I knew things weren’t going well for our campaign to remain in the European Union, when I visited a school in my constituency in the final days of the campaign. It wasn’t a visit related to the referendum, but the head teacher came to me and said:
“It’s so difficult, isn’t it?!”
I asked her what she meant.
“Well, this Europe thing… it’s so difficult to decide whether we should be in or out.”
I can’t tell you which way she voted, but for a young professional like her, in an area that has clearly benefitted from European funding, where immigration from outside the UK is just not an issue at all, to find it difficult to decide on what I personally – from the same generation and similar background to her found very, very easy to decide on – proved to me that we weren’t in a good place.
It had been the worst of campaigns. Here in Wales, we’d just fought an Assembly election – so mobilising troops after a tough campaign was difficult – not just in Plaid Cymru, but across the political parties. I think the Remain campaign failed to articulate the positives on EU membership in a way that engaged with people like the Anglesey head teacher. And of course this was a campaign set against a backdrop of negatives about our EU membership that had very successfully touched many nerves over a long period of time. A drip, drip effect of negative connotations about our membership – driven by the new global phenomenon of populist politics, made possible and made fertile by a decade of austerity, of financial and economic uncertainty.
“Things can’t get any worse than they are now,” was a conclusion many had come to. And I understand what drove such sentiments. Governments were seen as ineffective. The poor had been hit hardest. The temptation was put before them to stick two fingers up to the lot of them! To the lot of us!
Then bring in the lies of the Leave campaign – best embodied through the infamous red bus. £350m a week for the NHS. No ambiguity – just a straight up ‘why spend this money on membership of a club that gives us NOTHING in return – NOTHING! – when we could be spending it on a cash-starved health service.’
It sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it?
Until, of course, even the slightest of scratches is made on the side of that bus. Within hours of the vote, Nigel Farage was saying that he’d never subscribed to the ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ argument. That wasn’t true.
And of course in Wales, the idea that our membership fee for the EU club had brought ‘nothing’ in return was as preposterous as the notion that the NHS itself would be saved simply by ceasing to pay our EU subs.
It is not with pride that we in Wales can say we’ve successfully claimed some of the EU’s most generous aid packages in receent years. It’s because West Wales and the Valleys is one of the poorest regions in the whole of the EU, But it’s not just Objective One funding – the pot that has made most headlines regarding EU funding – it’s the plethora of funds and support packages that has made us clear net beneficiaries when it comes to judging whether membership has been ‘worth it’ or not.
I haven’t mentioned farming yet. The idea that those on the receiving end of EU agricultural subsidy would vote to end it with NO suggestion – not even a whiff – of what might replace it, has led to much head-scratching on my part. I just don’t get it.
And I haven’t even mentioned Welsh business and industry yet. Whilst the UK is a net importer, Wales is a net exporter to the EU, and needless to say the free movement of goods between Wales and other European nations is vital to the economic health of those businesses, and the tens of thousands of jobs that depend on them.
But Wales voted to Leave. Why?
The rush-job didn’t help. With the campaign narrative dominated by a UK media – much of which had long made its mind up that we should leave, and much of it because of the self-interest of press owners – it was nigh on impossible to inject a Welsh dimension into the debate. We tried our best, but our best wasn’t good enough.
The hurry to hold the vote also meant there was no basis for a proper and detailed discussion. Compare that with the Scottish independence referendum. I remember sitting in a cafe in Glasgow during that referendum, and on the table was a copy of ‘Scotland’s Future’ – the White Paper on Scottish Independence. It was a hefty document. It had been published in November 2013, almost a full year before the referendum. What I remember about that document in the Glasgow cafe was that it was in tatters. It had been picked up, pored over, coffee spilt on it, studied, dissected…. and left for the next customer.
Scotland ultimately chose not to take up the option in the 2014 Referendum, but the debate and discussion had been inspiring. And there was no lack of evidence about what independence could mean – both pros and cons.
The European Referendum had no such beginnings. Called hurriedly for internal Conservative Party reasons, there was nowhere the Anglesey head teacher or anyone could turn to read and find out what was at stake. No document from which others could pen their own supporting documents or counter arguments.
All we had was rhetoric. The Remain campaign warning people – ‘please don’t do this, there’s too much at stake’ (but we can’t really explain very well what that is)…. and the Leave campaign – equally short on fact, but heavy on nurturing the seeds of negativity that had clearly taken hold, but that now we know had taken hold and rooted deeper and firmer than we had imagined.
