare and child tax credits up to $6,431——neoliberal welfare streams that increase with each additional kid popped out——-competing for jobs with citizens who lack welfare-boosted wages.

    There is nothing like a put-down to silence those with inferiority complexes, fostered by elites.

    “Train for the jobs of the future,” you uneducated serfs, they said.

    Welp, the mostly underemployed Xers completed a lot of degrees, and the overwhelmingly underemployed Millennials have even more degrees. The USA, no less than England, has plenty of citizens with degrees in IT and CS as well as grads with degrees in various liberal arts disciplines and the much-maligned lesbian basketweaving.

    Contrary to the degrading, abusive put-downs, rolled out regularly by elites to explain why they act against the economic interests of voters by doing the bidding of the multinational corporations that line their pockets, America and Britain have populations with more formal education, not less.

    But heedless of the oversupply of college-educated and / or experienced citizens, cheapskate employers prefer hordes of immigrant temp workers, willing to live 10 to an apartment, undercutting educated Western workers in the labor markets of their own countries.

    It is not in any way just the non-college-educated Westerners who have been hammered by this corrupt system.

    At least, Blair made a few honest statements to the US MSM about the fallout from wage-undercutting, welfare-subsidized mass immigration and the social unrest that it causes. His neoliberal / Third Way sidekick in the USA has not had the grace to admit that mistake.

  11. @republic

    Wales is a place of out migration. On the whole, members of the Welsh Government that I know would like a level of prosperity that attracted in migration other than English retirees and hippies.

  12. DavidH says:
    @Philip Owen

    toppling economic development?

    Really interesting descriptions.

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