Joanie Willett, Rebecca Tidy, Garry Tregidga and Philip Passmore, ‘Why did Cornwall vote for Brexit? Assessing the implications for EU structural funding programmes’, Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, online, 2019.
Paradoxes, contradictions and questions abound when it comes to the ticklish subject of brexit. The biggest existential question must surely be why so much time is being consumed by the political class on this issue while relegating runaway climate change and the future of the planet to the less urgent category. An oft-cited paradox is why those regions that received the highest levels of grant aid from EU structural funds tended to vote for brexit. This article provides us with an answer – the power of nation-state nationalism.
The hoped-for europeanisation that would flow in the wake of the mis-named EU ‘cohesion’ funds didn’t. In fact, it was trumped by a euroscepticism that turned to the comforting apron-strings of the nation-state in the context of a growing sense of instability and insecurity.
The authors of this article, led by Joanie Willet, rightly reject over-simplified explanations of the brexit vote that look no further than the ‘left-behind’ (the old, uneducated and poor) versus the winners from globalism (the young, educated and better-off). They note that the literature has more recently turned to identity and values. However, these can also be over-simplistic, pitting the fearful, nostalgic and deferential ‘leave’ voter against the cosmopolitan, metropolitan ‘remainer’ and seeing brexit as a backlash against more liberal social attitudes and multiculturalism.
To dip further into the values of those in Cornwall who voted leave the researchers undertook a qualitative exercise in 2017. This involved focus groups and interviews with leave voters and a survey snowballed via social media. They admit that any conclusions can only apply to this group of self-selected leavers rather than leave voters in general. Nevertheless, the data gathered allowed them to analyse how people felt and what their perceptions were as well as reconstruct the discourses through which people justify voting for brexit.
Much of this will be familiar. Money (though with concerns over growing inequality), declining public services, immigration (linked to over-stretched public services and housing), infrastructure (not the right kind in the right place), the threat to traditional industries and that battle cry of brexit – taking back control. The article deconstructs the latter to illustrate how it operates at two scales – the local and the nation-state. Moreover, it combines a touching faith in the British state with the belief that policies are insufficiently place-based and do not meet local priorities.
The second major paradox in this however is that all the effects of austerity and cuts in government spending have been dumped fairly and squarely at the foot of the EU rather than the government which has directly imposed austerity since 2010. In fact, while the EU has become the whipping boy for a variety of social ills, the brexit voter turns to the protection and support of the nation-state, even though it’s at least an equally nasty villain of the piece, having enthusiastically shared the neo-liberal ideology of the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Parroting Boris’s bus, the ‘waste’ associated with the EU is apparently set to be reversed by the beneficent UK Government that imposed austerity on us in the first place. Good luck with that one.
And paradoxes don’t end there. A more minor one seems to be that the regionalism implied by EU funding itself becomes seen as a threat to the elusive ‘control’ the nation-state is unable to operate on our behalf. Although, or perhaps because, the EU has been relatively more protective of Cornwall’s cultural heritage than Westminster, Cornish regionalism can for some become seen as a destabilising factor.
This article identifies two dominant narratives among brexit voters. Both involve a combination of blanket euroscepticism with a lack of any detailed or accurate understanding of how the EU works or how structural funding was actually spent. Both seek security and stability in uncertain times. The first tends to look to the past, suffused with nostalgia, nostalgia for the safety of an imagined pre-EU Britain, for Empire and for a simple patriotism. The second looks to the future and is a scarcity narrative, where immigration (but not population growth?) needs to be reduced to marshal scarce resources in a context of austerity.
From within these narratives the EU becomes a remote bullying Other. The UK state and its citizens are powerless in the face of this monster. It must be slain so that the state can ensure policy better serves the people. Both narratives therefore trust in the nation state, albeit a more responsive one, to provide the security and support they crave.
The authors end with a few suggestions for actions to counter this scepticism about external grant aid. These include participatory projects grounded in local and community governance and more bottom-up place-based strategies that put emphasis on social capital. These are all very well but look too modest to shape opinion in the context of the power of the simplistic narratives they outline. Moreover, it ignores the context of ongoing de-democratisation in Cornwall. More radical policies are surely required and at multi-levels of governance.
Do I detect an assumption in this piece that grant aid has been an unqualified success? The authors clearly state that ‘structural funds have had a very positive effect on the Cornish economy’. This would appear to grossly overstate the conclusions of what scarce research has been undertaken into the economic impact of Objective 1/Convergence spending in Cornwall. It looks more likely that any improvements were already occurring in the early 2000s well before the effects from grant aid would have been felt. Any benefits have since tailed off or been at the least ambiguous.
The implication appears to be that narratives of inefficient grant spending and inappropriate infrastructure are mistaken, resulting from the facts being twisted to fit a pre-existing eurosceptic discourse. Is this really the case? The benefits of EU funding may be less obvious when viewed from a social housing estate in Penryn than they are from an office in the gleaming new university campus on the hill. Moreover, while there may be a low level of knowledge of details, the gut feeling that infrastructure spending is merely another means of imposing colonialism with negative quality of life effects could well be correct.
The problem is not so much that this suspicion is inaccurate but that the solution is so utterly misplaced. Relying on the state to solve the problems of everyday life seems overly optimistic when those problems have to a large measure been caused by that same state and its neo-liberal ideologues.
While this article does much to advance our knowledge of the discourses of brexit, there remain a multitude of questions and topics ripe for further research. For instance, did structural funding really change the trajectory of the Cornish economy in the 2000s? What was the role of the stereotypes and assumptions circulating among the project class which administered EU funding? How did the EU become the sole scapegoat for ongoing policy follies and failures in Cornwall? Why did a British nationalist discourse win out so easily over a regionalist one? What are the mechanisms through which these narratives are reproduced? Finally, we still don’t actually know who in Cornwall voted for brexit. Did it vary by ethnicity? Was it left-behind natives or disgruntled incomers? Or both in equal measure?