Holyhead will be one of the biggest losers from Brexit
Port’s location of Anglesey has dubious distinction of being poorest spot in UK
The Holyhead boat is not what is it used to be. In decades past, the often-challenging conditions on the 70 or so miles of sea separating Ireland from Wales provided one of the unifying experiences in Irish life.
Both literally and metaphorically, seasickness is nothing if not a great leveller. Now, however, many Irish travellers choose to fly directly to one of the great English conurbations, or simply bypass Britain altogether as they head further afield.
Passenger numbers across what some insist on calling St George’s Channel have fallen by a third since 1998. Even a native of Anglesey in Wales such as myself must admit that by bypassing Holyhead, they are not missing much.
Always a hard-scrabble town, it has been firmly in the doldrums for all my adult life. Indeed, Anglesey enjoys the dubious distinction of being the poorest spot in the whole of the United Kingdom, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
The undoubtedly very fine view of Snowdonia and the island’s stunning beaches provide some compensation. But with an average annual income, according to one measurement, of £13,655 (€15,382), the brutal truth is that it is a part of the world caught in a downward spiral.
Talented local youngsters depart to be replaced by English retirees who are attracted to the scenery but who are unable to contribute much to the future of the island and represent a significant drain on public services.
Despite this, Holyhead remains a hugely important gateway for and to Ireland. In 2016, some 423,000 lorries and trailers passed through the port. Many of these lorries where heading to, or coming back from, the Continent.
Indeed, almost 80 per cent of Irish-registered HGVs heading for the Continent pass through Welsh ports, the vast majority via Holyhead. Yet as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union – or more precisely, Theresa May’s interpretation of the implications of the Leave vote – all of this is under threat.
Holyhead is the ultimate roll-on, roll-off port. Driving along Anglesey’s main road late at night is an eerie experience, since it is practically empty of all other traffic bar a steady, apparently endless stream of lorries heading to or from the port.
There, they embark or disembark from the ferries with the minimum of fuss and remarkably little delay. If and when the UK departs the Single Market and Customs Union, this will have to change.
The fact is, Holyhead will not be able to cope. No amount of UK government “creativity” can change the geology and urban landscape of Holyhead, located on a small island just off the main body, Anglesey.
Only yield chaos
There is simply no space in or around the port for the kind of infrastructure that will be required to process the number of lorries and trailers that currently pass through it. A hard border in Holyhead can only yield chaos.
So far, the UK government has no contingency plans in place to deal with this situation. Indeed, there is no real evidence that planning for the future of any kind has taken place.
Instead, there are airy injunctions from the British government’s representative in Wales, the secretary of state for the region, Alun Cairns, that all will be well.
If Brexit goes ahead as currently envisaged by Theresa May and her colleagues, the inevitable consequence of the physical constraints in around the port is that freight, too, will need to find ways to bypass Holyhead.
This could require ferries sailing directly from Dublin and other Irish ports to the Continent, or more traffic on the Rosslare-Fishguard and Dublin-Liverpool routes. Perhaps even a resumption of services to the Welsh ports at Mostyn and Swansea? But after an initial flurry of business from delayed and frustrated lorry drivers, it is hard to see how any of this represents good news for one of the poorest areas in the United Kingdom.
The irony is that Anglesey voted in favour of Brexit, albeit very narrowly (50.9 per cent vs 49.1 per cent). The town of Holyhead itself almost certainly voted heavily for Leave. And 18 months after the referendum, despite the increasingly stark warnings from local political leaders about the likely consequences of a hard Brexit, there are few signs that attitudes have changed in any fundamental way.
While polling in Wales since the referendum suggests there may have been a slight shift in a more pro-EU direction, there are certainly no signs of widespread “Bregret”.
To understand why, we need to recall the extent to which the Brexit vote was rooted in particular understandings of national identity. In the case of England, it is now widely recognised that it was those with a strong sense of English national identity who voted most heavily to Leave the EU. By contrast, those who felt exclusively British tended to support Remain. In Scotland and Wales, however, the situation was reversed, with Britishness being associated with the most strongly anti-European sentiment.
To focus on Wales only, according to data from the authoritative British Election Survey, only 29 per cent of those who feel strongly Welsh but not strongly British voted Leave compared to 58 per cent of those who feel both strongly Welsh and strongly British.
Given that around a third of the Welsh electorate was born in England, it is also significant that 60 per cent of those living in Wales who feel both strongly British and strongly English also supported a Leave vote. The most striking statistic, perhaps, is that only 16 per cent of fluent Welsh-speaking people who strongly identify as Welsh but who do not identify as British, voted to quit.
Given the large numbers of English incomers living particularly around the coastline, and a strongly Welsh-speaking rural heartland, Anglesey represents the demographic complexity of contemporary Wales in microcosm.
The island’s Remain vote will have relied heavily on Welsh speakers. Indeed, fully 84 per cent of fluent Welsh-speaking, strong Welsh-identifying voters supported Remain. That itself is a statistic that should be enough to puncture the vacuous argument that “people from somewhere” voted Leave while more cosmopolitan, better-educated “people from anywhere” voted to Remain in the UK.
Such an explanation has been offered frequently since the referendum result by English metropolitan circles. Believe me, it is difficult to be more local in outlook than to be brought up as a native Welsh speaker in Anglesey.
Nothing since the referendum has shifted the identities that underpinned the result – quite the opposite. Far from seeking to manufacture what political scientists called “loser’s consent” following the close overall result, Theresa May’s administration has simply doubled down on the Anglo-British nationalism that was at the heart of the Leave vote.
It is now commonplace to hear supporters of Brexit describe their opponents as unpatriotic “traitors”. The wholly predictable response on the losing side has been an entrenching of a sense of distance and alienation.
This has already had tangible political results. In the June general election, Labour outperformed expectations in Wales in large part because those strong-Welsh but not strong-British identifiers swung heavily towards it. Similarly, much of Jeremy Corbyn’s success in England was a result of a significant swing towards Labour among those who feel strongly British but not strongly English. You reap what you sow.
In this context of such deep and entrenched divisions, evidence that seems to support opposing positions is easily and quickly dismissed. Most Leave voters on Anglesey genuinely believe, along with our secretary of state, that all will be well. EU structural funds will be replaced with something equally generous. So will CAP payments. After all, it was “our money” all along. And of course, traffic will continue to flow unimpeded across the island. It seems that even the obvious geological and physical constraints of the port area in Holyhead are no real barrier for true believers.
All this, and Britain will finally be truly great again having thrown off the shackles of Brussels. For Anglo-British nationalists, success in this venture is guaranteed by Anglo-Britain’s glorious past, a highly selective version of history that majors on “standing alone” to defeat Hitler and the myth of an adoring Anglosphere.
It’s going to take a great deal to shake this view. Estimates of economic growth already forgone certainly will not do it. Perhaps a genuine economic shock just might, with serious job losses and cuts in income.
But it goes without saying that it is the poorest that will suffer most if this occurs. The poorest in the poorest part of the UK, above all. Given the likely disruption to Ireland if May goes ahead with her plans for a hard Brexit, it’s probably too much to expect much by way of sympathy. But you might just spare us a thought as you find yet more ways to bypass Holyhead.
Richard Wynn Jones is professor of politics at Cardiff University