Wales gets £250m a year from the EU – why did it vote to leave?

Language politics, turnout and the proximity of the assembly elections all played a part


Wales voted to leave the EU, 52.5 per cent to 47.5 per cent. This rejection occurred despite Wales being a net beneficiary of EU funding, to the tune of around £250m a year.

Given that it is widely accepted that the Barnett Formula underfunds Wales by approximately £300m per annum, it is, on the surface, confusing as to why voters in Wales chose to ‘shoot themselves in the foot’.

England voting to leave was always on the cards, but England’s Celtic fringe of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was supposed to provide a united vote remain.

A full explanation of this puzzle will take time, but for now, here are three factors that help to provide an initial understanding.


Turnout in Wales was 71.7 per cent, higher than that of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and only just shy of England.

Across the Valleys and the North East of Wales, where every local authority registered a Leave vote, turnout was significantly higher than both the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) elections held just seven weeks prior, and the 2015 general election.

It was also a much higher turnout than any of Wales’ three referendums on devolution.

Initial research suggests that these non-voters who turned out for the referendum – an extra 2.8 million voters UK-wide – were disproportionately Leave voters.

These extra voters were also more likely to be from less affluent areas of the country, and, sadly, Wales has a great many of these areas.

It seems that voters from these areas felt that, perhaps for the first time in a number of decades, they had more invested in this vote than any of those preceding it, and that this referendum finally gave them a voice that both general and devolved elections do not.


Wales is unique within the UK due to the role that language politics plays in our society.

It is accepted that a political divide exists between those who speak Welsh and those who do not. This certainly seems to have been the case in the EU referendum.

Analysis carried out by cyfriambythdotcom showed that areas with a larger number of Welsh speakers were more likely to vote remain, even when controlling for affluence (as Welsh speaking areas are in general more affluent).

This is perhaps unsurprising when we look at past mass surveys carried out in Wales that explore ideas of identity.

Welsh Election Studies and the British Social Attitudes Survey found that people who spoke Welsh are far more likely to view themselves as being both Welsh and European but not, crucially, British.

English speakers in Wales however are far more likely to view themselves as Welsh and British, but not European.

Further research at the European level has shown that respondents in any country who identify as European, are far far more likely to view the EU as a positive influence than those who do not identify as European.

These ideas of identity may have had an influence in the voting patterns of the Welsh electorate.

Proximity of National Aseembly for Wales Election

When David Cameron announced the date of the referendum back in February, he was met with a rush of criticism by politicians, academics and commentators who claimed that  the referendum was too close to the devolved elections on 5 May.

Cameron brushed this off as patronising: ‘I think voters are perfectly capable of making their minds up twice in two months.’

But he missed the point entirely, and certainly paid for it in Wales.

Although Scotland and Northern Ireland held elections on the same day as in Wales and voted to remain, the circumstances in Wales post-election were entirely different.

The two largest remain parties, Labour and Plaid Cymru, had engaged in a bitterly fought election campaign, that continued post-election.

Plaid Cymru successfully blocked the election of Labour’s Carwyn Jones as First Minister, and very nearly succeeded in electing Leanne Wood as First Minister and forming a minority government.

In Wales also, unlike in Northern Ireland and Scotland, a significant UKIP cohort had been elected to the Welsh Assembly, providing a unique platform for the party.

The political chaos that followed the election meant that Wales was without a government until 19 May, just a month before the referendum. It was therefore very difficult for a cohesive, unified Remain campaign to take root in Wales.

This, combined with the financial costs that such an intensive election campaign placed on parties, resulted in severely drained party machines attempting to get the vote out.

Activists also, were drained and struggled to commit their own time, unpaid, to nearly three months of campaigning.

Social Media research by NRLabs suggested that at the end of the campaign, Remain was gaining ground in Wales, but it simply ran out of time.

Perhaps, if there had been a larger gap between the assembly election and the referendum, Wales might have tipped the other way.

Jac Larner is a PhD researcher at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University

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