2007 - 2021

The Case for Cornwall

cornishmarch.jpg“Britain* is divided into four parts; whereof one is inhabited by Englishmen, the other by Scots, the third by Welshmen, and the fourth by Cornish people, which all differ among themselves, either in tongue, either in manners, or else in laws and ordinances.”
– Polydore Vergil (Henry VIII’s geographer)

What is it with the London media? It seems if you email celebrity chefs like Rick Stein and the mockney Jamie Oliver calling yourself “CNLA” and promising a “rosy glow” in their pricey restaurants in Cornwall, you can get coverage in a dozen newspapers, whereas if you manage to collect 50,000 signatures for a Cornish Assembly in two years, you get none. Bear in mind that the Cornish population is only 400,000, and the cornishmarch.jpg

petition was badly publicised, and you can see the scale of feeling. Cornwall, meantime, has the lowest GDP in the UK, at a mere 62% of the average. An article in the Western Morning News has pointed out “in places like Mousehole, Port Isaac & Cadgwith, it is possible to buy any number of £1000 paintings, but not a pint of milk” thanks to the vast number of second homes there. Rick Stein is part of the problem, and has led to Padstow being nicknamed Padstein, thanks to buying up half the town. Would Stein or Oliver agree with this?

“We, the people of Cornwall, must have a greater say in how we are governed. We need a Cornish Assembly that can set the right democratic priorities for Cornwall, and provide a stronger voice for our communities in Britain, in Europe, and throughout the wider world.”

Most Scots don’t know that Cornwall is not a proper part of England. For centuries, a significant number of its natives have always regarded themselves as non-English, and it is the only “English county” with its own language, laws and nationalist movement. For example, if you die without a will in England, your property goes to the Crown. In Cornwall it goes to the Duke of Cornwall (Prince Charles), and the Duchy has been used more or less as an expense account for the heir to the throne. The story of the decline of Cornish mining, farming and fishing is one with which Scots have first hand experience.

In the post-Roman period, the Cornish were known as “West Welsh” by the English. (“Welsh” being an old English word for “foreigner”). This was retained in Cornwall which means “Welsh Headland”. Cornwall only became joined, bit by bit, in the Norman period. Even so, during the Middle Ages, the phrase “England and Cornwall” turns up in dozens of medieval documents, including the Magna Carta. Henry VIII’s coronation lists his realms as including “ England, France…Cornwall, Wales & Ireland”. The Cornish would rise repeatedly, notably in 1497 under Michael An Gof who raised an army of 15,000.

The Reformation was particularly painful for the Cornish. When the English language Book of Common Prayer was forced on them, they rose in 1549, complaining partly that many of them spoke no English. The upper class converted to Anglicanism, or was dispossessed, but the vast majority of the Cornish peasantry and working class did not “conform”. Even today, Methodism is far bigger than Anglicanism in Cornwall. As in Wales, Cornish radicalism arose from Methodism, and joined the Liberal Party. However, unlike elsewhere, the Cornish radicals did not really take to the Labour party. The battle in Cornwall has been traditionally between Tories and Liberals. This changed however, in 1997, when Cornwall, Wales and Scotland all became Tory-free.

“The Cornish are fortunate in being able to paint their regional [sic] discontents in the attractive colours of the Celtic tradition. Merseyside cannot blow a national trumpet, Cornwall can.” – Eric Hobsbawm

Although much of modern Cornish nationalism originated in bourgeois Romanticism, by the present day, it has come to embrace the entire political spectrum, both republican and monarchist, liberal and conservative, socialist and social democrat. The Lib Dems continue to flirt with it, with the most “nationalist” Lib Dem being Andrew George MP, who took his oath in Cornish. The real voice, other than the defunct Cornish National Party, is Mebyon Kernow, which tends to left of centre. MK has some claims to fame – it participates fully in the local CND and Green campaigns, has engaged in industrial action, and prevented nuclear power stations from being built. It does very well in council elections, but not in Westminster elections. This is partly because it is not entitled to broadcasts, and receives little publicity in local press. While not achieving the levels of Plaid, or the SNP, MK has more councillors in Cornwall, than UKIP has anywhere, and got more council votes than Labour in Cornwall.

