Next steps for the Cornish constitutional convention

Philip Hosking
8 November 2009

Though largely unknown by many democratic reformers from around the UK, the Cornish Constitutional Convention and its drive for a Cornish Assembly continue with the release of - The Next Push (pdf).

Following hot on the heals of the Government of Cornwall Bill (pdf) produced by MP Dan Rogerson, the new paper comes at an opportune time. The debate on how to reform the UK's creaking democracy is well under way at POWER 2010. Current suggestions include: the creation of an English Parliament; further devolution to Wales; and, regional devolution within England. Why not throw the idea of a Cornish Assembly (pdf) into the mix once more.

The present starting point for the Convention's call for change is the newly created Cornwall Council. Can this Unitary Authority become a Cornish Assembly? The document's author responds with the following :

It is not difficult to see, or to achieve when the time comes, a set of changes which would enable the Assembly to be developed without any great change in structure. A slimmed Council would become the Assembly, assuming a higher role; the Delivery Areas would be democratised to become the delivery-driven local government of Cornwall, working with the Parishes to deliver services.

Envisaged as part of a wider program of asymmetric devolution, the arguments for Cornwall to be treated as its own region are re-examined and clearly re-stated. Additionally, although sure to irk both English nationalists and English regionalists alike, analysis of previous failed attempts at regionalisation within England can also be found. Take for example the following two extracts:

23. Nobody asked Cornwall if it wished to be subsumed into a macro-south west regional zone. It’s a pity that a Government, flushed with electoral success and reforming zeal, with Wales and Scotland excited by the prospects of devolution, and with a unique opportunity to de-centralise and to invigorate by not being jealous of power and control, did not take a moment to ask around. If it had set about regionalisation by asking for proposals for a regional network that could effectively replace the outworn legacy of World War 2 rationing and munitions supply, which included the enormous and dysfunctional ‘south west’, it would have received some innovative ideas which would have created a patchwork of regions, big and small, some founded on expediency, some upon industrial synergies and one – Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly - founded upon an historical, constitutional and cultural base and with a rapidly emerging will to positively address its growing economic failure and social deprivation.

24. John Prescott, whose energy lay behind the regionalisation thrust, described in his preface to the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, how regions had emerged, like the Potteries in Staffordshire, that were bonded by the cultural forces of certain industries. These, he said, were outmoded, and needed to be replaced by units of a certain size, that could lead regeneration and provide a framework for social renewal. How sad, with hindsight, that Mr Prescott did not see that his discard of what he perceived as being sentiment (but which was actually organic region building) and its replacement with artificial constructs – zones - labelled ‘modern’ - was throwing away a key attribute of any successful region – that it means something to the people whose region it is and who populate it and drive it. By assertively setting aside the past Mr Prescott set the seal on the failure of his initiative to shape the future before it had even started.

Could Cornish devolution be considered as a possibility outside of a wider program of English regionalism? Could it run as a stand alone project? Cornish aspirations for greater home-rule seem to run counter to both devolution to a South West Region and the creation of an English Parliament. To nationalist for the English regionalists and too regionalist for the English nationalists. How best then to navigate the difficult passage between the supporters of English regionalism, those of an English Parliament and general government inertia? Will the message contained in Billy Bragg's homage to Catalonia be taken on-board?

Faced with such a daunting array of opponents perhaps our de jure constitutional status and Cornish identity should be pushed to the fore along side the standard arguments for devolution. An English county alone will not be granted devolution, but a territory inhabited by a national minority and vested with a legal status not dissimilar to a Crown Dependence is another story. Within the document the importance of the Cornish identity as an actor in region building is stressed, but constitutional issues are barely mentioned. This is unusual considering the investigations of MP (and Convention member) Andrew George. Equally surprising is the absence of any mention of the Cornwall European Region of Culture Campaign and its recent progress. One would have thought that, even with its flaws, such an initiative went hand in hand with Cornish regionalism.

What is the 'next push'? 

Taking this document to Cornish civic society and building a large consensus for change are the tasks that lie ahead. Already a number of different political parties and independent politicians support Cornish recognition of one form or another. It's now for them, and other interested parties from the UK, to work with the Convention and engage with both the Cornish and UK public.

I'll leave the last words to the Convention so that their critical question for Kernow's future can be posed here:

85. There is everything to gain from continuing the ‘change agenda’ in Cornwall by setting the objective of forming the Cornish Assembly. It is gain for the UK Government, in terms of more efficient public service delivery and much-improved economic performance. Reputationally, the central government stands to gain much prestige from being seen to be taking an enlightened and open approach to ensuring good governance in a difficult, peripheral region. The empowerment of Cornwall would create self-belief and purpose, which would inspire and ignite creativity and skills, leading to Cornwall regaining her position as a wealth generator, innovator and trading catalyst. The question is simple: ‘Do we dare? And, if we do dare, then can we come together to achieve it? And, if we can come together in Cornwall, then can Westminster and Whitehall rise to the challenge of discarding old, deeply embedded perceptions and looking afresh at how to promote cohesion and productivity through empowering ‘difference’ and releasing the energy of a potently creative community?

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