Bitter together


In the elephants’ graveyard  of mid-evening Radio 4 I came upon a group discussion about Scottish independence. Conducted by James Naughtie it was reasoned, frank and fascinating, with different interest groups but with no grandstanding politicians. It was far the best item on that complex subject I’ve heard and brought out the genuine perplexity many Scots feel about the subject, the attraction and the fear, the lure of self-government against the security of the Union. During the debate someone said in passing that he didn’t think other Celtic nations like the Cornish spent much time imaging themselves as an independent nation.

Oh no?

Most young Cornish people have spent at least one evening fantasising about how it would be if the Cornish controlled their own destiny. There’s no shortage of resentment when we consider how Cornwall is generally regarded by the English  –  a nice place to park their bottoms in the sun for a couple of weeks, even keep an empty cottage, but whose deep and serious crises of employment, wages and housing, forcing generation after generation to leave in search of a decent future, mean nothing. Cornwall gets the rag-end of English funding and development, and attempts to assert any kind of separate cultural difference are met with amusement and patronisation. However it’s a long way from there to “Would there was the sea from Rame to Marsland … and Cornwall was some island in the ocean.” in the words of Richard Gendall (“Silver Net”).

The anonymous Scotsman might have been surprised to learn just how many organisations have flirted with the idea of Cornish independence. We’ve had our own clutch of bonkers extremists, such as:

-The Cornish Nationalist Party – 1970s brainchild of Dr James Whetter, offshoot of Mebyon Kernow, who published their own newspaper for a while but seem to have quietened down.

–  The An Gof Society, inspired by the famous Cornish insurrectionary of 1497, who modelled themselves on the IRA to the point of actually bombing St Austell Courthouse in 1980 and firebombing an innocent hairdresser’ shop in Penzance thinking it was a branch of the Bristol & West.

–  The Cornish National Liberation Army, later the Cornish Republican Army, who seem to have modelled themselves on the revolutionaries in “The Life of Brian”.

These were all fanatically chauvinistic, anti-English splinter groups, probably numbering no more than fifty people between them. The more thoughtful Cornish patriots have Mebyon Kernow, a grounded political party short of firebrands but diligent and persistent with a solid list of achievements and several local councillors. Cornish independence isn’t on their agenda, nor is it a stated aim of Gorsedd Kernow, who hold the cultural heart of Cornwall together. Then there’s the Pan-Celtic League… Breton musician Alan Stivell promoted the idea of the nation of Keltia, the entire Celtic diaspora, and would describe a trip to Scotland, for example, as “visiting the north part of my country.”

Closer to earth is the ongoing campaign for a Cornish Assembly. This campaign – Seneth Kernow – has been going since 2000 and is also not pressing for separation or full independence. Their platform is for a form of devolution, a governing body to represent Cornwall internally and externally, among the British nations, Europe and the world.  However they have to escape from the benighted shadow of the Cornish Assembly we already have, Cornwall Council.

Cornwall Council is a different kettle of fish altogether. Forced in as a Unitary Authority by a confidence trick, its four-year history has been one of almost unmitigated calamity. It struggles with a virtually impossible remit, to administer the long streak of loveliness that is Cornwall with fairness and justice while being strangled almost to death by the tiniest trickle of government funds. But even allowing for that it has performed miserably. Its short history is riven with cock-ups, party political in-fighting, deep criticism of the lack of democracy and openness of its 10-member cabinet, mindless obstinacy in the face of serious local concerns, accusations of self-interest, centralism, incompetence, and occasionally worse. How would a Cornish Assembly differ? What kind of body can balance the needs of Launceston against those of St Just; fishing versus conservation; mining versus the environment; etc etc? The Cornish have a long history of being ungovernable, in which there’s no small element of pride. We love our independence, but where it starts and stops is as live a question in Cornwall as it is in Scotland, though with no foreseeable deadline to meet.

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