Where’s left in Cornwall?

Shifting Cornish landscapes have brought with them substantial social change writes Naomi Rescorla-Brown

June 9, 2021 · 9 min read
Credit: Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Enshrined in Cornish folklore are stories of rebellions against cases of English government encroachment, such as the Battle of Blackheath in 1497 and the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549. Yet, unlike in other Celtic nations, there emerged no successful movement to achieve any degree of Cornish autonomy. Cornish culture, including a cessation of the local language in the 18th century, has gradually been eroded over hundreds of years. And following the collapse of its industries, Cornwall has found itself one of the casualties of ‘neoliberal’ Britain. With a rise in second home ownership exacerbating inequality and abrading its culture, Cornwall also finds its interests poorly represented in national politics.

Cornwall and large parts of the South West often appear largely overlooked by the mainstream left. Labour has never held more than a single parliamentary seat at any given time, with national representation typically divided by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. With all six Cornish constituencies represented by Conservative MPs since 2015, left-leaning politicians from the region very rarely gain media attention.

Labour’s historically poor performance in Cornish constituencies arguably reflects the traditional composition of the county’s working class, which never ‘urbanised’ to the extent of the industrial North, with Plymouth, Devon the closest urban centre. Indeed, much of Cornwall’s industry in this period was centred upon mining, agriculture and fishing. A lack of urbanism, coupled with constituencies covering vast and largely rural areas, didn’t readily lend itself to the building of a broad progressive base.

Tourists go home!

The latter half of the twentieth century saw the collapse of Cornish fishing, tin and china clay mining. The county now relies heavily on revenue generated by the tourism trade. Though this outside interest in the county provides an income for many, the sharp rise in second home ownership has caused house prices to increase at a rate disproportionate to local wages. Covid-19 has only exacerbated this problem. Despite its glamorous image as a holiday destination, Cornwall is among the poorest regions in the UK, with 17 of its neighbourhoods in the top ten per cent of the most deprived areas in England as of 2019.

These shifts in the economic landscape of Cornwall have brought with them substantial social change. The Bafta award-winning film Bait (2019) focuses on the class divide now present in many coastal communities in Cornwall, as properties once inhabited by local workers are purchased by incomers at prices unaffordable to those born there. A sense of anger is felt by many Cornish people, who feel their culture and way of living to be threatened.

The question of how to preserve local character in an age of increased social and cultural homogeneity is relevant to every community, and is certainly prevalent in Cornwall. Younger generations now rarely possess many of the qualities that defined previous generations, and the local accent, most notably the rhotic ‘r’, is dying out. Much of the local humour, dialect and general character is thus slowly becoming extinct.

In a post-Brexit era, strong regional pride may easily be construed as insular, primitive, or offensive, and indeed such feelings are not always defensible, particularly in their most hateful and exclusionary forms. Yet it is important to acknowledge the distress caused by the destruction and commoditisation of close-knit communities, as well as the cultural vacuum that is produced when a shared lived experience and collective history is replaced by second home ownership and tourism, both enterprises with a primary focus on the picturesque. For those living in Cornwall, its deep traditions seem increasingly masked by the shallow aesthetics of the beach-focussed ‘lifestyle’ for which it is marketed.

Political trajectories

It can be difficult to reconcile Cornwall’s relative poverty with its tendency to vote Conservative, a party whose principles seem to be at odds with the strong feelings of compassion and community felt by the inhabitants of many of Cornwall’s towns and villages. Nevertheless, it may be possible to understand it. As a result of its history, there is a strong sense of independence felt by many Cornish people.

As the county increasingly succumbs to financial domination from outside, this individualism can be seen to express itself in hostility towards anything perceived as taking away from the individual and what they feel is rightfully ‘theirs’. Yet the current government has no interest in helping to preserve the integrity of small communities, and as Cornwall continues to suffer at the hands of neoliberal policy, attitudes based upon self-preservation and conservatism will likely increase. Ultimately, this still plays into the hands of those in power. It is difficult to envisage how Cornwall might escape from this vicious cycle.

For some, the answer lies in the campaign for self-government in Cornwall, whether with the objective of complete independence or of steps toward devolution. The argument for Cornish independence gained some attention in 2017, when Cornish separatist group ‘The Cornish Republican Army’ (previously Cornish National Liberation Army) firebombed a Rick Stein restaurant in the village of Porthleven, even claiming that a member was willing to give their life for the cause.

However, while that event was serious in nature, there is evidence to suggest that neither Cornish independence nor devolution is at the forefront of Cornish minds. In the 2019 General Election, Mebyon Kernow – the self-proclaimed ‘Party for Cornwall’ at the forefront of the campaign for Cornish self-government-  secured under 0.5% of votes in Cornwall, and the idea of devolution is often treated as something of a joke rather than a serious possibility.

Like that levelled at independence or devolution movements generally, criticisms of the campaign for increased self-government in Cornwall, may point toward a sense of being reactionary or regressive. However, this may not hold true. Mebyon Kernow, for example, defines itself as a ‘progressive left-of-centre’ party, with its central focus being on securing social justice and protection of the environment.

Bert Biscoe, a representative of the Cornish Constitutional Convention (a cross-party association campaigning for a devolved ‘Assembly for Cornwall’) told me that the devolution of areas ‘peripheral’ to the bulk of the UK is now ‘a matter of economic sense’; a move away from centralisation could help to address inconsistencies in healthcare access and distribution, as well as economic deprivation.

Notably, Biscoe claims that having a devolved government would allow Cornwall to make ‘a stronger and more durable contribution to Britain’. Biscoe argues that this is true for many regions across the country. As, post-Brexit, the UK’s structure under a central London government is appearing increasingly forced, it is possible that ‘going with the grain of regional identities’ would make for more prosperous relations between them.

It is clear that the many changes occurring in Cornwall and in wider society have a number of implications for life in the county both at present and in the future. There is a limited history of left-wing tradition, yet it is evident that Cornwall has something valuable to contribute to the political discussion on a national scale. Cornwall serves as an example of the perils of an uncurbed neoliberal market.

Likewise, it will be interesting to see, with the recent emergence of the Northern Independence Party and a reported increase in support for Welsh Nationalism among Welsh youth, whether Cornish independence will capture the imagination of larger numbers of Cornish people, particularly the young.

Naomi Rescorla-Brown is a student and writer from Cornwall

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