I’m not particularly surprised at the finding in the recent poll that Welsh voters are as likely to vote to leave the EU as are English voters. The oft-repeated speculation by some Welsh politicians about the ‘constitutional crisis’ which would follow an English vote to leave and a Welsh vote to stay has long owed more to wishful thinking about the differences between England and Wales than to hard fact. And the assumption that voters would fall in behind the leaders of the parties which they usually support flies in the face of the clear distrust which most voters have for most politicians.
It isn’t good enough either to try blaming the poll findings on in-migration. Whilst it’s true that Wales has a very high proportion of non-Welsh born (and especially English-born) voters, the antipathy to the EU isn’t restricted to the areas which have seen the greatest in-migration. Indeed, some of the highest votes achieved by UKIP in May were in constituencies with some of the highest levels of Welsh-born citizens.
There has been a high level of complacency amongst the Welsh political classes on the issue, partly perhaps as a result of the lack of any discordant voices amongst those classes themselves. The result has been a comfortable consensus in relation to matters European, and an assumption that it would be ‘obvious’ to people that Wales benefits from UK membership of the EU. It’s a complacency which may yet turn out to be fatal to the chances of a yes vote.
I think that the poll findings may well overstate the extent of the movement in opinion, although I accept that that might reflect a certain amount of wishful thinking on my own part. But I don’t think that there isn’t movement happening – the ‘leavers’ are winning the argument. What makes the shift even harder to counter is that they’re winning the argument without even making their case. They are in total disarray and arguing amongst themselves, but still opinion is moving in their direction.
I suspect that that is partly because of the way that Cameron’s fabled renegotiation is being increasingly exposed as little more than a sham, but mostly a reaction to immigration and the daily news stories on that particular issue in the media which are most influential in shaping opinion. Logically, the EU actually has little to do with immigration, and leaving would make a lot less difference than most seem to believe, but it is the issue on which far too many will probably make their decision unless there is a change in the prevailing climate of opinion. And it’s not an argument which is easily countered by logic and reason.
Can this movement in opinion be countered, or is it already too late? I really don’t know, and nor do I know which side is favoured by a quick vote in June (which seems to be the government’s preferred option). On the one hand, an early vote might be a question of acting before opinion moves too far and too solidly against (particularly if the summer sees yet another increase in the numbers of people traversing the Mediterranean). On the other would a longer time period give a better chance for a rational and considered rebuttal of the antipathy towards immigration and the connection (or rather lack of) between that and membership of the EU? Such considerations are rather more significant than whether the campaign overshadows the Assembly election, which seems to be the biggest concern of most of our politicians.And a case for continued membership based on a belief that we’ll get more handouts from Brussels than from London doesn’t even begin to tackle the much darker feelings which are the real issue, yet that’s still where Labour’s biggest party seems to be.