After the EU referendum result, I decided to get in touch with some politicians and find out what happens now that the country has voted to leave the European Union. In my first interview of the series, I asked the Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts some questions.
Were you surprised by the result of the EU referendum?
At a Wales national level: intellectually, yes I was surprised; but, emotionally, no. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I believed that the rational argument to remain in the EU and evidence of Wales’s past benefits from our membership would be apparent. Like them again, I also believed that the murder of Jo Cox MP would be influential and unifying in its abhorrence. I did not appreciate the disconnect between this perception and the atomised reality of people’s lives, and how the popular and repeated messages of blame and fear would resonate with so many voters.
In my own constituency, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, I am proud that the majority voted to remain in Europe, and not surprised. The voting patterns have yet to be analysed thoroughly, but, on first viewing, appear to be mostly predictable. Although the Remain campaign came fast on the heels of the Assembly elections, there were street stalls in towns and Plaid Cymru branch teams distributed leaflets in communities. These were initiated by Plaid Cymru with the support of the Wales Remain campaign. The matter was discussed by the two farming unions and also by some community groups and churches. The independent local paper – Cambrian News – ran columns outlining the arguments of Remain and Brexit in the final weeks.
Why do you think Wales, overall, voted to leave the EU?
English-speaking Wales is ill-served by the UK media, which has been in thrall to Nigel Farage prior to the point when UKIP acquired the democratic legitimacy which the party now possesses.
Welsh Labour have singularly failed to build national awareness in Wales since 1999. This has served them well in the short term as Welsh Government’s performance has not been held up to public scrutiny. It is now a threat to Wales’s identity. The Brexit vote in Labour constituencies is Labour’s responsibility, and an indication of weak and self-satisfied leadership. Wales remains in poverty, and it appears that people have either not responded to EU-funded capital projects, or interpreted them as only sticking plaster over long-term economic stagnation.
I would note that Welsh-speaking regions, Cardiff and two relatively wealthy local authority areas were supportive of remaining in Europe. Alongside these were the university towns and cities, with the exception of Swansea. To me this greater engagement – and passion for Europe – among Remain campaigners was a combination in different regional measures of Plaid Cymru leadership, a few Welsh Labour voices, stronger financial confidence, and of, course, a young and well-educated vote. Welsh Tories were either very vocal in backing the Leave campaign, eg David T C Davies and David Jones, or ineffective in their support of the official UK government Remain campaign. The official Wales Remain campaign was not particularly effective: its messages lacked passion, literature was disorganised and not consistently bilingual, and it had scant organisational reach across Wales.
What does this result mean for young people?
This is without doubt a terrible vote for young people in terms of employment, social and educational prospects. It reflects an inward-looking society, dominated by the world view and fears of older generations, a culture of blaming others, nostalgia for the imagined past, and shrugging off responsibility for the future of younger generations.
What would you like to see in the post-Brexit deal for Wales and the UK as a whole?
I expect UK negotiating politicians to work for the following: free trade, freedom of movement for travel, education and employment, agreements on environmental measures, co-operation on crime, terrorism and extra-Europe immigration, co-operation on health, co-operation on agriculture.
Wales must have a new fiscal framework on the basis of a UK-wide policy to eliminate poverty and improve social equality; a new Wales Bill to put in place a full reserved powers model on the basis of subsidiarity, and to include devolution of legal jurisdiction, policing and broadcasting; devolution of a wider range of taxes, including income and corporation tax; improved workers’ rights; structures to facilitate communications between Welsh and UK/English Ministers on the basis of equality: a UK Council of Ministers; news structures to represent Welsh interests in UK institutions including Bank of England, UK Trade and Industry, etc.
Welsh government should negotiate directly with Europe, especially in relation to trade, agriculture and disadvantaged regions, and also be among the negotiators in the Brexit discussions. Wales must also create new working arrangements with Ireland.
The UK must not withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights, and I look forward to an extension of the influence of the International Criminal Court.
How can young people who are disappointed with the result become engaged with politics in the future?
This is not young people’s fault. Indeed, those of us who campaigned for Remain must resist the urge to dismiss and isolate voters of all ages from empoverished regions who used the democratic process on offer as an opportunity to protest. The fact that we did not agree on June 23 should not divide us further. This is a wake-up call to society to address poverty: economic poverty and poverty of ambition. To address isolation and hopelessness. To redress the need to blame others – the immigrant scapegoat, and to recognise that these are alarm calls for wider concerns such as employment, identity, housing and family cohesion, and to acknowledge that these concerns are valid in people’s day-to-day lives.
I hope that young people will hold politicians to account, and that registering to vote will be a priority through organisations such as colleges, training providers and universities. Wales should bring in the right to vote at 16, and promote voting with popular role models. Pupils’ and students’ councils should have greater responsibilities in schools and colleges.
Wales should embed citizenship in education at all levels, including teacher training. The quailty of education must be prioritised and celebrated. Educational standards in numeracy, literacy and learning ambition will only be improved by continually enhancing the quality of teaching, and the wider status of education. The universities of Wales should play an explicit role in building the future of Wales.