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.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.