English regionalism – here to stay or a flash in the pan?

How are the English regionalist parties faring, three years after Yorkshire First and the North East Party appeared on the scene? Has English regionalism – the dog that failed to bark in the night – finally found its voice? This might be a little unfair on the tiny Wessex Regionalist Party which has been plugging away for some decades now. That party was formed way back in 1974 but disappeared from the electoral scene after its high point in 1983 when it contested 10 parliamentary seats. Since 1997 one candidate for the party, in fact the same chap, has stood at each general elections, where he’s struggled to get over 100 votes.

Another, fourth English regionalist party has already come and gone since 2015, a case of last in, first out. The Northern Party, which, despite its name, appeared to be a party for Lancashire folk only, contested five seats in 2015, scored a mean 118 votes and then promptly de-registered itself within a year.

More serious efforts come in the shape of the North East Party (NEP), which did significantly better, contesting four seats with a mean vote of 535, or 1.4%. But the biggest intervention at the last general election was by Yorkshire First, which fought 14 seats, scooping up an average 487 votes with a mean vote of 1.0%. Here’s the 2015 general election results compared with those for MK.

General election results 2015

% of seats contested mean vote mean % vote median % vote
NEP 14% 535 1.4% 1.3%
YF 26% 487 1.0% 1.0%
MK 100% 946 1.9% 1.7%

Unlike MK, the northern regionalist parties have the opportunity to contest elections every year at a local level. In 2015 the local elections were held on the same day as the general election, a factor that inevitably squeezes the minor party vote. The results earlier this year probably provide a better guide to their performance. Here they are, with MK’s performance at the last Cornwall Council elections back in 2013 for comparison.

Local election results

No of wards contested (%) Mean vote Median vote
NEP 2015 1 (1%) 2.9% n/a
NEP 2016 1 (1%) 16.0% n/a
YF 2015 15 (3%) 3.8% 4.1%
YF 2016 17 (7%) 7.9% 7.1%
MK 2013 26 (21%) 24.1% 16.0%

Both parties have a way to go to reach the level of support for MK in local elections. However, the North East Party seems to have the potential to capture a respectable vote. The party’s sole candidate at the local elections in the Redhill ward of Sunderland in 2015 and 2016 managed to increase her share of the vote and go from fourth in 2015 to second this year, ahead of Tory, Lib Dem and Green candidates. Yet the party’s website looks a little amateurish and, worryingly for Cornwall, its submission to the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in 2014 stated that the ‘most coherent and consistent devolution would be to the level of the English regions’. Their policy on devolution seems to be to replace local government structures with a ‘small, lean and powerful regional government’, devolving local powers to parish and town councillors.

Moving on, last month Yorkshire First changed its name to the Yorkshire Party (YP), a symbolic shift that indicates its growing ambition. In terms of presence, number of candidates and professionalism, if not yet votes, the Yorkshire Party appears better organised and resourced than the NEP. It made steady progress in the 2016 local elections and has a good basis on which to build. It seems more active in the metropolitan districts than in rural Yorkshire, although this may be a function of the electoral cycle, with its best scores garnered in Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield. Yet a District Council by-election candidate in Northallerton in North Yorkshire scored almost 12% in May, showing it has the ability to appeal in rural areas too. In its early days, the YP also contested the European elections (remember them?) in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, when it won 19,017 votes, or 1.5% of the total.

The YP’s policy positions look more coherent and worked out than those of the NEP. Like MK, the party is now a member of the European Free Alliance, although unlike MK its policies are broadly ‘catch-all’ and centrist. For example on the economy, it calls for investment in infrastructure and the energy sector, saving money by cutting the number of councillors and giving tax-setting powers to a Yorkshire parliament. There’s nothing much there to overly scare the neo-liberal horses. Meanwhile, it taps into the local opposition in Yorkshire to fracking, but there are no detailed policies on the environment or climate change on its website.

On the core issue of devolution it calls for a Yorkshire Parliament with powers over policing, transport, health, energy and education – a large step up from the insultingly feeble ‘devolution deals’ offered by the Tory Government. On local government it envisages a tier of unitary local councils. But it’s unclear whether these are town and parish councils or something bigger and whether any of the current structure will remain.