June 24th began for me in the radio studios of the BBC in Bangor. I had been worried that this would be the outcome of the vote, but for it to have happened left me numb. A quick phone call home found three children in tears.When Theresa May dared say in Florence last week that we – the UK – had never felt really at home in the European Union. She wasn’t speaking for me, and she wasn’t speaking for my family.
My wife had been an Erasmus student – that wonderful programme, established by a Welshman, giving opportunities to students EU-wide to share knowledge and cultural experiences by studying in other EU countries. She was studying French and Italian, and spent time at Annecy and Parma universities. I spent time there with her – we were college sweethearts, celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary next year. To our children, this is the norm.
When we travel across Europe – it was a tent in France this summer – it’s not an alien country that they visit, but another country – yes – but one with which we are bound through a common venture. We are diverse – we have our own languages, traditions – but we are one at the same time. What they saw on the morning of June 24th 2016 was that a part of their future had been taken away – the freedom to travel and study and work and play and build network and share ideas. They’ll still be able to GO there, of course, they may even work there – who knows, but to limit horizons? For what reason? That was what they couldn’t fathom.
It might be worth noting here how, as a Welsh nationalist seeking autonomy for Wales, I square this with my views on the European Union. Surely I, too, want to break bonds and shut ourselves away… don’t I? To use a much favoured word about me and my type, be it in Wales or Scotland, or in Catalonia… am I not a “SEPARATIST”!
Let me tell you – the nationalism that we have in Wales… in Plaid Cymru, but also hopefully among more and more people in other parties and none – is a civic nationalism about building our nation in partnership with others. My vision of a self-governing, sovereign Wales is one which would have solid, open partnerships with other countries in these islands and beyond at its heart. It would have as close a relationship as POSSIBLE with England, Ireland… and yes, the rest of the EU.
To those that have been somehow seeking ‘independence for the UK’, I tell you, the UK is and has been throughout its membership of the EU, independent. Try looking at Wales’ political relationship with the UK from a Welsh person’s perspective, and then you’ll see the real denial of the freedom to steer your own destiny. The EU isn’t one state. It is made up of independent states. I’d love to see Wales being a member of both a British and European union of nations, each with their own priorities and quirks and ways of doing things, but working together on those areas that are for the common good. That, to me, has been the story of the EU.
So what does the future now hold?
Well, we are now fifteen months after the referendum, and the reality is – we have no more clarity on what post-EU Wales and Britain will be like; what new challenges and – let’s be positive – what new opportunities we may have, than we did before the vote was taken.
Our immediate response as a party was to try to highlight what was at stake. We had a job of work to do in persuading Welsh Government of the need to take decisive action. We called a vote in the National Assembly in November last year seeking Assembly support for the principle of seeking continued membership of the Single Market. The Labour Welsh Government failed to support that. We needed to push on this front. We co-authored a joint Welsh Government-Plaid Cymru White Paper called ‘Securing Wales’ Future’, which stated Wales should continue to participate in the Single Market, either as members of EEA and/or EFTA, or with an new deal kind of deal. It also called for the development of a comprehensive new international policy for Wales, and for the remodeling of the way the UK works so no agreements could be made without the consent of Wales and of our National Assembly. There was particular mention of protecting the agriculture industry, and a clear statement that European migrants in Wales are not “bargaining chips”, and are contributors to our society.
It was important that this was done, but not surprisingly, UK Government hasn’t exactly taken our views on board.
Not only is there an unwillingness to progress in a way that gives Wales a meaningful voice, we have a repeal bill going through the UK parliament at the moment that undermines and grabs power back from the people of Wales and its democratically elected Assembly and Welsh Government.
The Withdrawal Bill will give UK Ministers powers to act without the need for Parliamentary approval, including powers to amend existing Welsh legislation. It will also ensure that any powers currently held at EU level being repatriated, even in devolved areas of policy, will be held in London.
As we’ve consistently said – we consider this Bill to be an affront to democracy. We’ve had two referendums in Wales confirming the will of the Welsh people regarding the powers of our Assembly and Government – and it’s hypocritical in the extreme for the UK Government to suggest that by voting against the repeal Bill it’s US that are undermining principles of democracy! This is the reality of Brexit for Wales in democratic terms – a power grab by UK Government, and the undermining of our national voice.
So yes, Plaid Cymru MPs voted against the Repeal Bill this month, as they voted against the triggering of Article 50. And frankly the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence this week proved that we were right in saying that somehow we don’t think the UK is ready!
Having started the clock ticking, already desperately unprepared, what did the Prime Minister do? She triggered an election! Her self-preservation was put before the need to actually get the job done. Precious time has been lost, and now that the PM has officially stated the obvious that Britain won’t be ready by early 2019… the reality is starting to bite.