While London-based TV portrays Cornwall as a playground of the rich, surfing, pirates and yokels, based in “South West England”, the reality is a housing crisis, high unemployment, and a rapid brain drain. Coupled with a thousand years of cultural aggression and assimilation, it’s no wonder Cornwall, Cornish and the Cornish are in such a bad way. Some have started to become “Cornish and English”, in a similar fashion to Rangers fans who wear England shirts.

Smaller minorities also have equally proud visions of themselves as irreducibly Welsh, Irish, Manx or Cornish. These identities are distinctly national in ways which proud people from Yorkshire, much less proud people from Berkshire will never know. Any new constitutional settlement which ignores these factors will be built on uneven ground.”  (The Guardian, editorial, 8th May 1990)


Concessions are few, and have come slowly to Cornwall. For example, the Rose has been removed from Cornish road signs, and replaced with the Cornish flag after a direct action campaign. The Cornish language is reappearing, and the national flag is now everywhere. Cornish devolution and investment has not come, instead London links Cornwall into “Devonwall” and jobs are exported eastward to Plymouth and Exeter. Cornwall is also refused European aid, thanks to the government. In 1967, the Liberal MPs, John Pardoe and Peter Bessel complained, “the Cornish people have the same right to control their country, its economy and its political future as the other Celtic peoples of Scotland and Wales.”

Four decades later, Cornish Lib Dems make the same complaint, while the party in London says the exact opposite. When will Cornwall be heard?

* The original “British” are the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons. However, there is little connection between the ancient term, and the modern one, which is co-opted and political.


Comments (16)

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  1. Michael Chappell says:

    I would like to thank ray Bell for writing this item about Kernow (Cornwall).
    I am a Cornish Nationalist and in common with other Nationalists fully support and welcome independence for Scotland and indeed, Wales, the north of Ireland and Brittany. There will be much to be gained by this including a safer Europe and subsequently, a safer world.
    Kernow is larger than many sovereign nations (eg. Malta, Luxembourg, Andorra atc.) and well able to govern itself. The rise of a sense of identity felt by the Cornish people is now becoming apparent, doubtless assisted by the increasing number of Cornish language speakers. I also believe that in common with nationalists in the other Celtic Nations, most Cornish believe themselves to be European and would happily accept the Euro currency. As with the Scottish people, the overseas Cornish diaspora is considerable and so we are not an inward looking people but quite the contrary, we embrace internationalism.
    I and many others look forward to a ‘yes’ vote in the promised Scottish Independence Referendum and believe that this will lead to a more balanced settlement on the island of Britain.

  2. Jezz Arghantti says:

    Great article, it’s surprising how few Scottish know of our struggle.
    We are making strides now towards creating sustainable development and improving the economy here in Kernow, despite continuous capital drain to London.
    As Mike mentioned above, our complete devolution would be parallel to the success seen in smaller countries with similar sized populations and extent, such as Luxembourg, who currently enjoy the world’s highest GDP per capita.
    We appreciate all media generated by Scottish nationalists, and would happily absorb the young well qualified Scottish folk who might enjoy our culture.
    Good on the Scottish for moving towards independence! Tell those who doubt Salmond to look to the examples of Norway and Ireland!
    Agan deth, awra dos!

  3. Jezz Evans says:

    Great article Ray Bell, would like to see more of the same from more Scottish journalists.

    As the Cornish economy starts to adapt to the needs of sustainable development over unsustainable economic growth, the people of Kernow are once again beginning to say outloud that we have the capacity to support ourselves.

    We only have one fully developed new university currently, it worth remembering that the last university before Tremough was destroyed in the 15th century by the Sawsnek.

    With the young now fully aware that reliance on Pysk cober ha sten (Fish copper and tin)
    is completely outdated, we should start to see a reverse brain drain from London as opportunities arise.

    London is our main problem, all our capital flows there, and of a GDP (2006) of 3.6billion, only 1.95 billion returned to Kernow from the tax office, the rest being siphoned off for the Olympics and other grand projects.

