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Time for Cornwall to step up: interview with the leader of Mebyon Kernow

As the Scottish referendum changes the British constitution forever, is there space for Cornwall? Or will it face the continued destruction of local government?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay Dick Cole
11 September 2014
Dick Cole at manifesto launch small.jpg

Dick Cole - Mebyon Kernow

First, a bit of history. On the 12th of December 2001, a delegation including Mebyon Kernow leader Dick Cole and Lib Dem MP Andrew George presented to 10 Downing Street a declaration which bore the names of more than one in ten Cornish people. It read:

Cornwall is a distinct region. It has a clearly defined economic, administrative and social profile. Cornwall's unique identity reflects its Celtic character, culture and environment. We declare that the people of Cornwall will be best served in their future governance by a Cornish regional assembly. We therefore commit ourselves to setting up the Cornish Constitutional Convention with the intention of achieving a devolved Cornish Assembly - Senedh Kernow

At the time Wales, Northern Ireland, London and Scotland had managed to secure parliaments and assemblies from the new Labour government. They had indicated that they were keen to continue the devolution project in the remainder of the UK. So thousands of people in Cornwall asked that they be next. Their request was denied. Instead, in 2004, Labour held a referendum in the North East region, which slammed the breaks on the devolution process.

A decade after that vote, with the Scottish referendum setting fire to Britain's paperless constitution, I jumped on a train just about as far south as you can go in the UK, to find out what was happening in Cornwall now.

I'd never been to Cornwall before. Perhaps the most important realisation is how cut off it is – it takes longer to get from Oxford to Truro than it does to get from Edinburgh to London. What I found, I have to admit, was a little depressing.

It's not the poverty that upset me. Cornwall is the second poorest place in the UK, and you can tell as much almost as soon as you step off the train in Truro. But I was expecting that. What really got me down, talking to Dick Cole (you can find the whole interview below) was that the movement to bring power closer to communities has moved so far backwards in the last ten years. Whilst Mebyon Kernow had launched a shiny new consultation document on a Cornish Assembly, it was clear how Dick's time is really spent: defending against an all out assault on local government. And, so far, losing.

As he pointed out, more and more bodies are being established to take power away from elected councillors and hand it to bureaucrats. Privatisation shifts control from communities to companies. It ties the people we elect into long term contracts which will outlive any one administration or electoral cycle, meaning that, whoever we vote for, our services will be delivered in the same way, but the same people, their profits protected whilst local politicians are forced to cut other services ever deeper.

In Cornwall, as in many places over the years, local government has been centralised in recent years to cover a population of around half a million people, spread across numerous towns and villages. Perhaps worst of all, Dick has to spend his time as a councillor battling brutal austerity.

What makes all of this most depressing, though, is the reaction. Right wing governments are often said to intentionally underfund public services so that people trust them less and they can be privatised. Dick gives an account of the loss of faith in democracy in Cornwall – how in a time of austerity it feels like a luxury, how people are too quick to support calls to cut the number of councillors, for example. If numbers are cut, he says, and so each representative is given more work, many good councillors will just leave the job. The result, of course, will be a further loss of faith in politics and so a further erosion of democracy will be easier.


Ultimately, this is of profound importance. The over-centralised nature of the British state is impossible to separate from the fact that nine of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe are in the UK. Local democracy is a rare gateway into citizenship – into understanding that working together, we can change the world. If their aim is to alienate people from it then, once it is dismantled, the risk is not that we will lose the fight for its restoration. My fear is that people will have been so disengaged from politics, they will have learnt to hate democracy so much, they will spit on its grave.

There is some hope though. The Scottish debate opens up a space for broader discussion of the make-up of the UK. This is particularly true if it's a yes vote, for that will blow the constitution open. But even if it's a no, Scots will need to focus their energies on securing the significant increase in devolution that has been promised and that a vast majority want. And in these efforts, Scotland need not be alone – there are groups all across the UK working to tug power back off Westminster.

In all of this, Cornwall can probably only play a small part. But as the one recognised nation with a geographical region but not an assembly or parliament in the UK, it has a role in unravelling the blank parchment that is our unwritten constitution and making its mark. And that's all to the good.

