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26.5.11

The Cornish Question on Blue Labour

The constitutional imbalance caused by devolution under the last Labour government is finally being recognised. But England itself is not a homogeneous nation.
The following suggestions are made based on the assumption that the Cornish are one of the naturally occurring nationalities - historic nations - found within the UK. It is a fact that within what is considered England, Cornwall is the only territory where significant numbers of people self-identify as other than English - as Cornish - for their nationality and/or ethnicity.

Cornwall already receives recognition via European groups such as the European Free Alliance and the Federal Union of European Nationalities, and - due to its poor economic position - benefits from convergence funding from the EU. We need to hear more from domestic politicians.

Of course, unless they can be worked into a larger package of UK-wide reforms, policies adopted by Labour that only target Cornwall clearly aren't going to win over the rest of the UK.

But why shouldn't Cornwall be part of the discussion if we're beginning to talk about devolution for England? With this in mind please find below my four suggestions for debate that could help Labour win back the region.

The coalition government has launched an assault on Cornwall's ancient territorial integrity via their reform of parliamentary constituencies which will result, for the first time, in a constituency that crosses the boundaries of Devon and Cornwall.

Apparently the territorial integrity of the Isle of Wight counts for much more than that of a historic nation, and the homeland of a national minority. Labour must promise to revoke this madness and ensure that all MPs for Cornwall are elected wholly within Cornwall.

Labour kicked off devolution but never got to finish the job. Whether we respond to the west Lothian question with an English parliament or not, England remains highly centralised. The artificial regions used by Labour have proved unpopular with the public, and the coalition has wasted no time in dismantling them.

For devolution to work, amongst other criteria, regions have to have a strong coherent identity. In 2002 Cornish campaigners gathered a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a Cornish assembly. This followed opinion polls putting support for a Cornish assembly at around 55%.

We want greater autonomy, so why not take the opportunity to push power down to a territory that wants it? Currently the Greens, Lib Dems, Mebyon Kernow and various independent councillors support devolution to Cornwall.

Why not join these progressives and help build the consensus for change? For some interesting reading that compares the campaigns for devolution in the north-east and Cornwall try The Dark Side of Devolution. Could Cornwall be worked into a package of devolution to England's natural regions?

Whilst in power Labour started the long overdue process of modernising the UK's human rights and equalities provision. As part of this the government worked alongside the Council of Europe on the ratification of their Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Labour gave recognition to the Cornish language under the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Why not now promise to complete this by recognising the Cornish as a national minority within the scope of the convention? This would ensure fair funding for Cornish culture and a place for a distinct Cornish curriculum in our schools.

Finally and most thorny of issues - there is something deeply undemocratic about the Duchy of Cornwall and the power it holds over people's lives. This original research by solicitor and Cornish law expert, John Kirkhope, should be enough to convince you that this feudal institution has outlived its purpose: A Mysterious, Arcane and Unique Corner of our Constitution (pdf).

As part of the modernisation of the UK's constitution, we ought to give the subjects of the Duchy a full and open investigation into the constitutional position of Cornwall, followed by a referendum on its future.

Unlike Wales, Scotland and the north of England, Labour has never found its feet in the far south-west. In part this has been due to a failure by Labour to engage with the Cornish, particularly in a positive, civic fashion. Is it not time for this to change?

Finding Labour's feet in Kernow: cross-posted from the Blue Labour blog. 

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