YF tweet

Nonetheless, with a professional website, an active social media presence and calls on its supporters to support petitions in favour of Cornish language funding, the YP looks like a very useful ally for devolution campaigners in Cornwall. We’ll now have to wait to see if it can make further progress in the 2017 round of elections.

Are Cornish folk over-represented? What size should Cornwall Council be?

(This an extended version of a submission to be sent to the Local Government Boundary Commission, which is reviewing electoral arrangements for Cornwall Council, to be implemented in 2021)

The myth
A myth haunts the corridors of south-west media outlets. It’s one that many politicians and journalists have periodically fostered over the past seven years since the abolition of the district tier of local government in Cornwall. The myth is that Cornwall has too many councillors. When comparison is made with governing institutions in other places the implication is that we have too many elected representatives and that the Cornish voter is somehow over-represented compared to those other places, with a vast train of elected hangers-on leeching off the public purse.

On closer inspection the myth turns out to be nonsense. Those transmitting it are either deliberately seeking to reduce the level of democratic representation in Cornwall, are utterly ignorant about the way local government works in the UK or are confusing the quantity of representatives with the quality of representation.

The former BBC journalist Graham Smith had a particular bee in his bonnet about the number of councillors in Cornwall. In 2010 he told us that Cornwall Council had ‘ten times as many councillors per head of population as Scotland and Wales have AMs and MSPs’. In a similar vein, the Western Morning News in 2011 was pointing out that Cornwall Council was ‘twice the size of the Welsh Assembly [actually it’s three times], despite having far less power’. Not content with that, the newspaper, in a display of confusion that exceeded even its own high standards in that regard, went on to compare Cornwall Council with Devon County Council which at the time had 62 councillors, comparing this number with Cornwall’s 123.

This Tory leaning newspaper was backed up by Labour’s sole Cornwall Councillor, Jude Robinson, who thought that the number of councillors could be shrunk by 20%, or around 25. Tory MP George Eustice also went on record as saying in 2012 that Cornwall Council was too large and should ‘consider cutting the number of councillors’. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem group leader at the time, Jeremy Rowe, asked ‘Is the Council bloated?’ and replied ‘I think so’.

The facts
It is the case that Cornwall Council is one of the largest local authorities in the UK. Only the unitary authorities of County Durham, at 126 councillors, and Birmingham, with 120, are of similar size. Yet comparisons with the Welsh Assembly or Devon County Council are absurd and completely miss the point. In Wales there is a tier of unitary local government underneath the regional level of the Assembly. Most of Devon (outside Plymouth and Torbay) retains two tiers of local government. In fact in both Wales and Devon, there are 1,960 adults for every councillor. In Cornwall there are 3,580. Cornwall Council is a local government body and should be compared with local government, not with regional assemblies, of which we have none.

Let’s go beyond the myth for a moment and compare local and regional government representation in Cornwall with that of other places at four different levels, national, county, local authority and unitary authority.

1) National comparisons
The Cornish are recognised as a national minority in the UK, along with the Scots, Welsh, Irish and other groups, under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which the Government signed up to in 2014. Its levels of representation must logically therefore be compared with those other nations.

Table 1: National levels of local and regional government representation

Councillors Adults per councillor (2014) Devolved institution members Adults per total sub-state elected representatives
Cornwall 123 3,581 0 3,581
England 17,632 2,398 25 2,395
Northern Ireland 462 3,046 108 2,469
Scotland 1,222 3,531 129 3,194
Wales 1,254 1,964 40 1,903

Even if we restrict our attention to the local government level, we can see that in Cornwall there are fewer elected representatives in relation to population than in any other country in the UK. It will be noted that this is the case even in Northern Ireland, where a process of local government reform was completed in 2015 that reduced the number of local authorities from 26 to 11. Only councillors in Scotland represent a similar number of voters as in Cornwall. But Scotland also has a Parliament. If we take into account the devolved institutions at regional/national level then the disparities between the other Celtic countries and Cornwall widen.

2) County comparisons
Uniquely among the UK’s national minorities the Cornish are administered only within a county structure and Cornwall Council is a local government body. The level of representation in Cornwall can be compared with the 1973 base counties of England and Wales in the map below.