 

Interview: Dick Cole

“It's been a hell of a day so far.” Dick tells me as we meet in the canteen of the Cornwall Council building. “I've had a meeting all morning - they're cutting the mobile library service.”

Dick Cole is a tall man with a Cornish accent, an easy charisma and the sort of self depreciating humour that acts as a stab proof vest for those politicians to whom it comes naturally. He's also the leader of Mebyon Kernow – the Party of Cornwall, which describes itself as a “progressive, left-of-centre party in Cornwall” and says it bases its policies on three principles: “prosperity for all, social justice, and environmental protection”. They have four of 123 Cornwall Councillors, 23 town and parish councillors, and a decades old campaign for a devolved Cornish Assembly.

“I had an interest in Cornwall and I kind of got sucked into the Cornish distinctiveness thing” he says, “and I ended up going on the route that was the political rather than the cultural. Other people seemed to focus on the cultural which is great fun whereas I did the politics.

He's led the party since 1997 and in 1999, got himself elected to his district council. A decade later, though, “the local Liberal Democrats and the Labour government... decided to centralise local government in Cornwall... arguing that creating a unitary authority was a stepping stone towards devolution and greater powers, which I would class as, well, either daft if you really believe that, but, it's just total bullshit.”

When this happened, Cole was working as an archaeologist for Cornwall County Council. Because English law prohibits councillors from being employed by the council they sit on, he had to choose between his politics and his career. He went for the former.

And what kind of politics? “Being on the left hand side of the three main London based parties isn't difficult. Go back a few years and the positions now which are deemed left wing would have been criticised then for being right wing.”

“We've always used the term 'left of centre'... Comparing us to Plaid Cymru is very fair... sometimes they call it community socialism. We're well away from the games the Labour party is playing... it's about democracy, its about local banking, it's about environmental protection... Some days, it's really distressing, isn't it... when you've got Ed Balls competing with Osborne on who can upset me the most, it's pretty ghastly”. This politics reflects a turn that the party took to the left in 1979, when the national papers declared “reds blight the Cornish dawn”.

“We were quite radical before, but from then on, it was clearly a very radical party. But... Since then... there's [been] a very solid, left wing basis all the way through, like our commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament is just a given... nuclear weapons, bloody stupid idea: what more to say?”

“It was going very well for us through the 2000s. We were starting to get some district councillors elected. We did very well in the 2007 District Council elections we got 7 members elected across Cornwall, then we got two defections immediately... But then, the district councils were abolished

“So then when we stood for the first unitary election in 2009, 123 seats, we got 3 people elected, the year after, we won a by-election, and in effect, this last election, we stood still unfortunately. So, we're 4 elected.” The party also had five further candidates who came within a hairs-breadth of victory.

The Duchy they serve is famous for beaches and pasties, but to this duo should be added a third word: poverty. Along with West Wales and the Valleys, West Cornwall is one of only two parts of the UK impoverished enough to be eligible for the highest level of EU regional development funding.

“From my perspective, that shows what one of the main problems is – we live in one of the most over-centralised countries in the world, and the two areas with the lowest economic performance are two of the areas furthest away from the centre. That's not a coincidence, it's not a fluke, it just shows that the over-centralised nature of the UK does actually mitigate against economic performance the further from the overheated South East and London...

“Obviously Scotland is very different, but they've got their own institutions, and they've had good fortune, but, that Scotland's economic performance is better than the periphery of England, the periphery of Wales, and, out here in Cornwall. It does... show that economic performance is also about politics, about power.”

Whilst this is a familiar narrative, each story of the impoverishment of an area has its own detail. A lot of the traditional Cornish industries have moved backwards in recent years, he explained. Now, “Cornwall has a lot of service sector stuff, tourism... Our problem is, we've created loads of jobs in the last few years, but we're creating jobs that are poorly paid. Our whole economy is bedded in that low productivity which really does need to change. There's positive things happening, but then again, it is where you're starting from - the people who've got the same degree of poverty as us when you plot them around Europe, it's very stark.”

“We need to get a big debate to actually tackle the over-centralised nature of the UK, the dominance of London, the inappropriate levels of capital investment in the east of the country which freezes money out elsewhere. You listen to Boris Johnson, and he says 'we need more investment in London because we're subsidising the rest of the country'. Rubbish. Because we're so centralised, London exists off the rest of the country. We're subsidising London with our poverty and our low wages whilst those who are lucky enough not to be poor in the South East and London then have enough spare cash to buy a second home in Cornwall.”