So a transition period it is. Of course there’ll have to be one! And the world is laughing at the sheer ineptitude of a negotiating team that doesn’t know what it’s asking for, and has not an inkling of what the end result will be. Crossing fingers, buying time and hoping for the best is no way to deal with such fundamental questions about the future of the British state.
And as if the underwhelming nothingness of that Florence speech didn’t say enough, the downgrading of the UK’s credit rating by the Moody’s agency over the weekend, is further evidence of the effects of uncertainty. The agency said: “any free trade agreement will likely take years to negotiate, prolonging the current uncertainty for business”. Once again – proof that the pursuit of a hard Brexit is putting our economy at risk.
We’ve been clear from the outset, Single Market membership and continued membership of the Customs Union are a must in order to protect Wales’ interest. That how our companies can keep trading, how we can protect our exporters, and protect Holyhead port, for example. There are trade tariffs, and there are other trade and customs barriers that could be hugely detrimental to the flow of goods.
But let’s not forget the flow of people that has been beneficial to Wales in so many ways. Last week in the Assembly my colleague Steffan Lewis, the Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East who’s been excellent in his analysis of the Brexit threat and the Brexit reality, said that a clear trend is emerging that we are struggling to attract the numbers of people that we need for our economic and public service needs, due, he said, to “the signal being sent out from the UK Government to the rest of the world”. He reiterated our call for a right for Wales to issue visas and permits post-Brexit so we can plan for our own needs. Needless to say this isn’t something the UK Government is showing an interest in granting to Wales.
But the City of London, Steffan suggested, could be in line for such permit-giving powers. “If this is truly a family of equals and a family of nations,” he said “then it will not be acceptable for London, the one region of the UK that already gets an enormous economic and political advantage over everyone else – the entire economic construction of the United Kingdom is based upon that one corner – … if they’re allowed to have work permits of their own, and not the rest of us, that will be devastating for a country like Wales.”
And he’s right – not just for those parts of the economy that need people that we just can’t find here, but also for our health and social care sectors. We are hugely indebted to those Doctors and Nurses and other health professionals from other EU states who work hard in our health service, and we’re already seeing, through UK Government inaction, that they’re feeling unvalued. We couldn’t operate without them. And I fear that we can’t even measure the numbers who WOULD have considered coming to work here, but who now think better for fear of being made to feel unwelcome, or of being repatriated somewhere down the line.
I’ve stated previously that I understand why people would’ve voted to leave just because of being fed up with how things are. Goodness knows, I’m not exactly calling for the status quo myself! I understand the young mother in Holyhead who told me she didn’t know why she voted out, but her dad did, so she followed his lead. She perhaps didn’t have the information, to have been able to come to another conclusion.
I also respect those who’ve made a very conscious decision that the EU isn’t for them, that they don’t like the EU constructs – the sheer size of the EU, perhaps.
But what we can never say is “the UK, or Wales, voted OUT because of x”. Because of one factor, or a number of specific factors. We cannot say people voted out because they wanted to limit immigration. Many people did, I’ve no doubt, but the reason the Leave camp edged it are many and complex.
I’ll always make the case for staying in the EU, and I don’t think anyone would expect me to have changed my mind since the referendum. The vote was the vote – there’s no erasing the history of what happened in the referendum in June 2016, and I respect the result. But people who voted remain AND those who voted to leave share a common future, and ALL of them – all of us – deserve honesty from the UK Government. Honesty about the reality. Honesty about the difficulties. Honesty about what’s at stake.
Already polls in Wales show the result would be likely to be different now. And I hope that just as the will of the people was acted on to vigorously by the hard brexiteering politicians after the referendum, the will of the people is measured very, very carefully as the looming EU exit approaches. A second referendum? Asking the same question again? Well, no. That would suggest undoing the first result. That result stands – but the ambiguity will never satisfy me. But what about a fresh poll on the deal reached – what Brexit ACTUALLY means? I think that should always have been a part of the plan.
Rushing headlong into hard Brexit as is the current trajectory is NOT something I believe would have the support of the majority of people in Wales, especially now that AFTER the referendum – oh the irony – AFTER the referendum, we’ve had a bit of time to discuss what Brexit actually means. I think the leader of the Welsh Conservatives had it right with his slip of the tongue – “Brexit means breakfast,” he said. Yes, a dog’s breakfast that’s in danger of leaving us significantly worse off. For the sake of some “splendid isolation” – giving the UK an ‘independence’ that it already had. An independence – or should I say co-dependence, and an ability to play its part alongside others as an equal – that I wish my nation can have one day too.