“Britain* is divided into four parts; whereof one is inhabited by Englishmen, the other by Scots, the third by Welshmen, and the fourth by Cornish people, which all differ among themselves, either in tongue, either in manners, or else in laws and ordinances.”
– Polydore Vergil (Henry VIII’s geographer)
What is it with the London media? It seems if you email celebrity chefs like Rick Stein and the mockney Jamie Oliver calling yourself “CNLA” and promising a “rosy glow” in their pricey restaurants in Cornwall, you can get coverage in a dozen newspapers, whereas if you manage to collect 50,000 signatures for a Cornish Assembly in two years, you get none. Bear in mind that the Cornish population is only 400,000, and the
petition was badly publicised, and you can see the scale of feeling. Cornwall, meantime, has the lowest GDP in the UK, at a mere 62% of the average. An article in the Western Morning News has pointed out “in places like Mousehole, Port Isaac & Cadgwith, it is possible to buy any number of £1000 paintings, but not a pint of milk” thanks to the vast number of second homes there. Rick Stein is part of the problem, and has led to Padstow being nicknamed Padstein, thanks to buying up half the town. Would Stein or Oliver agree with this?
“We, the people of Cornwall, must have a greater say in how we are governed. We need a Cornish Assembly that can set the right democratic priorities for Cornwall, and provide a stronger voice for our communities in Britain, in Europe, and throughout the wider world.”
Most Scots don’t know that Cornwall is not a proper part of England. For centuries, a significant number of its natives have always regarded themselves as non-English, and it is the only “English county” with its own language, laws and nationalist movement. For example, if you die without a will in England, your property goes to the Crown. In Cornwall it goes to the Duke of Cornwall (Prince Charles), and the Duchy has been used more or less as an expense account for the heir to the throne. The story of the decline of Cornish mining, farming and fishing is one with which Scots have first hand experience.
In the post-Roman period, the Cornish were known as “West Welsh” by the English. (“Welsh” being an old English word for “foreigner”). This was retained in Cornwall which means “Welsh Headland”. Cornwall only became joined, bit by bit, in the Norman period. Even so, during the Middle Ages, the phrase “England and Cornwall” turns up in dozens of medieval documents, including the Magna Carta. Henry VIII’s coronation lists his realms as including “ England, France…Cornwall, Wales & Ireland”. The Cornish would rise repeatedly, notably in 1497 under Michael An Gof who raised an army of 15,000.
The Reformation was particularly painful for the Cornish. When the English language Book of Common Prayer was forced on them, they rose in 1549, complaining partly that many of them spoke no English. The upper class converted to Anglicanism, or was dispossessed, but the vast majority of the Cornish peasantry and working class did not “conform”. Even today, Methodism is far bigger than Anglicanism in Cornwall. As in Wales, Cornish radicalism arose from Methodism, and joined the Liberal Party. However, unlike elsewhere, the Cornish radicals did not really take to the Labour party. The battle in Cornwall has been traditionally between Tories and Liberals. This changed however, in 1997, when Cornwall, Wales and Scotland all became Tory-free.
“The Cornish are fortunate in being able to paint their regional [sic] discontents in the attractive colours of the Celtic tradition. Merseyside cannot blow a national trumpet, Cornwall can.” – Eric Hobsbawm
Although much of modern Cornish nationalism originated in bourgeois Romanticism, by the present day, it has come to embrace the entire political spectrum, both republican and monarchist, liberal and conservative, socialist and social democrat. The Lib Dems continue to flirt with it, with the most “nationalist” Lib Dem being Andrew George MP, who took his oath in Cornish. The real voice, other than the defunct Cornish National Party, is Mebyon Kernow, which tends to left of centre. MK has some claims to fame – it participates fully in the local CND and Green campaigns, has engaged in industrial action, and prevented nuclear power stations from being built. It does very well in council elections, but not in Westminster elections. This is partly because it is not entitled to broadcasts, and receives little publicity in local press. While not achieving the levels of Plaid, or the SNP, MK has more councillors in Cornwall, than UKIP has anywhere, and got more council votes than Labour in Cornwall.
While London-based TV portrays Cornwall as a playground of the rich, surfing, pirates and yokels, based in “South West England”, the reality is a housing crisis, high unemployment, and a rapid brain drain. Coupled with a thousand years of cultural aggression and assimilation, it’s no wonder Cornwall, Cornish and the Cornish are in such a bad way. Some have started to become “Cornish and English”, in a similar fashion to Rangers fans who wear England shirts.
“Smaller minorities also have equally proud visions of themselves as irreducibly Welsh, Irish, Manx or Cornish. These identities are distinctly national in ways which proud people from Yorkshire, much less proud people from Berkshire will never know. Any new constitutional settlement which ignores these factors will be built on uneven ground.” (The Guardian, editorial, 8th May 1990)
Concessions are few, and have come slowly to Cornwall. For example, the Rose has been removed from Cornish road signs, and replaced with the Cornish flag after a direct action campaign. The Cornish language is reappearing, and the national flag is now everywhere. Cornish devolution and investment has not come, instead London links Cornwall into “Devonwall” and jobs are exported eastward to Plymouth and Exeter. Cornwall is also refused European aid, thanks to the government. In 1967, the Liberal MPs, John Pardoe and Peter Bessel complained, “the Cornish people have the same right to control their country, its economy and its political future as the other Celtic peoples of Scotland and Wales.”
Four decades later, Cornish Lib Dems make the same complaint, while the party in London says the exact opposite. When will Cornwall be heard?
by Ray Bell
* The original “British” are the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons. However, there is little connection between the ancient term, and the modern one, which is co-opted and political.