“It's just so wrong. Why should a house cost twice as much in one place as another. Why should people fortunate to be in one place automatically have greater chances for wealth than people born in another. Why are those disparities allowed? It does come down to democracy... Historically the focus on London and the South East is just off the scale... The investment in key arts facilitates and museums and you look at the key strategic institutions which get government investment, and where are they all? London, London, London, London...”

One of the problems, he says, is what people outside Cornwall see. “You'll put your TV on at night, you'll have a repeat of a programme called Cornwall by Caroline Quentin, and there will be, 'oh, and here's another lovely view, and here's another lovely view, and, I'll now go and meet some people, so I'll talk to a local wine producer', or, 'I'll go to that nice little boutique estate agent which sells holiday homes', and, it's lifestyle Cornwall. And you contrast that to what we have in our daily lives, and that's life struggle Cornwall.”

“You know, I'm here, with the phone switched on, in the hope that a housing officer will phone me back, who I'm trying to deal with some really serious housing issues, and that is the real contrast which people don't usually see.”

Are holiday homes responsibe for pushing house prices up? “I think, if I'm honest, that house prices going up is more to do with our totally dysfunctional housing market so, it's just one element of it. Here, we get the lowest wages of the United Kingdom, our living costs are higher, well above the average, our house prices are well above the average.”

Because they're rural? “it's rurality... it's... an example I always give is water rates. We've got the most expensive water rates in the country because we're paying for the tidying up of the coast, which falls on the inhabitants, not the visitors that enjoy staying here... We do have higher costs... lower wages, and higher housing costs. And that differential is a real fundamental issue. And then... the council houses were sold off by the Conservatives, so now the majority of the housing in Cornwall is privately owned, you've then got the buy to let market, so that many private sector lets are extortionately high, people can't actually afford, so if you look at the stats about, if you're a poor family, can you afford to put a roof over your head? And once you've got that, you question if you have enough to feed yourself.”

Mebyon Kernow's solution to the concentration of power which Cole blames for this poverty was described in a recent consultation document “Towards a National Assembly for Cornwall”.

“The basis of what we're proposing is a Cornish Assembly with powers similar to what the Scottish Parliament has. That's our starting perspective. Here in Cornwall, that is very ambitious, because the debate we're having in Cornwall is very different to the debate they're having in Scotland. The fact that the movement for greater powers for the people of Scotland is so strong and pronounced, you know, there's people campaigning for a no vote in the referendum, one of the key arguments is “you vote no, we'll give you more powers anyway” so, the SNP, and all the people who are campaigning for independence, they're in a win-win position.

“If people in Scotland vote yes, the implications for the rest of us are absolutely massive in terms of how you re-think the country working. But, at the same time, Scotland's going to get more powers, Wales is getting more powers year on year. Throughout England, people are starting to wake up and say 'we are over-centralised, London, London, London, we need to try and re-balance the UK', here in Cornwall, we're continuing our normal, ongoing campaign. So whatever happens, there's massive implications for democracy and the constitutional future of the whole of the country.”

Cole's party might exist to secure more democracy, but in practice, it is facing the opposite – the erosion of what democratic powers there are at a local level.

On the one hand, he explains how privatisation ties the council into long term contracts, meaning the profits of private companies are protected even as the council faces brutal cuts from Westminster, limiting not jut how much they have to spend, but also what they're allowed to cut. Then there's “the proliferation in England and Cornwall of powers going from elected bodies towards the unelected”. He explains how “economic strategy is now set by the Local Enterprise Partnership and the democratically elected local authorities have to take their strategy and in effect follow it. You've got the Local Nature Partnership, the Health and Wellbeing Board, the Safeguarding Partnership. Infrastructure Boards. They're setting up all these entities which are actually taking away from democratically elected politicians and negating democracy even more.”

In this context, he complains, the response from many has not been to demand the restoration of democracy, but rather to call for there to be fewer politicians. “We used to have 300 odd [councillors]. That got pared down to 123, now you look at the paper and it's like 'Cornwall's got too many councillors. I think that is ridiculous as we have a massive democratic deficit in Cornwall, but because the cuts to services are beginning to hit, suddenly some people are arguing that our local democracy is a luxury”.

