Matt Cardy
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The UK's forgotten devolution movement

Cornwall wants more powers, and some are looking to Scotland and Wales for inspiration. 

“Into the 1960s both the Scottish and Welsh nationalists were considered a laughing stock, and not just by the English,” writes Matthew Engel in Engel’s England. “So it might be wise not to be too dismissive of the Cornish.”

It is not only those north of the River Tweed, or in Wales, who are hoping to gain more power from Westminster. In 2014, the Cornish were granted minority status, entitling them to the same rights as the Welsh, Scottish and Irish to be protected against discrimination. In George Osborne’s last budget, Cornwall gained greater powers over health, transport, skills and business support.

So something may be stirring in Cornwall. “In the last 15-20 years there’s been a real rekindling of interest in Cornish language, culture and Cornish history,” observes George Eustice, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth.

More signs are in Cornish, and the Saint Piran's Flag is an increasingly common sight in houses and cars in the Duchy. In 2001, in response to Labour’s call for "regions" to ask for devolution, 50,000 Cornish, a tenth of the county, signed declarations in support of a National Cornish Assembly.

In Camborne I meet Steve Richardson, chair of the local party branch of Mebyon Kernow, which describes itself as the Party for Cornwall. He was also a candidate in the last general election.

There are two things immediately noticeable about Richardson: the Cornish Pirates rugby shirt he is wearing and, more surprisingly, the thick West Midlands drawl to his accent. Richardson only moved to Cornwall in 2008.

“We just wanted to get involved in the local community. I became interested in politics for the first time and that’s why I joined Mebyon Kernow,” Richardson tells me. “Mebyon Kernow is very inclusive. Quite often people think of Cornish nationalism as being about Cornwall for the Cornish – it's not, it's all about Cornwall for the people of Cornwall, wherever they're from.”

Like many in Mebyon Kernow, Richardson has watched events in Scotland closely and admits to “supporting” the yes campaign. And there are some clear parallels between Mebyon Kernow and the SNP. Both claim not to be motivated by winning greater powers, but using it for progressive ends.

“We want Cornwall to be self-determining but we also want to create social justice,” Richardson says.

Mebyon Kernow’s case for giving Cornwall greater powers rests on three parts. First, Richardson argues that Cornwall’s Celtic culture is “really distinctive” from the rest of England, and needs to be recognised as such.

“Cornwall’s a country for a start, rather than a county,” he says. “People in England just don't understand it. I never understood it till I moved here and started doing some research. Cornwall is a separate nation, just like Wales is, just like Scotland is. It’s England’s first colony in a way and we're still here under colonial rule.”

“A massive democratic deficit,” also motivates Mebyon Kernow and Richardson. “Per person we're actually massively under-represented by elected politicians”.

The problem with that argument, of course, is Mebyon are arguing for more politicians – and there is already one councillor in Cornwall for every 4,000 people. 

The third argument for greater powers rests on the Duchy's history of being left behind”, as Richardson puts it. “Cornwall has got the worst economy in the UK. We think we can do better, we think we can contribute more so why not be able to do that?” As I recently explored, if Cornwall were a country, it would be poorer than Lithuania and Hungary.

Yet, 64 years after it was formed, Mebyon Kernow is still waiting for its electoral breakthrough. The party has only four of Cornwall’s 123 councillors, even if this is more than the Greens or Ukip have in the county.

“It’s a big frustration. Part of the problem is we haven’t got the resources that the big Westminster parties have in terms of money or volunteers and members and we just don't get access to the media in any meaningful way,” Richardson says. “We need to set our own battleground to campaign in a different way and we need to be able to get our message our a lot better. Everything's stacked up in favour of the Westminster parties – and that's for us to break down.”

Perhaps Mebyon Kernow’s moment might never come. Either way, its 600 members, over one per cent of the county's population, are not easily deterred.

“We want an Assembly that's got more powers than Wales – perhaps more like the Scottish Parliament, which is a much better model,” Richardson says. “Who knows, it could be five, 10, 15 or 20 years? Look at the speed of events in Scotland – things can turn on a sixpence. You never know what's going to spark something. It could be that it never happens.” 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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