Why Cornish independence could be no joke

More and more people in the county want recognition of Cornish identity—and political power

April 29, 2021
A St Piran flag fluttering in the wind at Fistral in Newquay, Cornwall. Credit: Alamy
A St Piran flag fluttering in the wind at Fistral in Newquay, Cornwall. Credit: Alamy

Cornish independence has been the butt of national jokes for centuries. But strange as it might sound, in 2021, independence—or at least some form of devolution—for the county seems more tangible than ever.

The movement for Cornish autonomy comes from two different directions: the political drive towards practical legislative devolution from Westminster, and the long-range target of recognition as a sovereign state. Devolution is backed by many business and political leaders across the region, and certainly by the 10 per cent of its 568,210 residents identifying as solely Cornish (and not English). Cornwall Council claims it’s committed to “the principles of localism and devolution and delivering double devolution: transferring powers from London to Cornwall, devolving services and assets to local communities and citizens.” Though no polling has been done in the last decade, centre-left Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow has seen an uptick in its membership over the last year.

As a promontory jutting into the Atlantic, Cornwall is isolated from the rest of England. The great moat of the Tamar river separates it from Devon. According to Cornish politicians, Westminster has very little understanding of the county’s needs. The loss of EU infrastructure funding is already being keenly felt by the Cornish and, although 56.5 per cent of Cornwall voted Leave, many feel that the Brexit fiasco has brought them no discernible benefits.

Cornwall was one of four UK areas that qualified for poverty-related grants from the EU, and the replacement funding offered by Westminster is insufficient. Dan Rogerson, a Lib Dem candidate standing for election to Cornwall Council on 6th May, highlighted one problem: “The pressure on the housing market and planning is really acute in Cornwall,” he told me. Rogerson explained that Cornwall, after London, is the second most searched for place for property in the UK. “If Cornwall had more control over planning and housing, they might be able to do more creative things to ensure housing is affordable for the people who are already here in Cornwall.”

Rogerson concedes there isn’t much appetite in the current government for devolution. “There's always tides that change in politics. It’s about being ready to take advantage of them when they do.”

Ahead of the local elections, Cornwall remains predominantly Conservative. “I am pro-devolution in that I strongly believe we should be empowering our local communities, town and parish councils. However, only if there is the appetite to take on greater devolution of power and assets. Devolution should not be forced,” explains Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth Cherilyn Mackrory. “While it is right and proper that we celebrate Cornish history, culture and heritage, this does not translate into a serious push for change and support for politics with a Celtic identity in Cornwall.” The future of the county should be decided by voters, she says, not the “idealistic writings of a small intellectual class.”

In November 2020, Cornwall Council voted to oppose the government’s White Paper on planning, which outlined what the council felt were “unbelievably unsustainable” housing targets for the county. Cornwall has a fair-weather economy: food service and accommodation is the third-largest industry, behind only health services and retail. Without revenue from seasonal tourism, Cornwall would be in abject poverty. The winter off-season is a time of deprivation and hardship for many—and Covid-19 has hardly helped.

“Imposing metropolitan solutions onto Cornwall has been proven, time and again, to make matters worse,” argues Matt Blewett, from the campaign group Kernow Matters To Us, Kernow being the Cornish name for Cornwall. “The approach with police, utilities, finance, construction, to keep extracting money from the Cornish economy to their head offices in Exeter and London is unsustainable. With more control over decision making in Cornwall, these economic extractive arrangements can be addressed and reversed, so that taxes raised in Cornwall are spent in Cornwall; that Cornish business does not just fill pockets on the wrong side of the Tamar.”

Cornish political circles are pragmatically lobbying for devolution, but at street-level this politicking is often misinterpreted as that of an outright separatist movement.

Some of these individuals—Corn Nats you could call them—eagerly offer reading lists comprised of ill-informed propaganda about Cornish exceptionalism and pseudoscience claiming that DNA studies show the Cornish to be the “purest Britons.” It’s hard to ignore the most vocal fanatics. From fairly innocuous “Cornish not English” bumper stickers to signs on the main thoroughfare into Cornwall reading “EMMETS F*** OFF!” (Emmet is the Cornish word for “ant” and a word the Cornish use to describe the English), the spirit of Cornish emancipation, like its Scottish equivalent, can at its worst seem to be sustained by anti-English hate.

But despite headlines recounting fire bombings conducted by terror groups against English business owners in the county, xenophobic Cornish drug cartels, and the alleged resurgence of terror groups like An Gof and the Cornish National Liberation Army reported in the international media, claims of extremist actions are unsubstantiated: such groups barely have enough members to qualify as a fringe movement.

“It’s agent provocateurs trying to make the quite respectable civic nationalist movement seem like terrorists and fascists,” says Dr Loveday Jenkin, deputy leader of Mebyon Kernow, which has been campaigning for Cornish autonomy since its inception in 1951. “All of this is about publicity stunts. They’re not real. There's no armed insurrection in Cornwall.” Jenkin goes on: “mixing ethnic identity and independence and racism is a bit of a mess, because it’s not really like that.”

Joanie Willett, co-director of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, feels that independence and devolution are often conflated because the language used to discuss them is deliberately confusing. Willett explains that “even in Cornwall some people misunderstand calls for devolution as parochialism, little-England-ism, ‘pull up the drawbridge’ kind of thing, which of course, it really isn't. It’s down to policy agenda.”

Last summer, despite stringent restrictions on travel being in place and appeals from the Council for visitors to stay away, Cornwall was flooded with holidaymakers from the rest of the country. Holiday lets advertised themselves as ideal “self-isolating destinations,” highlighting the county’s low infection rate and advising guests to “get your family away from the cities and towns where the virus is out of control and self-isolate in Cornwall.” There was a predictable outcry: local “militias” were formed to police and report any rule-breaking “incomers.” As we come into the summer, the Cornish are preparing for another onslaught of “Emmet” tourists.

But renewed efforts for devolution and independence are more than just a reaction to last year. “I think we will see increased efforts towards independence, or a fully devolved assembly along the lines of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland,” says Craig Truscott, an outspoken supporter of liberation for Cornwall, “with independence as a longer-term vision.”

Truscott explains that a campaign for recognition for Cornish as a distinct national identity ahead of the UK census engaged far more people than expected: “it would appear that Cornwall has had enough of being an afterthought.” Local politicians demanded a tick-box for Cornish national identity. This was not granted; instead Cornwall Council encouraged people to select the “other” box and write “Cornish” in the space provided. Despite the government recognising Cornish as a national minority under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2014, the Cornish language remains untaught in schools and at best a token second language.

Independence might be a pipe dream, but the Cornish are serious about more autonomy. Which begs the question: will the UK start to see more of its composite parts seeking a form of devolution? And some time during the 21st century, will we find self-governance in every English county?