“Many of my opponents are saying: 'we've got one council for Cornwall, that's all we need', total lack of ambition, and you talk about more and it's suddenly 'more meaningless tiers, more politicians, you don't want that'... and [Mebyon Kernow's] idea of having four unitary authorities beneath the national assembly, that's come in for a lot of criticism from people outside the party, you know “ah, no, no, this is a waste of money, can't afford it.” what's the point”, and then a knock on of that, you get the members who are very nervous that 'oh, we're losing the debate here. That's weakness, us talking about more politicians, can we pare back the number of politicians' and it really saddens me.”

“I was happy being a district councillor with a full time job and a career. I'm now doing this full time - to represent my community where there's a lot happening with planning and other issues is a full time job plus. And the idea to reduce the number of councillors, I could do that plus a whole load more. I think they're barking mad. You either treat local democracy properly, or it just going to become a farce. And if you try and centralise it more, you're just going to have good councillors walking away, because it's not possible any more. And it's absolutely frightening. The whole austerity agenda is a massive attack on local democracy.”

“The fact that Lib Dems and the Labour party got in and centralised local government, then you've got these people come in with their austerity agenda, then building on that to destroy even more and to totally devalue” he pauses, then adds, for punctuation “so depressed...” and a black laugh.

Why, I wonder, did they specifically opt to copy the Holyrood model, which is now up for so much debate? He quotes Ron Davies:

“Devolution is a process, not an event, and things evolve, and it's about making it work, and things will strengthen... I'm just so positive it's about moving it in the right direction.”

The referendum in Scotland in 1999 asked two questions – should there be a Scottish parliament, and should it have tax varing powers. People answered yes to both, and so Holyrood was established with the ability to vary the base rate of income tax by 3%: a power that has never been used, but which the Scotland Act 2012 extended to 10%. Would Mebyon Kernow want tax varying powers?

“Again, it's the principle. You've probably heard this a million times... 'oh, you don't want to give a democratically elected parliament tax varying powers'. What absolute nonsense. I'm a member of a parish council. We set our own precept and raise tax. What's the problem?...

“There was... an organisation called the [Cornish] Constitutional Convention, and it was quite interesting because it was bringing together people who weren't just Mebyon Kernow and had broad support for devolution and it was interesting, the range of opinions.

“Some people got up and said “full independence, no equivocation”. Obviously the MK lot say “we know what our position is, it's the Scottish model”. A lot of other people there were saying “shouldn't we got for the Welsh Assembly model?”.

“There were a couple of other people, from memory one of them might even have been a Member of Parliament representing the Liberal Democrats, who was arguing, is the Welsh Assembly model too much? Shouldn't it be somewhere between the unitary authority and the Welsh model? Where we are, in the debate in Cornwall, we're quite a long way on from other people who are deemed to be fellow travellers which is, to me, quite depressing. And so quite often people in Cornwall look more towards Wales, but again, how that's evolving since 1999 is massive... because they started at such a low base.”

In general, his approach is not to argue over specific powers, but rather to push for the establishment of an Assembly in the belief that, like the Welsh and Scottish versions, it will gradually accumulate powers once its there. “I'm very pragmatic” he says “but at the same time, I've got a lot of antipathy towards those people who centralised powers, and then claimed it was devolution. Because we live in an era where it's a language of localism, the language of devolution. They're using the words, and they are betraying what they actually mean, doing the exact opposite. They're centralising in the name of localism.”

This principle makes sense to me, but it does beg another question – what's the end point? Is there any power he wouldn't want for a Cornish Assembly?

“I don't have an end point, I'll be quite honest. The context in Cornwall is very different to Scotland, very different to Wales... My end point will be when I run out of energy.”

And how does the Scottish referendum impact on Cornwall and on Mebyon Kernow?

“From an MK perspective, the independence agenda is really great for us. Because there is this summer a really big focus on people making their own decisions about the future direction of their country. At the moment, it's about Scotland but... whatever happens, there's going to be more powers heading in the direction of Scotland, and then how that happens for the rest of the United Kingdom, whether that's the remainder of the UK or the UK with Scotland still in it but in a more powerful position, there has to be a grown up debate about the future governance of the whole of the UK.

