By Ray Bell. We may or may not agree with the idea behind a hunger strike. Almost all of us, however, would agree that such an action is an extreme one, driven by strong emotions and a sense of desperation. It is not something to be taken lightly, at all. As one such campaigner said on a recent radio programme -
“I start by saying that my determination is strong as ever but now my body has started to let me down. I struggled with my slurring voice…and had to be physically supported by my team… I feel no hunger but I suffer with bad balance, vision which alternates between colour and black & white and the feeling that I want to vomit but with nothing to bring up. Additionally, the strength in my grasp is diminishing and I dropped my recording equipment. In truth, I feel ill but my determination is strong as ever. I no longer feel safe driving but again my team support me. I am emotional but strong.”
It might surprise you to learn that these are not the words of someone in Northern Ireland or some far-flung exotic part of the world. They are in fact the words of a Cornish campaigner, Mike Chappell, who has gone without food for well over a week so far, in protest over government plans to create a cross border parliamentary constituency between Cornwall and Devon. The Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill is currently going through Parliament. It seeks a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600, with constituencies to be within 5% of the average constituency size. While the borders of Wales and Scotland are protected, that of Cornwall isn’t.
I know what many people are thinking. Cornwall is just another English county, isn’t it?
Well as I discussed in a previous article for Bella Caledonia, it isn’t, and in fact has a good claim to be a nation in its own right, like Scotland, Wales or England. The boundary change is not so much disrespect, as a lack of respect. Or rather a lack of knowledge. Most English, and most Scots for that matter, are not aware of Cornwall as anything but an English county… albeit a picturesque one, with a large tourist industry. Home Counties Metroprovincials may find it hard to think of it as anything else, if indeed they do at all. Their image of it is perhaps mirrored in film, somewhere between the inbred horror of Straw Dogs, the windswept menace of Rebecca and the couthy surf & turf of Doc Martin (not the “bovver boots”). But as always none of this reflects the reality of Cornwall, that something very different lies across its border, and that its border is a very old one indeed.
The Cornish border is a very old one. Older than Scotland’s in fact, more stable than that of Wales. And in all three cases, we’re talking of borders which have lasted much longer than just about anything in central or eastern Europe – most of the borders there date back a few decades, that of Cornwall goes back a thousand years. While the Welsh border has been especially fluid, with Monmouthshire going back and forth, and Wales losing the likes of Oswestry, Ludlow (home of Owain Glyndwr) etc, Scotland’s own border has fluctuated between the Ribble and the Forth over the centuries. In the meantime, the Cornish border has stayed where it is on the River Tamar. Until the advent of the railway and bridges, the firth of the Tamar made Cornwall a virtual island, with only a small range of hills joining it to Devon in the north. While Plymouth sees the Tamar for the excellent harbour it is, the Cornish view it much as we view the Tweed, the visible division between Cornwall and England. Even on the bridge crossing the Tamar, the Cornish “différance” is driven home by its bilingual welcome sign.
The uniqueness of Cornwall is further driven home by the fact that its “welcome” sign is bilingual. Not a single Cornish MP actually backs the boundary change.
The British State is no stranger to border controversies, in fact it has created some of the world’s most notorious ones. Kashmir, Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine are all creations of British pen pushers. Numerous examples litter Africa and Asia, from Biafra to Kurdistan. One of the usual arguments against Scottish independence is “we all live on the same island”. Well, it never stopped the British dividing the neighbouring one up. And if geography is so important, why is Berwick (on the north bank of the Tweed) supposedly in England? (Strangely in none of these boundary changes is England the loser. Unless we count Monmouthshire, and even that’s a debatable one.) Or for that matter what about Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falklands – all of which have no real geographical link with Britain except access by sea?
And it is the Liberal Democrats are the great villains in this business. For not only have they milked the anti-Tory vote in Cornwall for twenty years … but they are actively supporting the Tories’ economic measures, boundary changes etc Even worse while they pay lip service to Cornish devolution at home, outwith Cornwall, they back a South West regional assembly when in fact Cornwall’s biggest problems come from being lumped with the much richer English counties of Devon, Somerset etc. Cornwall has been denied economic assistance from Brussels for years, precisely because of this. Devon includes some of the richest areas in the south of the UK whereas Cornwall is one of the poorest parts of the UK. The fisherman and the miner on its coat of arms couldn’t epitomise its economic problems more.
We can also see the expansion of Plymouth as an issue of urban vs rural interests. When country areas get annexed to city interests, they rarely come out as the winners. This is exactly what will happen if east Cornwall is swallowed up by Plymouth. Its voice will not be heard. And there will be no recognition of its unique identity.
Most of South East England is currently being swamped by the commuter belt. People who move to rural areas, and then complain about church bells being rung on a Sunday morning. You know the type. Even within Scotland there is much the same thing going on with perhaps almost all of Central Scotland from the Trossachs down to Biggar falling into some massive “travel to work” area for Edinburgh/Glasgow. All of this takes its toll on the smaller communities. It’s not so much the increase in traffic (something no part of Cornwall is a stranger to in Summer), but that the commuters do most of their shopping in the cities they work in – not to mention a great deal of socialising etc. Either way, the result is a decrease in local rural infrastructure – shops, pubs, post offices (if they still exist) and so on.
But that’s the social factor. In local government, 1980s Scotland had an excellent example of bureaucratic insensitivity in Strathclyde Region. Argyll is a rural southern Highland area with very little in common with Greater Glasgow, yet Glasgow was supposed to run its services. To this day, the inequality generated by this arrangement can still be seen in the state of roads in different areas.
While other states have addressed this problem, the UK is as always, a few decades behind. The Danes have taken steps to prevent southern Jutland and Schleswig-Holstein from becoming merely another sleeper belt for the businessmen of Hamburg, and there’s no reason why this can’t happen elsewhere. Cornwall already has a massive housing shortage thanks to holiday homes, and a depletion of council stock
Before the election, both the Tories and the Lib Dems were courting Cornwall. The Tories even went to the lengths of creating a Cornish shadow-secretary along the lines of the Scottish and Welsh ones. But this, predictably was quietly axed after the election. And the Lib Dems are going to have to do a lot better than Andrew George’s oath in Cornish to keep this one down.
See Keep Cornwall Whole here.
Write to Mike Chappell to offer him your support: Kernow@celticleague.net