  4. Drew Murray says:

    Having some Cornish in my background – not sure when but my grandmother was a Gynn – may I say best of luck to my Cornish cousins.

  5. Thanks Ray for writing this illuminating article and for helping educate me about the history and politics of Cornwall.

    (NB I’ve still got your copy of John Angarrack’s book “Our Future Is History”.)

  6. Ray Bell says:

    Thank you all for your kind words, much appreciated. I was a bit restricted for space, so I tried to pack in as much as poss into a shortish article.

    The following quotes are not from Cornish nationalists, but from unionists, and further drive home the case for Cornwall…

    Oct 2007 Lib Dem MP Andrew George stated in a press release “If Scotland is benefiting from devolution then Cornwall should learn from this and increase the intensity of its own campaign for devolution”

    Dan Rogerson MP, maiden speech 2005 in the commons:
    “My constituency of North Cornwall is the largest in Cornwall, and stretches [b]from the border with England [/b]along the spectacular Atlantic coast to mid-Cornwall….”
    Full speech: [url=http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2005-05-18a.153.3&s=border+with+england+speaker%3A11513#g213.0]http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2005-05-18a.153.3&s=border+with+england+speaker%3A11513#g213.0[/url]

    House of Lords discussion in 2007:

    Viscount Trenchard
    “…It is, of course, a fact that England and Scotland are side by side but I believe that since the Act of Union we are one nation, comprising two peoples, or indeed three or four peoples, and that is what has made us stronger. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, might wish [b]to include the Cornish as an additional distinct people[/b]….”

    Lord McNally
    “…In fact, we have the most overcentralised government in the western world, and I hope that a number of my colleagues will develop themes in terms of the English regions, Wales [b]and Cornwall….”[/b]

    Lord Teverson
    “…But I want to move on to talk about one of the four Celtic nations that make up the United Kingdom of this union. It is where I moved to and participated in politics in the late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s: it is Cornwall. [b]Cornwall is a nation[/b], a duchy and, of course, a county as well. Its union with England goes back to the 10th century, but even after that it had a Stannary Parliament which to a degree still exists and has a little legal force, although it is not exactly a democratic organisation. Cornwall has its own language, which is recognised as a European minority language. I had the great privilege of representing Cornwall in the European Parliament during the 1990s….”

    Full discussion: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2007-01-25b.1206.7&s=cornwall+is+a+nation+overcentralised#g1212.0

    p.s. Kev, I hope you’ve read “Our Future is History” – it’s such hot property in Cornwall that the Devon and Cornwall police insist on confiscating it. Question is, have they heard of a library? LOL!

  7. Ray Bell says:

    An article from the Times on the Cornish situation, which contains some interesting comments from Mike Chappell (see post above)

    “Passport to Padstow
    “Bomb threats to fish restaurants, a shadowy Cornish liberation army and police raids. What’s going on at the end of the A30? Is it just another eccentric English comedy or is there rebellion in the air? ”


    Please note, this article also contains some huge inaccuracies, especially about Scotland. I suspect that while Westmorland has a housing shortage, that the business there may even be to deflect attention off Cornwall.

  8. John Moyle says:

    Great article ! – Westminster has for too long tried to ignore the ‘Cornish question’ – there has been a campaign since 1998 for a devolved Cornish Assembly, along the lines of the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly, which would operate independently of Westminster. In 2001 Cornwall demonstrated the largest expression of popular support for devolved power in the whole of the United Kingdom and possibly Europe when a 50,000 petition for a Cornish Assembly was handed to the government – the petition has the support of all five Cornish Lib Dem MPs, Cornwall Council and most independent councillors – the referendum was refused by the government.