“Cornwall has to be at the centre of that debate if we can. But it's not just about Scotland and Wales and Cornwall. The regions of England as well, those furthest away from the South East and London.

And are people in Cornwall following the Scottish referendum? Is it coming up on the doorstep?

“Not as much as it should be. I think it's fair to say the discussions locally, a lot of the things they'll be talking about is the proliferation of wind farms in my area, and they'll be talking about the threat to the mobile library bus...housing”.

In the circles he moves in, it is widely discussed though, he says, and people in Cornwall are interested in Cornish devolution. It's not entirely a coincidence that Mebyon Kernow's report came out when it did, in the run up to Scotland's referendum.

And how would a yes vote affect Cornwall?

“What is a United Kingdom going to look like minus Scotland? Losing one of the most progressive bits of the country, you know, voting patterns, one of the two most progressive areas in the UK, what [impact] that has for longterm policy, what that has for the likelihood of debates – like this debate, devolution, powers, where they should lie. It's almost like, the debate's moving on, but then, the people in power... could be the people statistically most likely to be opposed to those sorts of movement.”

And how would he vote?

“Some people from Cornwall are saying “oh, vote yes” and posting things everywhere. I've always declined from doing that. But If I was Scottish and I had the same sort of views as I do down here, I can't see any way I wouldn't be voting yes. But, you know, the important thing is that it's a great opportunity for the people of Scotland to make the decision, and for those of us outside Scotland to see how their debate about democracy can be used to democratise the rest of the UK in a positive way.”

How, then, is Mebyon Kernow going to turn the Scottish referendum into a UK-wide debate on the distribution of power?

“The people in power who have sympathy are not in the majority. If there was a different government after the election, statistically, there's only going to be one of two people likely to be Prime Minister. And what the Labour party is saying given my experience of their centralising influence when they were last in power, I don't have any faith that they're going to come forward with anything meaningful, which is scary. They talk about devolution, they talked about English regionalism last time. They were dismissive of what Cornwall sent to them. And now they're talking about councils working together as regional power houses. Which, again, it doesn't seem very democratic.

So, I ask him, how are we gonna make them?

“it's never an easy answer, it's just continuing to campaign and campaign and campaign.”

I suggest we should try to persuade Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, to call a constitutional assembly.

“I know Leanne made a speech the other day about the progressive parties, from Plaid to the Greens, and she name-checked MK, and... the Greens in there, these people need to be making the ground, and hoping the others will see the sense in it.”

A Mori Poll in 2002 showed 55% support for a Cornish Assembly – what would that figure be now?

“I would hope it would be positive. I think sadly, the standing of politicians and the standing of democracy has been negated in the meantime because of what's happened with the centralisation of local government in Cornwall, the cuts, the extra scandals at Westminster over the last 10 years, I think the standing of democracy as a whole has slipped back horrifically, that's something we've got to address. And I think some of the positives coming out [include] the fact that they're having such a positive debate in Scotland, you've got so many people coming out, you've got people like Jim Sillars going head to head with George Galloway in debate... that's fantastic!... We're just on a different plane at the moment from the debate in Scotland.”

A key part of that debate in Scotland has been discussion of what people think an empowered Scottish parliament would do. What would Dick's first action be if he were swept to power as the first Cornish First Minister?

“You go for the obvious left wing choices to show the positive things which can be done in a democracy” is the most I can get out of him.

One other thing he does highlight, though is that “in Cornwall, we're always deemed to be part of somewhere different. We're a small part of the wider South West.... Making Cornwall the whole... is the issue. At the moment, people in South East Cornwall, for example, most of their health service is in Devon.”

Presumably, I ask, it's in Devon because that's where the closest hospital would be? Isn't there an argument that that's a more practical way to run it, if you live nearer Plymouth than you do Penzance?

“There is indeed” he replies “but then it's a question about investment in service and who pays for what and all the rest of it. So there are some real fundamentals we have to grapple with. So as well as taking our broad manifesto – protections of public services, ending privatisation, etc, the idea of Cornwall as an entity actually being the focus, being the economic focus, being the cultural focus, stopping institutions based in Bristol making decisions about Cornwall. Let's everything happen in Cornwall.

