After the referendum, a lot of lazy narratives are gaining traction. It was (I used this phrase myself in the immediate aftermath) a “howl of rage” from the marginalised. It was ‘the North’, it was English nativism, it was the old and complacent stealing the future from the young. There’s a bit of truth in all of these, but only a bit. After all, it ‘woz the South wot won it’. That’s where the numbers were.
So it was that I went on a day trip to one of the areas which voted ‘Leave’ in the face of the fact that they probably gain more back from the EU than any other area of Britain – the South Wales valleys. Last Sunday we left Cardiff – shiny, prosperous, ‘Remain’ voting capital of Wales, and drove up into the eastern valleys.
It’s not a long drive. Like the resentful, Brexit-voting regions of Essex and Kent, some of it is within commuting distance of their capital. Indeed, there does seem to be a pattern of many ‘Leave’ voting areas being in fairly close proximity to a city to which they display a seemingly irrational resentment.
That said, the approach to the valleys looks like commuter land. On a Sunday people were tending their gardens, washing their cars, walking their dogs. There’s not much in the way of obvious economic activity, except that which relates to motor vehicles – petrol stations are where the supermarket and the newsagents are now located. There’s the odd used car lot, and the now ubiquitous Romanian hand car-washes. No parades of shops, local cafes, or any of the things that once graced villages, but this was down to the way the commuter economy works, rather than poverty. A bit soul-destroying, though, but that’s just my prejudice against the effects of car culture.
Things started to be different when we got to Troedyrhiw. I noticed the sign first – a red estate agents’ sign on a house on a terraced street. It read “For Sale by Auction”. It was to be the first of many such signs; signs which indicate economic distress. Homes people can’t sell, almost at any price. This house was poignant, almost as if designed to make a point. The little two-up, two-down had plainly been empty for a long time. Dilapidated exterior, tattered curtains hanging in grimy windows, it was made aesthetically perfect by the faded, shredded Welsh flag fluttering forlorn from the upper window. Welcome to Brexit Wales.
The village was close to our next port of call, Aberfan. Aberfan is famous for one thing only – the catastrophe of October 1966, when a slag heap from the colliery collapsed, sliding downhill at speed, in minutes engulfing Pantglas primary school. 116 children and 28 adults were killed. They are buried in elegant, dignified rows in a pristine section of the village cemetery. Many of the children’s graves (the oldest children were only 11, most younger) now contain the remains of their parents, too. On a Sunday there were many people tending graves, mostly middle aged, or just retired, presumably the brothers and sisters of the dead of 1966.
It is quite hard to get beyond the terrible fact of the disaster. To look at the village, now surrounded by flattened, green land where once the slag heaps had been, is to look upon the failures, over decades, in which a Brexit vote looks almost rational. Every system has failed the people there. The Aberfan catastrophe of 1966 was the responsibility of the nationalised National Coal Board, a flagship of the ‘mixed economy and welfare state’ which came out of World War II. But the reaction against the post-war settlement, started by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, took out the coal mines which were the economic bloodstream of the valley.
Only the EU has responded consistently to the desperate need of the region; one of the poorest regions in the whole European Union.
The truth of that was visible in a small way in Aberfan, but becomes much clearer upon entering the major town in the area – Merthyr Tydfil.
If the villages are terraces stung out across the valleys like washing lines (an Alun Lewis line, I think), Merthyr looks less like something from an industrial museum. Its modern infrastructure in the town centre looks sleek and clean; it looks to my eye like I expect a ‘normal place’ to look like in Europe in 2016. The new college positively glows with glamour and aspiration. The Red House, the old Town Hall turned arts and culture venue with EU money, is the sort of place I recognise as a necessary part of anywhere that is good to live in, with its theatre, galleries, and smart cafe.
But Merthyr voted ‘Leave’, too. I understand why.
The Red House was built in the 1890s by Merthyr hands with Merthyr money. Their own efforts, and the coal boom, made them prosperous and proud, self-confident and dynamic.
Today, their politicians, local, in Cardiff, and in Brussels (London has not done much) try to find ways to re-ignite opportunities in the modern way, through knowledge, skills, education and training. The new college, the roads, the modest commute to Cardiff could make this plan work. But for the moment, UKIPs simple lies look a lot more comprehensible than all the politicians’ jargon and acronyms. The Romanians lurking in the car wash took all the jobs, and how’s a shiny college going to put a family wage in a lad’s pocket? That’s a story that might make sense even after a few pints in the Dic Penderyn, the Weatherspoons that stands opposite the Red House.
The final major stop was in Tredegar, birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, and of the NHS. It’s a pleasant place in the sunshine, the pride in Nye and in the NHS celebrated in the centre, with sculptures, murals, and giant posters featuring the words of the great man. Those giant posters are in the windows of Nye Bevan House. Nye Bevan House runs courses for the unemployed, and debt advice. Each service is advertised on little posters bearing the logos of those who support them financially. All has an EU logo.
It doesn’t seem to me that the ‘Leave’ voters of the valleys have much in common with those of Basildon, or of Sunderland, or even of Pembrokeshire. Referendums are like magnets for grievances of all sorts.
Brexit means Brexit – like Abracadabra means Abracadabra. It means what you want it to mean, and thereby it means nothing. It’s a vote for a void.