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The UK’s forgotten devolution movement

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

By Tim Wigmore

“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.

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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.” 

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