Map 1: Number of adults per cllr (County areas)

voters per cllr 2014

Most county areas have more councillors in relation to their resident population than does Cornwall. Moreover, only in the three metropolitan counties of the West Midlands, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, plus the rural county of Northumberland do we find fewer councillors in relation to population. Even in Greater London, the number of adults per councillor, at 3,510, is slightly below that of Cornwall, even though the population of London has been rising faster than elsewhere in recent years.

 

3) Local authority comparisons
If we compare all local authorities (at district and unitary level) with Cornwall, we find that in England 41 (13%) have more adults per councillor than Cornwall while 281 or 87% have fewer. In Wales, only Cardiff has fewer councillors per head of population. By the criterion of quantitative representation therefore Cornish citizens are in the top sextile of the least represented.

4) Unitary authorities
Areas of two-tier local government in England might be expected to have better levels of representation than Cornwall. But if we restrict the comparison to other unitary local government authorities we find that in Wales 21 of 22 have more councillors per electorate. In England more than 70% of unitary authorities have fewer voters per councillor than Cornwall, while even in London more boroughs have a better rate than Cornwall than a worse one.

Table 2: Number of adults per councillor, unitary authorities 2014

Number of unitary authorities More adults pre councillor than Cornwall Fewer adults per councillor than Cornwall
London 32 15 17
England 89 25 64
Wales 22 1 22

Here’s a list of those English unitaries with a higher number of adults per elected representative than Cornwall. I’ve also added their population density.

Table 3: Unitary authorities outside London with higher number of adults per councillor than Cornwall

Adults per councillor Persons per hectare
Cornwall 3,580 1.51
East Cheshire 3,650 3.21
Plymouth 3,680 31.00
Cardiff 3,750 23.70
Derby 3,800 32.35
Northumberland 3,820 0.62
Wirral 3,830 12.52
Medway 3,840 10.18
Wiltshire 3,870 1.48
Portsmouth 3,950 34.76
East Riding 4,090 1.35
Southampton 4,100 43.50
Wakefield 4,160 9.79
Manchester 4,220 44.98
Brighton 4,260 32.62
Liverpool 4,260 35.43
Bradford 4,320 14.41
Doncaster 4,350 5.35
Stoke 4,430 26.86
Nottingham 4,530 42.12
Leicester 4,760 46.04
Kirklees 4,830 10.55
Coventry 4,870 34.21
Bristol 5,010 18.80
Sheffield 5,350 15.32
Leeds 6,120 13.89
Birmingham 6,830 41.13

It will be seen that virtually all those authorities with fewer elected representatives in relation to population than Cornwall are urban. Only three rural authorities have a higher number of voters per councillor than Cornwall – Wiltshire, East Riding and Northumberland. Furthermore, if we focus on the nine unitary authorities in England with a population density similar to that of Cornwall (less than 3 persons per hectare) the median number of adults per councillor is 3,368, compared with 3,581 in Cornwall. The lowest is found in Rutland with only 1,167 and the highest in the East Riding, at 4,089. If the size of the unitary authority in Cornwall was set at the East Riding level we would still have 108 councillors; at the Rutland level we’d have 377! At the median level we would be looking at 131 councillors.

The conclusion therefore is that Cornwall is not that far out of line with similar rural unitary authorities in England in terms of the size of the democratic element of its local government. All these of course have far fewer representatives in relation to population than do the remaining two-tier rural districts (and even the majority of urban unitary single-tier authorities). In addition, in comparison with Wales, we have very many fewer councillors.

The Context
Technical issues surrounding the size of Cornwall Council must be put into their context. Cornwall has been at the cutting edge of the quiet reformation of local government that is accompanying the neoliberal political consensus. Neoliberalism does not value democracy, which it assesses in simple terms of costs, while transferring functions (and assets) from the public to the private sector (see Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On neoliberal society, Verso, London, 2013. See also Cornish devolution and neo-liberalism). As part of the neoliberal project, the size of local authorities is being gradually whittled down by the Local Government Boundary Commission (LGBC).

While Cornwall is not the only territory bearing the brunt of this process (other rural areas in the north-east of England and Wiltshire have also experienced it), this is the context for central government taking the opportunity of the so-called ‘devolution deal’ with Cornwall Council in July 2015 to demand a council boundary review. This was bluntly ‘expected to reduce the number of local councillors’. Cornwall’s democratic deficit in terms of elected representatives in relation to voters is set to become even greater if the LGBC heeds this command and allows the Government to suborn their independence in this blatant way.

