Matt Cardy
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The real Cornwall: a county poorer than Lithuania and Hungary

Food banks, domestic abuse and poverty in David Cameron's favourite holiday destination. 

At 10am Redruth is a quiet place, its narrow streets bereft of life. The food bank is different.

Dave, a former soldier, waited a week to notify the Department for Work and Pensions about moving in with his partner. His benefits were suspended, and, until they are restored, Dave has had to resort to picking up food parcels here. “I wouldn’t turn to crime but some people have no alternative. I don’t really know how I’d survive without this,” he says. “You know what they say about Redruth? It used to be the richest part of Cornwall and now it’s the poorest.”

Dave’s story is not unusual. In December, 2,095 people used Redruth’s food bank – a record high. "Seventy per cent of the people here are one pay packet away from poverty," says Mike, who works in the food bank.

Debt and benefit delays or sanctions are particularly common reasons for people to use the food banks at Redruth or Camborne, which is three miles away. A new food bank has also opened in Pool, situated halfway between the two, because “clients found it difficult to fund the bus into Camborne or Redruth”, explains Don Gardner, who runs the food banks. When he opened the food banks six years ago, he envisaged they would only have a life as a crisis service for two years.

Only 40 miles away lies Polzeath, where David Cameron has holidayed every summer since 2010. Yet while the Prime Minister enjoys Cornwall’s alluring beaches, the scene in Redruth provides a better reflection of the county today. Cornwall is England's poorest county. If it were a country, it would be poorer than Lithuania and Hungary.

The constituency that includes the two small towns of Camborne and Redruth is Cornwall's largest urban area. It has been “shunned by the professional classes, and has poor educational attainment and low aspirations”, says Oliver Baines, the chief executive of the charity Cornwall Foundation.

“I always hate it when Camborne and Redruth become the butt of jokes, which does happen. I find that very annoying,” George Eustice, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, tells me. “It’s a low wage economy – a lot of people are on the minimum wage.”

Trevor Chalker, the mayor of Camborne, observes: “For many people, 50 per cent of their earnings are going just to put a roof over their head before they buy food.”

Such strains feed into wider problems, including domestic abuse. “The Camborne, Pool and Redruth areas have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country and this may be the cause of the high levels of domestic violence,” says Sally Piper, the chief executive of Skoodhya Limited, a Cornish charity tackling domestic abuse.

Eustice adds: “Some primary schools tell me that up to 40 per cent of children in their schools have some kind of intervention from the social services or local authority.”

When I visit Camborne, one part of the town is heaving with activity: the local Wetherspoons. It is a Tuesday evening, which, as one couple tells their children as they arrive, means only one thing: “steak night”. The pub was only opened in 2011 – “a sort of vote in the confidence in the town”, Eustice says – and over 100 people are crammed in to enjoy the food and selection of ciders.

This branch of Wetherspoons has made an effort to be more homely than most: on the walls hang old photos of the area. These pictures have taken on a rather nostalgic quality, documenting the area’s descent from its position as an international mining hub. Between 1820 and 1840, an area of land near Redruth produced so much copper that it was known as "the richest square mile in the old world". And in the late nineteenth century, Cornwall produced 80 per cent of the world’s copper. Until the last tin mine closed in 1998, they provided jobs-for-life for those who wanted them. Now all that is left is the area’s status as a mining world heritage site.

Romanticising the hard lives of miners should be avoided. Indeed, when I meet Eustice in the Wetherspoons, he is greeted by an ex-miner pursuing a compensation claim into damage he suffered working in the mines. Yet mining gave this part of west Cornwall an identity and provided work for thousands who did not go down to the mines.

A two-minute walk from Camborne station, past a rather unkempt overpass, lies the barren old home of CompAir Holman, a mining and equipment company that once employed around 3,000 people in the area.

“I remember as a lad 90 per cent of students after college would go into work allied to the mining industry,” reflects Chalker, who went to the college of engineering at Camborne School of Mines. He likens the impact of the collapse of mining to “Canary Wharf disappearing overnight in London”.

The secure jobs lost have never been replaced. Today, as in Cornwall generally, Camborne and Redruth’s problem is less one of unemployment but underemployment – a large proportion of people are engaged in low-skill or part-time work, such as in agriculture or the declining fishing industry, which is often seasonal too. What has happened is “definitely relative decline”, Eustice says. “Confidence was broken when the mining industries went in the Eighties and it's been difficult to get that back.”

Yet there is a sense that no one has quite noticed: the image of Cornwall as the charming seaside duchy is not eroded easily. It is true that considerable sums have been invested in regenerating Cornwall since the collapse of the mining industry, including by the EU, but basic symptoms of neglect remain: the 95 miles from Exeter to Camborne take over two and a half hours by train.

The modern world has not been Cornwall’s friend: the proliferation of low-cost flying means that families who would once have spent their summers in Cornwall often now travel to France or Spain instead. Meanwhile, many of the county’s most talented and ambitious young people move away. “Lots of people who go to university tend to stay away,” Chalker laments. “What is there to come back for?”

Perhaps the internet will provide one answer. About 95 per cent of properties in Cornwall are now able to access fibre-optic superfast broadband, after funding from BT, the EU and Cornwall Council. The hope is this broadband will make Cornwall into a tech hub.

“It breaks down that barrier of being a peninsula a long way away from the rest of the country,” Eustice says, envisaging that people will “get the Cornish lifestyle without having to downshift and accept a compromise on their income.” Still, the digital sector remains “a tiny part of the economy, in spite of all the hype”, as Baines reflects.

Some also believe that granting Cornwall more autonomy can help to transform the region. The Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow would like a parliament as powerful as the Scottish Parliament. Even many of those who do not agree think Cornwall could be empowered.

This year, George Osborne announced plans to give Cornwall greater control over health, transport, skills and business support, although the deal still fell well short of the powers Cornwall Council had requested. “I see that as a beginning,” Eustice says, though no one pretends devolution is a panacea. Chalker “would have great reservations if powers were all shifted to Cornwall overnight as to the ability of our councillors to handle that power with efficiency”.

Even in the most deprived areas of Cornwall, the St Piran's flag flies proudly: a mark of the pride people feel in the Cornish life and also, perhaps, a show of quiet defiance against feeling shunned by the rest of the UK.

“We seem to be forgotten down this way,” Dave laments back in the Redruth food bank. “We seem to be pushed out because we're a long way out the way.” 

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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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder