Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The same, but different: Wales and the debate over EU membership

Wales is a swing country in Britain's EU referendum. So, how is the debate playing out?

Aberaeron, Ceredigeon, the most pro-EU seat in the UK/by Aeronian, some rights reserved

Insofar as the debate surrounding the EU referendum has noticed differing perspectives between the constituent nations that form the UK, it has almost entirely involved comparisons of Scotland and England. Specifically, it has focused on how “Brexit” might affect Scotland’s continued membership of the UK, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) raising it as a possible precursor for a second independence referendum. Yet, the situation in Wales is also worthy of attention. Wales, in many ways, is the referendum’s ‘swing seat’ – a key target for both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns – and looking at the recent debate between First Minister Carwyn Jones and Nigel Farage we find a perfect illustration of the dominant rhetoric from either side.

Wales: EU ‘Swing Seat’?

There has been a long running assumption that Wales, like Scotland, is generally more supportive of the EU than England. Evidence suggest that this is not the case, however, identifying a ‘healthy’ degree of Euroscepticism in the former Principality. YouGov polling in February reported Ceredigion as the most “Europhile” part of the UK; however, out of the 17 Welsh regions where data was available, only eight leant Europhile, four leant Eurosceptic and five close to median. Positive news for the ‘Remain’ camp on balance, but nevertheless somewhat mixed. A similar picture emerges from YouGov polling between June 2015 and February 2016 showing the ‘Remain’ lead in Wales shifting from 4%, to 7%, -2% and -8%. The Financial Times splashed on these figures with a prediction that ‘Wales looks set to be the only devolved region to favour Brexit’.

Whether signalling a developing trend towards ‘Leave’ or simply flux remains to be seen. However, increasing Euroscepticism in Wales may also be identified in the rising success of the UK Independence Party (Ukip). In 2015, Ukip polled 13.6% of the overall Welsh vote, but in six constituencies it achieved around 18% or more. Claims made by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood that Ukip’s “values are not the values of Wales” have been undermined as the Europhile “Party of Wales” was pushed into fourth place behind Ukip at the 2015 General Election. As my colleague Dr Cutts and I have written, Ukip also pose a growing problem for Labour in her valleys heartlands. Current polling predicts Nigel Farage’s party will win nine seats in the forthcoming elections to the National Assembly of Wales. The Assembly is Ukip’s key target this May.

Wales is resultantly on the frontline of the EU debate and the way that debate is being framed and argued within Wales is significant beyond Offa’s Dyke. In January this year, the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, challenged Farage to a debate on the EU. Studying the rhetoric of both Jones and Farage tells us a lot about how the campaign is being framed across the UK, but also the opportunities that appeals to local circumstances might provide each side.

In their debate, Farage and Jones struck very different but familiar poses, each in their own ways making appeals to the Aristotelian rhetorical triad ethos, pathos and logos. The following sections break down their opening statements in line with these appeals.

Logos

Appeals to logos involve the logic of an argument – cause and effect, and pointing to the evidence for your case. The first issue in both orator’s arguments was thus to define the grounds of the debate. In Farage’s words:

“The question is:

Do we wish to regain our independence as a nation state?

Do we want to be free to make our own laws?

Do we want our own courts to be supreme?

Do we want to take back control of our borders?

Do we want to be, like 200 countries around the world, a normal, self-governing nation, and live in a true democracy, where the people that we vote for, and the people that we can sack, are the ones that make our laws?

Or, are we just a part of … the EU. … Namely, are we happy to be a subordinate member of a bigger club.”

The (rhetorical) question of whether the UK should ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ is thus, for Farage, not about the risk of leaving, but the poverty of staying. The burden to produce evidence is resultantly not on his side – i.e. having to demonstrate why the UK would be better off ‘out’. It is those supporting continued EU membership who have to justify how the present, unacceptable system is at all tolerable.

While in Farage’s rhetoric, the decision is about leaving an intolerable union to regaining the ‘normal’ freedom of currently lost sovereignty, Jones articulates it as about working together, internationally, and not fleeing into isolation. Making this case, his position as First Minister enables him to equate Wales’s position in the EU with that in the UK:

“Wales is part of two unions that provide us with stability, security and prosperity.

The union of the UK and the union that is the EU.

Neither one is perfect.

You’ve heard me talk many times about the need to change Wales’s relationship with Westminster.

But I will never advocate giving up and walking away.

There’s a saying, “decisions are made by those who turn up”. If you want change you’ve got to work for it, not walk away from the table.

And that’s what we need to do in terms of the EU.

And now, more than ever, is the time to work together, nationally and internationally.”

The comparison between the EU and the UK is unlikely to work in England, but for Wales, far smaller than her domineering neighbour, the argument that unions bring security carries weight. Support for Welsh independence from the UK flickers around 3-6 %. Attempting to frame the two unions as somewhat analogous therefore makes sense. It also ties into the classic ‘Remain’ argument, that nations benefit from being “at the table” – whether Westminster or Brussels – when decisions are being made.