Any further reduction in the number of elected representatives in Cornwall will be especially stark when we note that recent boundary reviews for Devon County Council and Dorset County Council made little change to council size. In Devon numbers were cut by two, to 60, while in Dorset the number of councillors has unusually been increased, by one to 46. Other county council boundary reviews since the last round of elections in 2013 are

  • Kent – cut by 3 to 81
  • Hertfordshire – increased by 1 to 78
  • Cambridgeshire – cut by 8 to 61
  • Leicestershire – no change
  • Warwickshire – cut by 5 to 57
  • Nottinghamshire – cut by 1 to 66
  • Lancashire – no change

If these are any sort of precedent then we might expect the Boundary Commission to cut the number of councillors in Cornwall merely by two or three.

Cornwall’s double democratic deficit
At the same time it would be naive not to recognise that we have a deficit of representation in Cornwall or admit that Cornwall Council has come under severe criticism. However, while the authority itself may arguably not be fit for purpose, it has yet to be proven that this relates somehow to the number of elected representatives it contains. What we can say is that, contrary to media impressions, as we have seen above the territory is one of the least well represented in the UK in terms of pure numbers of elected representatives in relation to the electorate.

Moreover, we also have a deficit of electoral opportunity. Put simply, opportunities to vote for representatives – a key factor in the health of political parties and the vibrancy of the democratic system – are in Cornwall among the lowest in the UK (and after Brexit even lower). Table 4 below shows the number of elections to be expected in each 20 year cycle for the various types of local government territory in England, Wales and Cornwall.

Table 4: Elections in a 20 year cycle

Local Regional General Total
All-out unitary 5 0 4 9
All-out two tier 10 0 4 14
London 5 5 4 14
Scotland & Wales 5 5 4 14
Metropolitan 15 0 4 19
Two tier by halves 15 0 4 19
Two tier by thirds 20 0 4 24

Bridging the democratic deficit
As we have seen, Cornish voters are among the least well represented in the UK either in terms of number of elected representatives per head or opportunities to vote. One key factor in Cornwall’s double deficit is institutional. It lies in the abolition of a tier of local government and its amalgamation into a unitary local authority in 2009 by the Labour Government with the support of a Liberal Democratic County Council. This experiment, because of the size of the territory, has resulted in a large and apparently unwieldy institution where lines of democratic accountability are blurred and levels of responsiveness to local communities are widely found wanting. In this sense, it can indeed be accused of being ‘bloated’.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that occupying the Cornish territorial level with a local government body dealt the prospects of a devolved strategic regional assembly based on the national region of Cornwall a formidable blow. Despite the abolition of the County Council it paradoxically reinforced Cornwall’s status as a county, a major factor in the inability of central government to understand or accommodate Cornwall’s unique heritage and claims to devolution. The decision to establish a unitary authority was seriously flawed. It turned out to be another policy folly, similar to the preference for Devon and Cornwall institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. That policy consensus was later accepted as counter-productive for Cornwall. The elite consensus in favour of unitary local government body is now coming to be viewed in the same way. In order to restore a more responsive local government and establish more strategic regional government therefore, the answer is plain.

First, restore a level of genuinely local government. This might be based on the former six districts, perhaps combining them into three unitary councils, one for the west (Penwith and Kerrier), one for mid (Carrick and Restormel) and one for east Cornwall. If these authorities were to reflect the levels of electoral representation of the average unitary local authority in rural areas they should each have around 45 councillors.

Second, establish a streamlined strategic regional authority in Cornwall to manage powers devolved from Westminster (and from Europe after Brexit). This would be directed by at least 30 elected members.

This more democratic and responsive structure would increase representation in Cornwall to a fairer level as well as offer more opportunities for voter input into the system. Ideally, it would be combined with modernisation of the voting system, as in the other devolved institutions and Scottish local government. This would involve the introduction of either an additional member system or preferably, as in Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote in order to ensure minority voices obtain a voice in our governing institutions.

Pass the parcel. The politics of the post-Brexit British imperial state.

