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Drop the cynicism – Cornwall’s national minority status should be welcomed

News that the British government has accepted Cornwall as a national minority may be a cynical attempt to win a couple of marginal seats, but it should be welcomed.

Josiah Mortimer
27 April 2014

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Cornish politics, including nationalist politics, is a strange beast. It ranges from would-be-terrorists who demand English flags be removed, to those who envy the SNP’s success and seek to imitate a progressive patriotism (to steal a phrase from Billy Bragg). But speaking as a ‘naturalised’ Cornishman myself, the news that Cornwall has been given ‘national minority’ status under the Council of Europe's 'Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities' is one which, despite some caveats, should be welcomed.

The caveats are worth mentioning, of course. Firstly, Cornwall is one of the most impoverished counties in the country – and famously the only to receive the EU’s ‘Objective One’ funding for ‘undeveloped’ regions. It has one of the highest house price-to wage ratios, a source in itself of much anti-English ‘immigrant’ (or emmet, in Cornish dialect) hostility. This in itself has prompted calls for extra hotel taxes and second-home expropriations.

Policies like the bedroom tax (and austerity in general) have hit Cornwall hard, with 61% of those hit by the policy in the county falling into arrears – prompting the council to send over Christmas thousands of fairly-offensive ‘Pay Your Rent Before It’s Spent’ newsletters. Meanwhile, just 14% of the bedroom tax relief fund has actually been spent.

My own city of Truro – the only Cornish city, by virtue of its Cathedral – is now the third most expensive in the country, while thousands linger on the minimum wage in the county’s main sectors of tourism (when it’s not raining), retail, and hospitality – from pasty shops to pubs and B&Bs. But with little progressive or trade union tradition, there’s scant pressure to radically alter Cornish society – except, perhaps, to abolish the outdated model of the Duchy which grants immense land and inheritance rights to the Duke of Cornwall.

But politics, as always, partly explains the government’s unexpected decision. Cornwall is a firmly Lib Dem/Conservative swing area – there hasn’t had a Labour MP in many years, and only then confined to the deprived Camborne & Redruth constituency. Are the Conservatives eying up the three Lib Dem seats – all of which rest on slender majorities? Just 6000 extra votes could bring all three to the Tories. Needless to say, the Lib Dems aren’t too popular in the county at present, despite narrowly taking control of the council in a coalition last year, so an all-Tory Cornwall is a theoretically plausible outcome, while the Tories are desperately trying to see off an insurgent UKIP threat – the party won six seats on the council last year, while left-wing Cornish nationalists Mebyon Kernow sadly won just four (although encouragingly, the Greens won their first ever unitary seat, in St Ives).

The decision to grant Cornwall national minority status doesn’t give it any extra funding, desperately needed both culturally and economically. But it does add gravitas to a welcome £120,000 given to the Cornish Language Partnership recently to promote the on-going revival, while it opens up possibilities for easier grant applications through the EU and other bodies. At the same time, Bewans Kernow, a local charity, has just been granted £40k to increase community cohesion and boost knowledge of Cornish culture.

It’s easy to be cynical, especially about coalition decisions. But, caveats aside, the move should be welcomed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it grants Cornwall an automatic right to consultation over government policies, as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already receive. With all the social problems Cornwall has, this is undoubtedly a positive.

But, more sentimentally, it recognises an identity that is already there and one which, with no real right-wing nationalist grouping in the county, is relatively benign. There’s no real push for separation (even Mebyon Kernow reject independence), but there is a sense of community and uniqueness. 84,000 people declared themselves Cornish in the 2011 census, while thousands celebrate St Piran’s Day (treated as a bank holiday by many organisations in the Duchy), Trevithick’s Day, Flora Day and a whole raft of other festivities. There’s the language – now seeing somewhat of a revival, with Cornish-language nurseries and classes springing up all over – as well as the food, the folk scene, the surfing, the accent and even the tartan, however ugly it might be...

But more than anything, there’s a sense of pride, despite the odds. And although Benedict Anderson was right when he said that all national identities are to some extent ‘imagined communities’ rooted in myth, does it really matter? For now, I’m proud to be an adopted member of that imagined community – a collective in an individualistic age, or as the county’s motto goes – ‘Onen hag oll’. One and all.

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