    Cornish nationalists argue that the ‘Cornish question’ should not be overlooked and that any new constitutional arrangements involving a devolved English parliament will have to take into account Cornwall’s nationhood. In 1998 Cornwall was recognised by the UK Government as having “distinct cultural and historical factors reflecting a Celtic background” and this resulted in Cornwall finally achieving European Objective One funding (before 1998 Cornwall had been linked by the government to Devon in an economic, political and statistical sense – “Devonwall”) Cornwall is one of the poorest areas in the United Kingdom with a GDP of 70% of the UK average. “Smaller minorities also have equally proud visions of themselves as irreducibly Welsh, Irish, Manx or Cornish. These identities are distinctly national in ways which proud people from Yorkshire, much less proud people from Berkshire will never know. Any new constitutional settlement which ignores these factors will be built on uneven ground.” (The Guardian, editorial, 8th May 1990).

    A recent visit by Cornish MP Andrew George to Iceland brought into sharp focus his growing concern about the slide of Cornwall over the precipice into extinction. (cultural genocide ?) “Icelandic people are proud and distinctive. Their pride and distinctiveness is the bedrock from which they can concentrate on their priorities and on success. Since achieving independence from Denmark in 1944 this relatively poor island has become one of the wealthiest nations on earth. It has a higher Gross Domestic Product per person than not only the United Kingdom, but France, Germany and Japan as well. It has achieved low inflation and a high standard of living, the highest life expectancy of any nation in the world and enviable prospects for the future. And all this with a population of 270,000 – little more than half that of Cornwall (approx. 500,000).”



    Bro Goth Agan Tasow – Cornish National Anthem

  9. Dave says:

    Don’t forget the fact that while the Cornish flag IS, the English flag is NOT flown outside Cornwall County Council building.

    There would be an uproar if it was.

  10. Adam says:

    This may not be hugely significant but I just wanted to pick up one point you made. You say “The original “British” are the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons” – surely this is not right?

    Type “A United Kingdom? Maybe” into google to read the New York Times article on a major piece of DNA research. There are lots of later articles that only further confirm this emerging picture.

    “British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque …In all, about three-quarters of the ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago”.

    Most of us in England, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and even Ireland are descended from the Basque people. Celts and Anglo Saxons arrived later and some of us took on their cultures and languages.

  11. R Bell says:

    When I said the original “British”, I meant the people originally referred to by that term, not necessarily the original inhabitants of the island, nor anything related to DNA or ancestry.

    It is even more dubious to claim a language related to Basque was spoken here 16,000 years ago. We don’t even really know what was spoken here 3,000 years ago! Certain blood groups are common in Scotland, Cornwall and the Basque country, which are uncommon elsewhere, but that does not necessarily have anything to do with ethnicity, let alone language.

    1. Robin Howard says:

      As an addition to the interesting thread above, there is significant evidence that the west of the British Isles were re-populated by people origonally migrating from the basque region after the last ice age. Read Oppenheimer’s Origins of the British among others. The people of the Europe’s western atlantic coast (Galicia, Asturia, Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland and west Scotland) have shared cultural and socio/economic similarities for millenia and it is this I believe that properly sets out the stall for an identity distinct from English who incidently probably had similar links with Germanic and Norse people way beyond the respective ‘invasions’.
      As for the Celts, ‘celticity’ was far more a movement of culture than of people. I have never understood why the Cornish have always been so appauled by Saxon conquest but are fine with the idea the Celts did it to the people before them?! Surely that makes them no better than the much derrived sawsnek?
      The people espousing cultural identity may have short memories but cultural identity itself does not, why should it cut off at a certain point with a group of invaders that are just far enough back we are happy with? The accademics and archeologists refute the theory of various waves if invasions these days and argue for continuity. This might make an identity less exciting but much more valid in my book.

  12. Paul Burnier says:

    The “Celts” did not per say invade some countries and places in large number. I believe that there were Celtic migration but most of the “movement” was a cultural one.
    People try to paint the Celts as being this or that color, height, etc..But the truth is that they were a melting pot of European stock.
    Some now even believe that there were two waves of Celtic cultures, but they are not sure exactly how. One taking the Northern root and one Southern. Maybe what we take as being Southern Celt is actually something else – That means Celts from Portugal, Spain, Galicia etc.
    I am not an expert but that is what I have been reading lately on the archeological papers.

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