The people of Wales voted to leave the European Union in what could be considered a surprise vote considering the country has received £5.3bn from the EU since the year 2000 to help some of its most deprived communities.
Now, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper first minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has labelled the pursuit of a so-called hard Brexit — in which the UK leaves the bloc’s single market — “a kind of religious fundamentalism”.
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Why did Wales vote for Brexit?
According to Jones people who voted to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum did so not because they dislike the EU, but because they wanted to punish then-prime minister and Tory leader David Cameron.
There were a lot of people who voted leave for reasons that have nothing to do with the EU. A lot of people said to me on the doorstep: ‘We’re going to kick David Cameron. Don’t worry, we’re still Labour.’ I heard that more than anything else. The EU was a minor issue in the referendum about the EU.
What Jones said certainly same some truth to it. The vast bulk of Wales’ council areas, many of them Labour-supporting, voted for leave with a majority in 17 backing Brexit.
Only five areas – Gwynedd, Cardiff, Ceredigion, the Vale of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire – voted for remain.
However, while Labour — under leader Jeremy Corbyn — campaigned for remain during the referendum, this year’s snap election suggests people’s party leanings meant little during the election.
Labour performed far more strongly than many expected it to — suggesting people are happy to vote for Corbyn’s Labour now they feel Brexit is assured, following the passing of Article 50 — the official EU exit clause.
Jones believes that the people of Wales voted to leave but didn’t say what kind of Brexit they wanted — and that the result of the snap general election this year was a rejection of a hard Brexit.
The narrative of the hard leavers is that the only interpretation you can put on this is a hard Brexit. It’s a kind of religious fundamentalism. This is the only true way. Nobody can disagree with us. That narrative has to be challenged. People were offered the chance to vote for a hard Brexit in June and didn’t.
The currently Conservative government has been pushing for a hard Brexit since Theresa May moved into Number 10, and up until recently Labour were happy to accept that is the only available course.
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Corbyn last month revealed a Labour soft Brexit U-turn, unveiling plans to keep the UK in the European single market and customs union during a transition period thought to be around four years.
While this now aligns to where Jones puts the the leave-voting Welsh, at the time of the general election, most felt Corbyn’s Labour would be pursing a similar Brexit strategy to Theresa May’s Tories.
Religious fundamentalists or apathetic agnostics?
A recent BuzzFeed survey, carried out with the London School of Economics and Oxford University, found:
The public’s view on what Brexit should look like has proven a tricky task for pollsters and politicians, as many of the technical issues and tradeoffs are not well understood.
It found 88 percent of the survey’s 3,000 respondents supported free trade with the EU post-Brexit, while 69 percent wanted customs checks at the border – a directly contradictory position, meaning at least 57 percent of respondents had said they supported both open and closed borders.
Professor Sara Hobolt of the LSE – one of the research’s authors – told BuzzFeed that while neither remain or leave voters were showing signs of regretting how they voted, it appeared remain voters were not unified behind a soft Brexit.
Brexit, it seems, really does only mean Brexit in the eyes of many of those who voted both leave and remain.
Why such confusion and what does it mean?
There are a few reasons for this confusion among voters and none of them amount to the so-called religious fundamentalism that Jones suggests.
Firstly, the four freedoms that are part of the EU — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour — are not pick-and-choose. A country must have all or none.
There is a realism in the government’s stance that the UK is headed for a hard Brexit, simply because it cannot continue to have market access while preventing people from the EU from coming to the UK.
It’s widely accepted that the main reason most people voted to leave the EU was to limit immigration to the UK. May’s government knows that if they agree to move on this their support will fall.
This is a cross party political issue with Labour and Conservative voters alike sharing concerns immigration into the UK is too high and has been for a long time.
It would seem little has changed in Wales since the vote.
Polls commissioned by Cardiff University with ITV Wales asked people how they would vote in a referendum between 29 May 2017 and 31 May 2017. The Welsh Political Barometer poll of 1,014 people suggested that 45 percent would vote leave and 42 percent would vote to remain — not far from where it was in June 2016.
Ultimately, the majority of people in Wales — both during the referendum and a year on — want the UK to be separate from the EU but enjoy as many trade benefits as possible while maintaining that separation.
This sounds like the course of action being pursed by May’s negotiation team and certainly not like religious fundamentalism. Whether that strategy will actually work is a whole other question.