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Duchy original: Cornish national consciousness gets stronger by the year

Its political parties may not have enjoyed electoral gains, but that doesn’t mean they’re a failure

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

The Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow (‘sons of Cornwall’) is not contesting any seats in the general election. Its leader of 20 years, Dick Cole, said its members were ‘exhausted’ after their local election campaign — it retained four councillors at ‘County Hall’ (Cornish nationalists always put County Hall in inverted commas, to avoid the inference that the Duchy is a mere county), and were only six votes shy of getting as many seats as Labour. It did not have the resources to fight an election so soon after 2015, when all its candidates lost their deposits.

You might find it less surprising to learn that Mebyon Kernow is not standing than that Cornwall has its own party at all. It is true that the area has a distinct identity: its borders are older than those of any country in western Europe — but that is true of a lot of English counties. The Cornish are, to be sure, more protective of theirs: when the Boundary Commission proposed a new constituency straddling the Devon/Cornwall border, Cole led protests against this attack on its ‘territorial integrity’. Mebyon Kernow has always shunned violence — to the possible disappointment of one of its earliest members, Daphne du Maurier, who wrote that she quite fancied ‘blowing up bridges’ — but it is striking that Cole should use language that would justify the declaration of war. David Cameron’s flippant remark — ‘It’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake’ — was widely reported, and the former prime minister is loathed in much of the Duchy as a consequence. The comic Kernow King — hugely popular in Cornwall, unknown in the rest of the country — describes him as the sort of man who would eat a Ginsters pasty. This is a very grave insult from a Cornishman.

Mebyon Kernow members are not separatists — although there are Cornish separatists, who refer to Cornwall as ‘England’s first colony’ — but they do think of the Tamar as a national border. There is something in this: the Anglo-Saxons never got as far as Cornwall, leaving it to the original Celtic inhabitants, and as late as the Tudor period, the Cornish were thought of as one of the four nations of Britain, along with the Welsh, Scots and English, each speaking their own language. That changed after the Reformation: the new translations of the liturgy were strongly resisted in Cornwall — for Cornish speakers, English was as foreign as Latin, if not more so — but when the Prayer Book Rebellion failed, and the leading Cornish speakers were executed (separatists call it ‘a forgotten genocide’), the Cornish language declined, and with it the idea of Cornwall as a distinct nation.


However, the feeling that the Church of England was an alien imposition later helped Methodism to flourish; consequently the Liberal party — once the political wing of the dissenting chapel — was strong enough to survive through the 20th century. There was a brief wobble during the coalition — in 2012, one Liberal Democrat councillor resigned rather than belong to a party that implicitly supported George Osborne’s ‘insult to the Cornish’, the pasty tax — but even today, most Cornish constituencies are Conservative/Lib-Dem marginals; a Labour canvasser I met in Penzance urged me to vote for Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat candidate. George, the first MP to take his oath of office in Cornish, was a member of Mebyon Kernow in his youth, and that is perhaps the perfect illustration of the distinctiveness of Cornish politics: if you are an ambitious young man who doesn’t want to sacrifice his political career to an unelectable fringe party, you join the Lib Dems.

But if Cornish politics are as distinct from English politics as, say, Scottish politics was for most of the 20th century, Mebyon Kernow has not yet managed to gain a share of the vote higher than 4 per cent — roughly where its fellow left-of-centre nationalists in Scotland and Wales were 60 years ago. And they are not even the smallest party here: the Cornish Nationalist party, a splinter group and rival, has a rather more blood-and-soil flavour of nationalism. The CNP, which spends more time attacking Mebyon Kernow as ‘quislings’ and ‘dolls in the hands of Westminster’ than preparing for government, has only one parish councillor. (The election was uncontested.)

You could come up with any number of reasons for Cornish nationalism not taking off like the SNP, or even Plaid Cymru — the ecological niche where Mebyon Kernow might thrive was already filled by a Cornish franchise of the Liberals; Sir Walter Scott was a better writer than Daphne du Maurier — but really it is difficult to conceptualise the English as foreign oppressors when your economy is dependent on English tourism. (The founder and president of the CNP runs the Trelispen camping and caravan park.) This dependence is double-edged: it prevents Mebyon Kernow from benefiting from a sense of the English as distant, politically and geographically, while it causes the very problems which the national assembly they propose could solve.

Despite the lack of electoral success, it would be a mistake to say that Mebyon Kernow is a political failure. As part of a movement to increase Cornish national consciousness, it is a growing success. One of the forms Cornwall Council sent me when I moved here had a section on ethnic origin: the first tick box was for ‘Cornish’. In surveys about national identity, half the population describe themselves as ‘Cornish, not English’, and a further quarter as ‘More Cornish than English’. The Cornish standard, the Flag of St Piran — a white cross on a black background — was a Mebyon Kernow symbol in the 1960s, but is now seen everywhere: on flagpoles, bumper stickers, company logos, and in supermarket ‘Sourced in Cornwall’ sections; on the discreet lapel badge of the shop assistant in Currys, as well as in the tattoo on his arm. When Jeremy Corbyn proposed bank holidays for Saints George, David and Andrew, but not Piran, it caused outrage.

While it is true that use of the Cornish language is still eccentric — Kernewek fellowship stalls at every big event in Cornwall seem to be entirely staffed by little old men with little white beards who look like Catweazle — it appears on all new road signs, largely because of a Mebyon Kernow campaign. Loveday Jenkin, the deputy leader, brought up her children to be the first in 200 years speaking Cornish as a first language.

Mebyon Kernow’s decision not to fight this election thus seems out of step with other parties of the Celtic fringe, for whom a distinct culture and political identity are grounds for resisting the vote for Brexit. But then again, Cornwall voted overwhelmingly for Leave.

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