Cornwall’s majority Leave vote in the EU referendum came as one of last year’s biggest ironies. In 2014, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly was classed as the second poorest region in northern Europe, and had become one of the EU’s biggest beneficiaries. The European Regional Development Fund’s and European Social Fund’s Objective One and Convergence plans aimed at equipping the region’s transport, ICT infrastructure and innovation capacities with hundreds of millions of Euros between 2000-2013.
If you take Cornwall’s burgeoning movement for a regional assembly at face value, the Leave vote would seem like a case in point for those who believe that Brexit was less about economics and much more about British identity and culture. The anti-immigration tone of the Leave campaign brought urgent debate to the question of what, exactly, constitutes “Britishness” and British culture. Yet moving away from Europe may well pose a threat to some of the few aspects of British culture that we can agree are truly indigenous – its ancient languages. It is European frameworks that in recent decades have prompted support to minority language survival efforts.
There’s a Cornish saying that goes: “A man who loses his tongue has lost his land.” Cornish and Welsh are living examples of how this has worked, as the original Brittonic languages that gave way to English after the Anglo-Saxons took hold across the British mainland and shaped these islands’ nations and regions as we understand them today. Their survival is intimately connected to local self-determination. While Welsh, Irish and the Scottish Celtic language Gaelic have gained substantial recognition and usage along with devolved governance, the revival of Cornish has been a harder battle.
A Cornish language revival movement has brought the number of fluent speakers from practically zero at the beginning of the 20th century, to around 500 today. Yet the protection of the language in recent years has been driven more by European initiatives than by British government. Campaigners now fear that Brexit, ironically enough, will close off lifelines to the language’s survival.
In 2001, the United Kingdom ratified the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which includes recognition and protections for Cornish, Manx Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Scots, Ulster-Scots, and Irish. The Council of Europe is not an EU body, and we will remain an eligible member for as long as we are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR). But Theresa May has long wanted Britain to abandon this, and Brexit is providing the political conditions to question it. In February this year, a cohort of 53 human rights lawyers and experts led by rights organisation 89up were alarmed enough to write an open letter to the Observer asking ministers to ensure that acceding the ECHR remain a condition of Brexit negotiations.
Britain’s membership of the EU paved the groundwork for the recognitions and funding that British minority languages receive today. Quintessentially bureaucratic as it sounds, it was the European classification of Cornwall as a distinct region – rather than merely being part of the collectively richer South-West England – that allowed the EU’s Objective 1 and Convergence funding to flow that way. This in turn strengthened a bid to the European Social Fund (ESF) to set up MAGA Kernow, the Cornish Language Office, which sets out a strategy for the development of the language for the coming years, through initiatives such as classes, broadcasting, and place names. In 2010, ESF funds matched UK government funding of £120,000 towards the protection of the language.
It took until 2014 for the UK government to officially recognise Cornish people and their language as a distinct entity, and it is yet to put in place legislation similar to the Welsh Language Act. Soon after the Brexit vote, the Autumn 2016 budget abruptly ended its funding commitment to the Cornish language. In response to a petition garnering over 10,000 signatures, the Department for Communities and Local Government stated that they have “always been clear that its funding … was time-limited,” and that Cornwall Council should reallocate funds from its budget. Loveday Jenkin, councillor for Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish Nationalist Party and longtime language campaigner, disputes this. She claims that Cornwall Council had been assured of continued funding, but then government “took that out at the last minute.”
Independent councillor Julian German says, “We were asked to re-apply for the renewal of the funds, and were informally assured that the funding would come through the DCLG. But when the budget came out, the funds weren’t there.” In March 2017, the Council of Europe urged the government to reconsider the decision, and recommended establishing BBC support for the language.
Membership of the EU affords several opportunities to support minority languages, whether as part of regional development funds or as direct cultural bids. In 2015, Creative Europe funded Hinterland/Y Gwyll for the second time, a bilingual Welsh/English TV series distributed in 30 countries and Netflix. Further opportunities for support to the languages come from the new Erasmus+ youth and culture fund, as well as Truro’s submission this year for 2023 European City of Culture, on behalf of the region of Cornwall. British cities are eligible to apply until 2019; as a non-EU country after this, we’re unlikely to be marked as a priority.
The biggest fear from campaigners is that, despite rising nationalist sentiment country-wide, multiculturalism is viewed only in terms of foreignness. “Are we interested in multiculturalism and linguistic diversity?” asks independent councillor German. “Or are we looking to a future of a monoglot country?” There’s an argument that Brexit brings a contemporary opportunity to retrieve and redefine a lost understanding of Britishness. If so, this needn’t necessarily even be regressive or overly traditionalist. But despite these claims, without the prompting and support of common European frameworks, there’s little evidence that British cultural diversity will flourish in Brexit Britain.