“Why should we as Cornish taxpayers be paying money that then pays a bureaucrat in Bristol to then liaise with other bureaucrats in London to define what happens in Cornwall? These officials should be in Cornwall, working with the Cornish government, working with the local councils. They should be living here. They should be getting paid locally. They should be staying in the economy. That money should be circulating continually actually boosting the Cornish economy. And so... I think the big challenge is to get that broad picture, and actually make it work. And actually end these decades and decades of centralisation.”

The Scottish referendum isn't, of course, the only matter at hand – there's also the small question of the coming 2015 elections. Traditionally, Cornwall has been a Lib Dem stronghold. Will people here abandon Clegg's party post-coalition and turn to Cole's?

“[it's a] big question, how well will they do. Obviously in the last election, it was “vote Liberal Democrat, we're the only ones to stop the Tories. The word that went out was very strong. I contested St Austell and Newquay. The amount of literature the Lib Dems put out, the amount of phone canvassing was off the scale... I got 4.3%, which, given the work I put in, my track record, my community, it's not a great result.”.

I disagree. In 2010, most candidates from small parties went backwards. Because people anticipated a close run election between Labour and the Tories, very few people outside the main parties got more than 4%.

“but the thing is” Dick says “the Lib Dem literature, it really slammed the Tories. It had Paddy Ashdown saying 'the last time Tories were in, with their evil horns, they did this, and they destroyed that'. They even described the Tories as anti-Cornish. You name it, within like a week, they're in bed with them. The guy in my area [Stephen Gilbert] when we had the debates, we were both more left wing than the Labour candidates. And then, after the election, within ten days, he's actually a whip for Cameron.

“The dynamic is that Labour is throwing a lot of effort into Camborne and Reduth. So there you've got George Eustice, government minister, ex-Liberal MP trying to come back [Julia Goldsworthy], then you've got another guy who's someone who's been working in the media, working in Cornwall for a number of years, but then, because of the business, I understand he's well connected, so he's actually powering a lot of money into the Labour campaign in the area. But I think, everywhere else, the Labour challenge is weak. And then there's all the other parties. And so the perception of people in Cornwall is that we're always going to end up with a Liberal or a Tory, and, so, how many people say “well, I voted Liberal last time to stop the Tories and it didn't work. And, all this stuff about mitigating the worst effects of the Tories, I sure as hell haven't seen that, and so are people gonna say, 'I didn't believe it, I'm going to vote where my true conscience is, even if I know I'm probably not going to get an MP'? It could be interesting.

There isn't one particular seat they are planning on targetting this time, which surprises me. In 1997, the Green Party got 2.6% in Brighton Pavlion. It took 13 years to win it from there. A focussed effort can win a small party an MP.

I start making this point to him, and he cites, from memory, the Green results in Brighton in the last few elections. But he insistst MK are in a different situation. Dick himself got 87% at the last local election across his division – surely he's in a good position to pick up former Lib Dem votes? Usually, in public at least, politicians like to project an image of confidence. Not Dick. He outlines how hard it is to win anything when people follow the elections through a national media which ignores small parties. “I don't want that to sound negative, it's just my understanding”.

As before, he references the Green Party, so I ask him more about it – he held a joint press conference with Green leader Natalie Bennett before the European elections about support for a Cornish Assembly, and the two parties had co-operated in the past. In 2009, though, they ran their own list, across the whole of the South West (because that's the region), and beat Labour across Cornwall.

I ask his view on more formal collaborations with Greens or other political groups in the future.

“In terms of what I've done politically over 15 years, I've done a lot of things where it's been about bringing people together. In 1997, when I got elected leader of MK, the first speech I made was where I argued for a cross party Cornish Constitutional Convention to bring people together to build for a Cornish Assembly. That was the first speech I made as leader. I then proactively got out there, we tried to set something up called the Millennium Convention

“We did get the Constitutional Convention going. Got people from other parties involved in it. But a lot of people who were there saying the right things really haven't delivered. Have really let the side down. You know, they've talked the arguments, and then been part of the process of centralising local government. And so maybe it's fair to say I'm a little bit jaded. Because I've been there, I've been so inclusive trying to pull people in different directions, and I think sometimes it's actually been at the expense of the political party I lead.”

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