Here’s a question: what do Cornwall, Scotland, Venice and Sardinia have in common? The answer: they all have vocal political movements calling for either independence from their nation states or at least some form of autonomy.
Most people in the UK are aware of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence; Venice recently voted overwhelmingly for independence in an unofficial referendum, and Sardinian pro-independence parties have recently doubled their vote share. Now Cornwall has, after many years of campaigning, been granted national minority status by the European Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities.
We are seeing an explosion of national or independence movements across Europe. What this means for governance and statehood here in the UK is yet to be seen – but the case of Cornwall can help us find an answer.
It’s easy to see why the people of Cornwall are so proud of their identity. Cornwall is a beautiful place with a lively and vibrant arts scene, a global presence in environmental research, a world class marine sector, and a mining school that produces world-leading graduates. Cornwall also has a proud history as one of the centres of the British industrial revolution, spawning some of Britain’s most important engineers – such as Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first working steam locomotive. More recently, researchers in Cornwall have pioneered geothermal power.
It is also hard to miss the strength and pride in Cornishness in a region where to use the word “county” is deeply political, and where “Cornish not English” t-shirts are readily available. Indeed, even the tourist information organisation “Visit Cornwall” uses “Duchy” instead to avoid offence. Road-signs are often bilingual Cornish/English, the Cornish Nationalist political party Mebyon Kernow contribute a strong voice to the local agenda, and symbolism associated with Cornish nationalism is used to decorate shops, advertise local products, and to form part of the regional brand.
This latter point is crucial for understanding Cornish nationalism’s growing ability to make its voice heard on the broader stage.
Economic development and Cornish cultural heritage are inextricably tied together. Cornwall Council’s latest statement on local development is an Economic and Culture strategy (my italics); this has been the case across economic development plans since at least the 1999 Objective 1 Single Programming Document, which set out what the region was going to do with extra support and funding from the EU. Before this, culture and economy were usually seen as two distinct entities.
They have now become deeply entwined – and this isn’t just a Cornish issue. Michael Keating of the University of Aberdeen has argued this stems from a shift in the global economy, which asks “regions” to compete with other regions. This requires regional differentiation, or “branding” – which of course, appeals to regional identities. Many studies have argued that effective regional brands need to match the identities of ordinary citizens, rather than the criteria of marketing bods in boardrooms.
This is not to overlook the fact that many devolutionist or seccesionist campaigns are framed in terms of economic and political exploitation, where the region in question seeks redress for real or perceived neglect by the “core” of the nation state. Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales are no exceptions; each claim that their own unique circumstances are neglected by Westminster, that their voices are marginalised in the British debate, and that devolution or independence is the only way to ameliorate this.
The minority nations of the UK may well have a point. Certainly in Cornwall’s case, Cornish MP Matthew Taylor’s parliamentary question about the region’s poverty and desperation in the 1990s met with the answer that the region got quite enough support already. At the same time, the European Union was recognising Cornwall as one of the poorest regions of Europe, offering it financial help from Brussels.
Regional differentiation, not only encouraged but required by the global economy, provides a space for disaffection to operate. By becoming a central plank of the Cornish economy, Cornish identity has been woven into the fabric of people’s lives, rather than being the hobby horse of a few crazy activists. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, local campaigners were gripped by the fear that Cornish identity was dying out. Instead, it has grown and grown – and the fundamental role it plays in the economy is directly responsible.
So what does Cornwall’s new recognition mean for the UK? Firstly, expect to hear a lot more about Cornwall and its identity. Expect too that the well-supported campaign for a Cornish Assembly (just like the one in Wales) will continue, grow, and amplify in the coming years. It will become ever more insistent if Scotland does vote for independence in September, something which of course would trigger a vigourous discussion about the constitutional order of the UK as a whole.
Regional identity is not going away, neither in Cornwall, nor elsewhere in the UK or in Europe. We are going to see many more assertions of regional difference in coming years, and we need a solid debate about the relationship between the nation state and the regions. How can the British state incorporate a multiplicity of nations within its borders? Does this require a shift towards a more open and federal system, or does it instead signal the death of the nation state?
As the growth in Cornwall’s identity and national pride shows, these questions will have to be answered.