Bremaining in Nature
BY HARRISON BAYLISS
In some of the most rural areas of Wales, two coastal regions voted to retain their European identity. Adding nuance to the orthodox voting patterns seen across the UK - where country folk generally voted in favour of Brexit - did nature have any influence on this decision?
Wales, the lesser known inhabited land of the United Kingdom, is the first country worldwide to offer a path along its entire coastline. Opened in 2012, Wales boasts a 1,400 km long path that stretches from the mountainous north and the Isle of Anglesey, to the rugged Cardigan Bay, the Gower surfing paradise and all the way to the capital, Cardiff. The idea of walking the coastal length of a country in its entirety, without the need for any map or GPS system, seems a fascinating excuse for a holiday and a fact that makes me very proud of my country.
Despite the unconditional love for my homeland, Brexit has distorted the opinion of my fellow country-dwellers. In the early hours of 24th June 2016, I remember my instant reaction when the Welsh results were released was a feeling of betrayal: how could Wales decide to turn its back on Europe? The unimaginable had happened in my eyes, especially since it is a well known fact that Wales receives a large share EU funds for structural development and farming subsidies for the large agricultural sector.
My home constituency nestled in the Brecon Beacons National Park voted to remain. Similarly, in a hidden corner of Wales, the residents of Ceredigion and Gwynedd voted with a confident margin to remain a member of the European Union. The area makes up 21% of Wales, but only 6% of the population lives there.
A study undertaken by two PhD researchers in the university town of Aberystwyth found the residents expressed fears for the future of the area caused by economic instability, both by the impact on tourism from the eventual cessation of free movement and the effective end of support for Ceredigion’s farmers. Nature seems to be a central point to this argument.
One striking and confounding feature from this explanation though is that Ceredigion, identified as the most Europhilic area in the UK, is not the only region where tourism and agriculture would be affected. Since Wales is made up of rural and mainly uncultivable moorland, agriculture (mostly sheep farming) has a deep rooted place in Welsh history.
As Wales was identified as one of the most poverty stricken regions in West Europe, EU structural funding has provided the opportunity to improve critical infrastructure and revive important heritage sites. In a remote region so detached from and forgotten by Westminster, the residents expressed their concern of what the future may hold without the support from Brussels. So why didn’t all of Wales consider the impact of the leave decision?
My attention at this point naturally turns to a saddening yet straightforward fact that I hear repeated often: The Welsh have given up on Wales. In comparison to the other Celtic countries in the union, Wales time and time again aligns opinions and values more with the English (even though many would never admit it). Wales has lost its voice. The Sun, for example, is the most widely read newspaper, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Daily Mail was a close second.
Interestingly, from the pool of Welsh print, Ceredigion’s own local newspaper is the second largest in circulation and affiliates to centrist and liberal beliefs. In the run up to the referendum, the tabloid mainly expressed willingness to remain part of the European project and may at least in part explain a portion of the remain vote.
A similar narrative found in the Aberystwyth study was one that expressed a sense of community with European neighbours. This made me wonder, does the connection of the people with nature have a deeper and more dynamic meaning? Nature, after all, is what makes Ceredigion and Gwynedd some of the the most rural areas in the UK, the mountain ranges acting as a physical barrier between the country-folk and the city-folk. The coastal path is the only route that directly links the small coastal villages to the sprawling urban life of Rhyl in the north and Cardiff in the south.
Nature forms a community connection and cultural identity among the residents that cannot be altered by the vitriol of the right-wing media agenda. Europe is also a community, albeit on a larger scale, so maybe the ability to understand community at the local level allows the residents of Ceredigion and Gwynedd to realise the opportunity of sharing a community with 500 million other people? It seems that the sense of community embedded in nature has a much further reaching meaning than I ever realised and something that it should be recognised and cherished among all that want to share in it.
With the announcement of the snap General Election to take place on 8th June 2017, Wales will once again find itself at a crossroads. Worryingly, the recent local council elections saw the Conservative party, under Theresa May’s hardliner-Brexit stance, making large gains across Wales, and recent polls indicate that the Tories will take the majority of Welsh parliamentary seats, an event that hasn’t been seen in Wales for over 100 years.
Now is the time the Welsh really need to ask: in a rural world so abundant in nature, who will really protect the communities and the identity they wish to preserve?