Stuart Wilks-Heeg asks whether ‘reduce and equalise’ is a solution in search of a problem. What is certain is that in the case of Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, Anglesey and no doubt others, the ‘solution’ creates enough problems of its own.
Wight and Anglesey are both islands – you don’t even have to know anything about them other than population to see that joining all or part with another area is going to be an issue. In the case of Cornwall though, those unfamiliar with the Duchy might wonder what we are fussed about.
The most obvious argument is about democracy and localism: whether or not you believe we should have separate representation we in Cornwall do believe it. Therefore it follows that, provided we are not asking for more than anyone else, we should get it. Personally I would much rather be‘under-represented’ with 5 MPs than ‘fairly represented’ with 5 plus a shared one.
Apart from that we could start with geography and the river – 'it’s the Tamar not the Amazon for heaven’s sake’, said David Cameron. True enough, since the Amazon was only ‘discovered’ by Europeans 500 years ago, whilst the Tamar has been a European political boundary for more than twice that time. It was fixed as the boundary between shire-county England and Celtic Cornwall in a treaty between King Athelstan of Wessex and King Hywel of Cornwall in 936AD.
Then there’s economics: Cornwall was recognised by the EU as a region for the granting of first Objective One status, and then Convergence funding – recognising its specific economic plight. The employment patterns and nature of the poverty are quite different than in Devonshire, and particularly Plymouth.
Next there’s culture – Cornwall has its own resurgent language, its own traditions, its own Celtic nature. Cornwall, like Wales and Brittany, has a ‘Gorsedd’ – a meeting of Bards to celebrate that culture. I don't know of any other 'English' counties where 37% of School Children prefer another alternative [Cornish] to British or England when questioned on their ethnic identity.
As for history: the Blacksmith An Gof led the Cornish Rebellion of 1497; Cornwall lost 10-11% of its population in the post prayer-book rebellion slaughters of 1548; 20,000 Cornishmen marched to free Bishop Trelawney in 1688. These are key events in the history of Cornwall, relatively unfamiliar to anyone from outside the Duchy but widely known and remembered within it.
And then finally politically: Cornwall and Devonshire have separate councils, different voting patterns, even different political parties. Central government’s tendency towards ‘Devonwall’ or 'South West' regional governmental institutions in recent years have always been of great concern, since Cornwall tends to lose out. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, Cornwall has a quite distinct constitutional position as a Duchy with various rights and privileges still existent.
Therefore by laying down a hard and fast ‘5% rule’ the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill effectively says that you can take economics, politics, history, culture and geography and over-rule them all with Mathematics – no discretion, no balancing of factors, nothing is more important than the equations.
If mathematics is the only important factor than why the exception for the Western Isles? Why Orkney and Shetland? Why, for that matter 5% rather than 0%? Let’s take it to its logical conclusion and draw lines down the middle of streets (nay houses!) if numbers truly are the only important thing.
Indeed, let us ask why we bother to have community-based representation in the first place – it can’t just be for reasons of geographical convenience in this age of electronic communication. Why not move to representation by age groups or indeed hair colour? The answer, clearly, is that MPs represent coherent communities – communities that naturally fit together, and yes that does mean accepting some little numerical disparity. But then I don’t need to tell the government that, and they obviously accept it in the case of the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland. Unless of course they are saying that it is purely geography that binds those areas together?
It has been said that current guidance to the Boundary Commission is ‘unclear’, perhaps due to the mix of economic, political, geographic, historical, cultural and mathematical considerations that I favour. This is true to a point, but the reason for having a professional Commission is for them to use their judgment, rather than to simply apply hard and fast rules. No single factor is the only important thing – it’s a question of balance, a balance that requires this professional judgment to make it work.
Adam Killeya is the Mayor of Saltash, Cornwall.