The politics of the declining British imperial state have certainly become a lot more interesting lately. It’s like watching one of those slow-mo helicopter crashes in some action movie. All the whirly bits fly off in every direction, causing unpredictable carnage as they slice through the soft flesh of the body politic.

To most people’s surprise, those who led us back across the Channel and out of the EU, while bravely scaling the walls of the Establishment they were already sitting in, have gone AWOL. Having promised us a plan, it seems they had none. Their flat pack version of Brexit not only had all the screws missing but most of the bits you screw together.

Wanted for GBH. Members of the public are advised not to approach - believed dangerous.
Wanted for GBH. Members of the public are advised not to approach – believed dangerous.

Boris Johnson’s cultivated image of a shambling upper-class twit turned out to be no carefully cultivated image at all. It was real. He was just a power-hungry chancer who hadn’t a clue what to do after the vote. Immediately wavering and seemingly on the verge of rolling back on all the impossible promises he’d made to the voters, he was fatally damaged by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch declared against him on the 29th, expressing his preference for his friend Michael Gove. And sure enough Gove, the unlikely Brutus to BoJo’s Caesar, duly complied and put Johnson out of his misery. Boris will now be left to prowl the TV studios for years, haunting Cameron’s successor, a reminder of the nightmare that might have been.

Meanwhile, the nightmare that is – the five Tory leadership candidates – will soon be whittled down as someone, anyone, is pushed forward rather than the unctuous Gove who, having done the dirty deed, will now be shunned by all decent Tories. Of course, in a month or two, they’ll all be great mates again as they manoeuvre for that plum government job while continuing to stab each other merrily in the back in unattributed statements at lunch meetings with the journalists of the Tory press. The inept plotters and wannabe leaders of Labour’s parliamentary party need to take a lesson from the sheer ferocious ruthlessness of the public school politics on the other side.

We’re in for a prolonged period of pass the parcel, as the suicide bomb of triggering Article 50 is hastily hurled from Cameron to Brexiters to some Tory woman who’ll wait for it to explode in her face sometime later this year or next.

While all this unfolds Farage has done a runner. Just 24 hours after hobnobbing with Rupert Murdoch at a weekend shindig (is there a pattern emerging here) he resigns. Third time lucky? Although he’s considerately decided to stay on as an MEP while the UK remains a member, which looks like some time to come as no-one has dared to start the clock ticking yet. This’ll force him to go on reluctantly pocketing his £73,000 a year plus generous expenses, all for being rude to European parliamentarians. Nice job if you can get it, although most of those who voted Brexit won’t. Or probably get any jobs come to that. But they’ll feel better. Or will they?

Have you seen these missing persons, believed to have a secret method of funding the NHS by £350m a week?
Have you seen these missing persons, believed to have a secret method of funding the NHS by £350m a week?

In the long run there’s likely to be a helluva hangover as Brexit begins to impact. As the months pass it will slowly percolate through the skulls of the 17 million who voted leave that they’ve been sold a pup. Control will still be in the hands of a tiny minority of global super-rich. Immigration will not stop, let alone ‘they’ be sent back. The NHS will still be chronically underfunded as preparations continue for its sale to the elite that is no longer ‘in control’. Because we’ve got ‘our’ country back. Except of course we haven’t. Especially in Cornwall.

As they realise they’ve been serially shafted, the angry, who seem to be everywhere these days, are likely to turn to a more openly and less hypocritically racist party than the Tories/Ukip, unless a credible progressive alternative emerges. Either the BNP or some other new far right party will rise like a phoenix from the fascist ashes, irresponsibly stoked by Ukip and the Europhobic right of the Conservative Party.

Don’t despair though. Cornwall could always apply to become the 5th/6th department of Brittany and restore our historic links with our Breton cousins. And if you haven’t already read it, look on the bright side as the Brexit silver linings are identified.

EU referendum – the people spoke. Although not with one voice.

When the dust settled a week ago, the press was quick to tell us what happened.

the country voted with its heart‘ (Mirror)

Britain backs Brexit‘ (Telegraph)

Britain votes to leave EU‘ (Independent)

the UK voted to leave‘ (Huffington Post)

Except that neither ‘the UK’, ‘the country’, nor ‘Britain’ did anything of the kind. The Leave side won a relatively small majority (51.9%) of those who voted. However, not everyone voted. Here’s the full voting figures for the UK and for Cornwall.