Jones backs up this argument with hefty appeals to facts and figures:

“… record foreign investment has gone into Wales this year. …

200,000 jobs in Wales rely on European trade.

Europe is our largest trading partner.

43% of our trade is with EU countries.

Hundreds of Welsh students study in Europe every year, many more go there to work, and thousands of families holiday there.…

500 companies from other EU countries have their base in Wales.”

Framed this way the logic of the argument is the reverse of Farage’s: To leave the EU would be a huge risk – the facts show this, just as they show existing benefits. Wales is one of the main financial beneficiaries of the UK’s EU membership, with many parts, since 2000, qualifying for EU Objective One funding; scarred by a legacy of unemployment and low-wages, arguments about jobs and trade loom large.

Farage, however, does not counter this line of argument with his own list of facts. Instead, he places his emphasis on the latter two rhetorical appeals: ethos and pathos.

Ethos and Pathos

Ethos, refers to rhetorical appeals to the good character of the orator, and Farage constantly places himself – and thus his ethos – at the centre of his argument:

“I want independence.

I believe we’ll be better off out.

I believe we can free up our five million men and women running small businesses.

I believe we should make our own trade deals and stand on our own on the world stage and reengage with the Commonwealth and others …

And crucially, yes I do believe we should control our own borders.

I think unlimited EU immigration has driven down wages and put frankly intolerable pressures on our health and education systems.

I want us to have an Australian-style points system.

I want immigration to be a positive topic in this country, not a negative one, but it can’t be as members of a European Union.”

Appeals to his own ethos – as a ‘truth-teller’ who stands by his clear values – are backed up with attacks on the ethos of those who oppose leaving: They are “scaremongering” with hyperbolic claims that “if we weren’t in the EU: Trade would cease; Jobs would be lost; we’d finish up somehow, living in caves.” Such arguments, Farage argues, “are made by the same people who said if we didn’t join the euro we’d be ruined” – people, in other words, with a history of poor judgements – and evidence that “our political class don’t think we’re big enough, or good enough, to be in control of our own country and make our own laws.”

This is how Farage fights back against the list of facts and figures reeled off by pro-EU politicians – by pooh-poohing them as part of ‘Project Fear’, parroted by untrustworthy politicos, and talking down the nation and its people. Rather than evidence to take into account, Jones’s list of business and jobs figures becomes a list of threats, doom and gloom. All of this is in supposed contrast to Farage, whose message is that of the positive patriot, who places himself at the head of his people: “I believe we are big enough, and strong enough, and good enough, and I want you to grab this historic opportunity to take back control of our own lives.” In this, Farage appeals to pathos – to emotion – specifically related to national pride and drive.

Since Farage places so much emphasis in his argument upon his own character, it makes sense that opponents seek to undermine this and Jones sought to promote his own positive ethos as First Minister while casting aspersions on his opponent:

“As First Minister of Wales I’m here to tell you what this decision really means for our country.

And that starts with an admission.

There won’t always be easy answers to complicated questions.

In fact, if a politician ever tells you there’s an easy answer to a complicated question they’re pulling the wool over your eyes.

Because this is a serious debate about our future.”

As framed by Jones, the debate thus came down to a distinction between his honesty as the Welsh people’s elected (and generally popular) leader, compared to the deliberate oversimplifications and lack of seriousness of Farage’s points. The facts of the matter – the logos of the argument – do matter; the complexity is real, and rather than fearmongering, it is responsible to recognise and warn of dangers that could have negative consequences for the nation. Like Farage, Jones also makes appeals to pathos – to the character of the nation, tying it to the referendum vote:

“A vote in the referendum to stay in would be the vote of a confident nation.

A country that is comfortable with our place in the world.

A country that still believes that we have a role to play on the international stage.

And I believe that Wales is that confident country.”

Conclusion

Where Wales goes, so goes the UK? It is too soon to tell, but any evidence that the Eurosceptic side is winning in Wales should be of huge concern to the ‘Remain’ campaign. In the debate itself, so far, the rhetorical battle-lines have been familiar. On one side, “Brexit” it is a dangerous jump into the unknown, unsecured and isolated. On the other, it is an escape from an intolerable situation into greater freedom and thus security. Those who argue to ‘Leave’ are either positive patriots, or simplifying, backwards-looking hucksters; and those who argue to ‘Remain’ are either fear mongers talking the nation down, or serious and honest individuals with the facts on their side.

At the end of the day, Britain’s vote will be determined not on the basis of a cool-headed collective appraisal of the details in all their complexity. It will be the rhetorical ability of both sides to frame the debate around their preferred interpretation; to convince observers of the logos of their argument, the ethos of its advocates, and tap into the pathos of the electorate.

This piece first appeared on the IPR website.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.