“What’s all this about the guy with the hair? How can people take him seriously?” The man swept his hand forward over the top of his head.
I was asked this question twice during my two weeks in Wales, both times with the hand gesture. Both questioners were men in their late 60s — a Baptist minister and a retired art teacher. They expressed a rueful awe over Donald Trump’s starring role in U.S. politics, to which I replied, “And what about Brexit?”
“Ah yes, Brexit,” sighed the minister. “It makes no sense to me. And we have our own guy with hair, Boris Johnson.” The Trump-alike is a Conservative Party politician and foreign secretary who has been appointed one of the Brexit negotiators. He is known for his flamboyant and seemingly racist remarks.
Nearly all the Welsh people I talked to about Great Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union were “remainers,” although only two of Wales’ 22 counties voted to remain in the EU. The remainers have been struggling to understand how the “leavers” had prevailed and hoping against hope that the exit will not occur after all. Their perplexity echoes that of U.S. liberals who are as appalled by Trump’s popularity as by the candidate himself.
Opposition to free immigration was the main issue I read about when Britain was preparing to vote on whether to depart from the EU. Now British news reports are speculating that the leavers are not so intolerant as they are people in financial straits who feel the government is not helping them. They hope disrupting the state will result in some kind of change that will improve their lot. Or if it doesn’t, at least they have expressed their anger.
“There’s an education gap between the two groups that voted,” said Martha, a woman who was handing out leaflets for the Liberal Democratic Party at the national Eisteddfod, the annual festival of Welsh poetry and music. “It’s the old industrial areas that voted ‘leave.’”
Welsh towns built around mining went bust when the last of the mines closed down in 1985, largely due to Margaret Thatcher’s determination to break the growing power of the unions. Poverty in those regions has not been effectively addressed, although the EU has funneled monies into Wales for road-building, agriculture, higher education, museum renovation, and other public projects.
“The leavers don’t feel they benefit from those projects,” said Jane, my B-and-B hostess in a village near Aberystwyth, a small city located in one of the regions that voted to remain. “But the economy in this area is based on farming, the university, and the hospital, which all get subsidies from the EU. I’m worried what will happen if that ends.”
She added, “People didn’t take it seriously, so a lot of people didn’t vote. We were shocked when it passed. But the country is divided.”
Martha accused the Brexit campaigners of delivering misleading rhetoric during the lead-up to the vote. “It’s a complex issue, and we voted on it in a binary way,” said Martha. “They said if we don’t vote ‘leave’, we will have hordes of Turkish immigrants coming in.” Leavers also insisted there would be no problem disentangling Britain from the EU, that the country could continue to pay no trade tariffs, while taking control of immigration. “I think it’s impossible that the EU will allow no immigration if there are no tariffs,” said Martha. “We can’t have it both ways.”
These issues are currently under consideration in negotiations between Britain and the EU. The three main negotiators, Martha explained, are all in favor of Brexit, a wise decision by new Prime Minister Teresa May, so no one could allege that remainer negotiators had skewed the results.
If negotiators fail to come up with a good deal, will Brexit be cancelled? No one knows, said Martha. Remainers in the government “are doing whatever it takes to keep us in the EU. The referendum was not legally binding but just advisory. It’s not clear whether it’s required to be voted on. Thousands of lawyers are working on that question. If it does come to a vote, most of the members of Parliament are remainers. Will they vote to stay if their voters want to leave?”
Jane is still hoping Brexit will not go through, but she sighed, “Maybe I’m in denial.”
Certainly the vote has been a wake-up call to Britons who oppose Brexit but didn’t think it could happen. The Welsh Liberal Democrats signed up over 18,000 new members in July.
The Conservatives also had a booth at the Eisteddfod. I went in with my pen and notebook, eager to get the leaver point of view, but it turned out the Conservative Party has been split in half by the issue. Both the young men running the booth had voted “remain.” “There are a lot of places with more to lose from leaving,” said one, giving the example of Cardiff, the Welsh capital. “People there have pensions and higher-paying jobs. Here in Blaenau Gwent County, EU money has been pumped into roads and factories, but people are not getting personal gain from it. They decided, ‘Let’s try a different route,’ and they voted to leave.”
“I campaigned to stay,” said the other man. “I believe in free trade and opportunities to share knowledge and services of benefit to the whole UK. We can’t have free movement of services without movement of people. [Former Prime Minister David] Cameron had renegotiated our agreement with the EU, but people felt it wasn’t enough of a change.”
In Bangor and Aberystwyth, both college towns, a handful of dark-skinned young people were in evidence on the streets, but rural Wales was almost exclusively white. At a cell phone shop in Bangor, the young bearded, dark-skinned proprietor surprised my friend by saying he thought Brexit would be good for his business.
On the way back to New York, I stopped in London. At my B-and-B, young Italian men were living full-time in the adjoining rooms. Most of them have been working in Britain for three years or more, so they are confident they won’t be deported if Brexit goes through, but they know others who are worried. In the London shops and restaurants, many of the workers have Italian or Eastern European accents. Johnny, a 35-year-old man from Sardinia, said there are few jobs on his island except during the tourist season. In London, he works hard doing construction and makes good wages.
Vera is a Polish café owner in Limehouse, a working-class section that is largely Muslim, judging by the number of women wearing headscarves. Vera has been in London for ten years and was upset by the Brexit vote. She also objected to the rules of the referendum. “I pay taxes, I can vote in prime minister and mayoral elections, but I wasn’t allowed to vote on Brexit. British people living in Europe couldn’t vote either. And the elections were held when a lot of people were on vacation and couldn’t vote.”
She sees the leavers as people seeking revenge on the powers that be “for not caring enough about them. They feel like they’ve been pushed around, and they don’t want to take it any more.”
It doesn’t sound all that different from what we’re hearing in the U.S., does it?