Friday 30 September 2016

Communities in Wales that grew strong on coal, grew fearful on the dole

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

'Valleys that grew proud and strong on coal, grew fearful and deferential on the dole.' Photo: AP
'Valleys that grew proud and strong on coal, grew fearful and deferential on the dole.' Photo: AP

Popular history in Wales holds that we were the first of the Brits: the original tribes that scraped a living from the sodden island before the Anglo-Saxons pushed us to the fringes.

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Political history confirms that Wales was the first Act of Union, the 7,500 words in the 1536 act tying its laws and legal language to England.

But cultural history suggests a distinct identity - with a native language still widely spoken and a clamour to wear the red dragon proudly on the heart for any sporting event, from a Euro 2016 quarter final to a Six Nations clash to…well, a game of tiddlywinks.

It was a shock to wake up last Friday morning to see that the Leave vote had carried; it was a far deeper shock to scroll through the constituencies and see just how much Wales had contributed.

Only five of 22 districts voted Remain.

Three of those contribute 25pc of Wales's economic wealth.

A sense of identity was smashed: forged through the red jersey, Welsh hymns and left-wing politics baked into the working class communities of the Valleys.

Cardiff itself grew wealthy and vibrant on the influx of immigrants from Ireland, Denmark, Somalia, Yemen, Italy and further afield.

But in one referendum result, it suddenly became clear that for a huge chunk of the 21st-century population, Wales is predominantly a sports team and not a nation.

And it is deeply ironic that immigration dominated the EU referendum debate in Wales.

It was all too easy to forget that it has the lowest rates of immigration in the UK.

But that's the problem: they haven't come to steal our jobs, because in reality there are very few jobs to steal.

Modern Wales is divided - and at least three distinct camps emerged:

The Welsh-speaking heartlands who voted to Remain, along with cosmopolitan Cardiff.

A sizeable minority of English-born people (one in five of the population of Wales), most of whom would instinctively gravitate more towards Westminster than Welsh Assembly.

And, crucially, a huge number of deprived and disenfranchised people who live in post-industrial Wales, who have ultimately been let down by establishment politics, not least the implosion of the Labour Party. Valleys that grew proud and strong on coal, grew fearful and deferential on the dole.

It proved difficult convincing the Valleys that millions in European funds poured into schools, sporting facilities and business grants had actually been a buffer against further poverty.

Immigration and Euroscepticism was a more populist, and easily digested, clarion call.

Welsh commentators clamoured to note that whatever about the brave Scots, even the Northern Irish did not offer the same deference to English populist politics.

Amid the fallout, at least among Welsh nationalists, there is real belief that Scotland will finally push the button on independence and that Northern Ireland will certainly need to redefine its position.

Will "Great Britain" ultimately become slight shorthand for "England and Wales"?

The Welsh were the first of the Brits, and it seems we are likely to be the last.

Irish Independent

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