Wales, immigration, news media and Brexit

Despite Wales benefiting significantly from EU funding, on June 23rd voters in Wales voted to leave the EU. Beyond Gwenedd, Ceredigion, The Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff and Monmouthshire, Leave gained 52.5% of the overall share of the vote. The economic arguments to leave were unconvincing at best, with most credible, expert analyses arguing that Remain had a better, more evidence-based and well-founded case.

years of political failure to represent ordinary peoples’ interests adequately, the erosion and hollowing-out of publicly owned resources … combined with nearly 20 years of a dominant public discourse advocating a ‘tougher’ approach to immigration seem plausible explanations for Wales’ decision to Leave. All Leave had to do was press the right buttons.

And yet, in Wales, as in many areas across the UK that have gained most advantage from EU investment, votes were cast that seemed diametrically opposed to their social interests.

In the immediate aftermath of the result, the atmosphere in Cardiff, where 60% voted to remain, and where I live and work, felt to be one of genuine shock and anxiety. Passionate and vocal political conversations seeking to make sense of and assess the potential fallout of the result were encountered in everyday contexts – the pre-school nursery, the trendy hairdressers, the bank foyer, the supermarket checkout. Having participated in the democratic process, people all seemed to want to talk about their feelings of shock and struggle to interpret fellow voters’ behaviour. They also wanted to talk about the influence of immigration as an issue and about their feelings of shame surrounding Wales’ apparent endorsement of UKIP’s message on this issue.

UKIP’s highly inflammatory ‘Breaking Point’ poster, for which Nigel Farage refused to apologise, was emblazoned on a fleet of vans in the final days of the Leave campaign. Picturing a queue of Syrian refugees at the Slovenian border, it symbolically condensed the complex conflation of refugee and other migration issues for which media scholars have long criticised immigration coverage. This was neatly wrapped in a securitising discourse and linked firmly with EU power: ‘we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’ the poster claimed, ‘The EU has failed us all’. The poster was widely condemned as ‘disgusting’ and likened to a Nazi propaganda technique by many mainstream public figures. It was emblematic of an atmosphere engendered by the UKIP-led Leave campaign’s approach, thought to give license to xenophobic violence – an argument expressed eloquently by many commentators, including Brendan Cox, the husband of MP Jo Cox, who tragically was murdered, allegedly by a fascist Britain First supporter, during the campaign itself.

Across the national press, the ‘Breaking point’ controversy was highlighted as a key moment in the campaign. Of 56 national press articles reporting criticism of the poster as xenophobic between 16th and 24th June (identified through a simple Nexis database keyword search), most focused on its uncouth pandering to the worst of public instincts, yet nonetheless noted the likely resonance of its message with some voters. Few sought to reflect upon how such resonance may have been aided or encouraged by the seemingly inexorable rightward shift of mainstream public discourse on immigration over at least two decades, and how that may have prepared the ground for the campaign.

It was not just a xenophobic campaign, arguably, but the cumulative force of an aggressive anti-immigration sentiment, long legitimated by the political mainstream and reproduced in the news media that won it for Leave. This longstanding ‘cultural work’ provided the immediate conditions of plausibility to scapegoat immigration for society’s ills. Key claims of UKIP’s populist discourse are to represent an ‘anti-establishment’ position, to stand up against ‘our’ lack of freedom and to take back control of the nation. Yet, more than ‘regulation’, ‘red tape’ and other generalising euphemisms, immigration as a familiar national object of hostility served as the most tangible symbol of what could be ‘changed’ if only ‘we’ had more power.

Why did Wales vote against its own interests? The answer is evidently not simply to be found in the mediated construction of antipathy towards immigration. We might point out that years of political failure to represent ordinary peoples’ interests adequately, the erosion and hollowing-out of publicly owned resources that allow everyone at least a small, tangible stake in a society that feels like it cares about their existence, combined with nearly 20 years of a dominant public discourse advocating a ‘tougher’ approach to immigration seem plausible explanations. All Leave had to do was press the buttons.

One reason people vote for change is that they are fearful of what the future holds. Another reason is hope for a better one. One question for the news media is whether it might have a role in addressing the ‘deficit of hope’ that arguably facilitated the Leave campaign’s xenophobic message. Can assertive and positive arguments for the things people should have a right to hope for be more newsworthy? There would of course be disagreements about those hopes, but with reports of increasingly confident xenophobic violence now populating headlines, it is surely worth renewed reflection.