Éire Ghaelach – Éire Shaor
To my shame I’ve written relatively little about the nationalist movement in Cornwall, in some ways the almost forgotten nation of the modern Celtic world, but an article in the Guardian thankfully highlights some of the more recent political developments there:
“When Loveday Jenkin was growing up, the Cornish flag was rarely seen. Now the white cross on a black background is ubiquitous, fluttering outside county hall in Truro and printed on everything from souvenir boxes of fudge to pasty packaging and car bumper stickers.
“I think it shows what a long way we’ve come in just a few years,” says Jenkin, the latest member of Mebyon Kernow (MK) – the Party for Cornwall – to be elected to Cornwall council. “Everyone is so much more aware that we are separate, different, not a part of England and should have the right to govern ourselves.”
Scotland has its own parliament, while the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland are maturing nicely. And in the far south-west MK is leading the campaign for a referendum on a Cornish assembly.
It is demanding a meeting with David Cameron and Nick Clegg to ask why a petition of 50,000 names, the equivalent of a tenth of the Cornish adult population, appears to have been ignored. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, has laid down an early-day motion in the Commons supporting the call for devolution.
MK, which has just celebrated its 60th birthday, is beginning to do well in local elections, holding five seats on Cornwall council – four more than Labour. The party hopes that the unpopularity of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will lead to it taking a leap forward at the next general election, and believes it is starting to attract younger voters disillusioned with the bigger parties.
“Being Cornish is about belonging to the place of Cornwall but also having a particular way of thinking about things,” says Jenkin, a biochemist.
“We do things differently. Our culture is different, we have our own language. People ask why I identify myself as Cornish. It’s simply because I am Cornish. We have more in common with Brittany and Wales than the south-east of England but we’re subsumed into English decision-making.”
Like Plaid, MK often talks about social justice. Dick Cole, the party’s leader who gave up his job as an archaeologist to become a full-time councillor, says that over the past 40 years Cornwall’s economy has been fractured.
“Jobs have been lost, centralised out of here,” he said. “Cornwall is now one of the worst places for wages and the living costs are getting ever higher. We are one of the most deprived areas and the over-centralised nature of the British state has done us no good.”
Cole and Jenkin are veteran MK activists but believe a new generation is beginning to take an interest; people such as John Rowe, a 25-year-old MK parish councillor.
Like many young Cornish people, Rowe admits he did not understand his identity until he left his family farm to go to university in Bath. “It may sound trite but I did not realise what Cornwall was all about until I left it,” he said.
Rowe noticed not only the cultural differences – the language, the art – but also the economic differences between a relatively wealthy city such as Bath and the former mining town where he grew up, Camborne.”
With the electoral successes of the SNP in Scotland and the upcoming referendum on independence a new consciousness has awakened in the Celtic nations of Britain, one that can see beyond current or past limitations. In Wales the leadership contest in Plaid Cymru has brought to the fore the two competing ideologies of the party, regionalist and nationalist, with Leanne Wood leading the campaign on behalf of progressive nationalism. It can only be hoped that Mebyon Kernow will be able to seize the moment on behalf of the people of Cornwall and gain the recognition of the country’s right to national self-expression that many desire, politically as well as culturally.