UK Cornwall
Leave 17,410,742 182,665
Remain 16,141,241 140,540
Didn’t vote 12,949,258 96,533

EU referendum vote

So in the UK only 37.4%, or just over one in three voted for Brexit. ‘The UK’, ‘the country’ and ‘Britain’ turn out in practice to comprise just over one in three of the electorate. Even in Cornwall, a majority of the electorate was not in favour of leaving: 43.5% voted for Brexit, 33.5% to stay and 23.0% weren’t bothered either way.

Of course, turnout is irrelevant to the result and those who didn’t vote – a massive 64% of the 18-24 year olds who we were told were apparently so keen to stay in the EU incidentally – are ignored. The Leave camp won, and those calling for a re-run are mistaken; this would set a very dangerous precedent for the future.

On the other hand, democratic elections have rules and rules can vary from one election to the next. For instance, in 1979 the UK Government demanded that 40% of Scottish electors had to vote for devolution for it to happen. It didn’t as in the event the 51.6% who voted for devolution (very close to the 51.9% for Brexit) did not reach the 40% threshold and had to wait 20 years.

And just last month the Government pushed through its Trade Union Act. This makes strikes in ‘important public services’ which include the NHS, schools, fire services and transport, illegal unless 40% of those eligible to vote in a strike ballot vote for the strike.

Under those rules the 37.4% who voted for Brexit would have been insufficient to trigger such a far-reaching constitutional change. Given these precedents, it was perfectly possible for Parliament to have insisted on similar rules for such an important vote as the one last week. But apparently, for the Tories, membership of the EU was less important that either Scottish devolution in 1979 or strikes in public services. Or maybe the metropolitan Establishment was just so arrogantly and mistakenly cocksure it would win a Remain vote the thought never crossed its mind.

Anyway, here’s the results by constituency in Cornwall (excluding postal votes which may mean the Leave vote is understated). By the way, the report online in the Cornish Guardian has the wrong figures for Camborne-Redruth, exaggerating the Leave vote by 10,000. It seems that west Cornwall was a little less keen on Brexit than east.

Leave (%) Remain (%)
Truro & Falmouth 47 53
St Ives 54 46
Camborne-Redruth 56 44
South East Cornwall 58 42
North Cornwall 60 40
St Austell & Newquay 62 38

Fear and loathing on the referendum trail 9: Remain 3, Brexit 0. No extra time required

I began by being fairly unenthusiastic about the EU and a referendum campaign that feels more like Big Brother. I’ve now convinced myself to vote Remain. This remains a Remain with reservations. Let’s not kid ourselves; the EU is no shining example of progressivism, it’s been captured by nation-state governments and neoliberal ideologues. However, we have to ask which option is the lesser evil. Which offers the better chance of democratic renewal in Cornwall and the UK generally? Which would be more likely to take action to decarbonise our economy? Finally, which is better for Cornwall in the long run? And the answer to all three questions is clearly Remain. I shall be voting in a spirit of scepticism. I don’t want a neoliberal EU and I don’t buy into the economistic, never-ending population growth, never-ending consumption, never-ending ‘growth’ scenario peddled by the political elite and the likes of Cameron and Osborne.

But I’m even less keen on being part of a Little England run by the likes of Farage, Johnson, Gove, assorted climate change deniers, austerity enthusiasts and neoliberals. Or for that matter five of the six political dwarves who in a collective fit of absence of sense, we voted in as our Cornish MPs last year. A surprising number of people seem to be thinking the same way. So let’s be EU-sceptic but pro-European. Let’s vote Remain and get this toxic issue out of the way. We can then get on with the serious stuff, like ridding ourselves of Cameron and the Tories, working with progressives in the rest of Europe to democratise the EU, organising for fair and equal treatment for Cornwall and its communities, and building an alternative to the neoliberal ideology that’s irresponsibly wrecking the planet in the interests of the 1%.

Fear and loathing on the referendum trail 8: Cornwall, is it all about the pasty?

Which referendum option holds out most hope for those who dream of devolution of powers to Cornwall and Cornish self-determination?

Just as ‘debate’ about the EU at the nation state scale is reduced to the depressing level of ‘what’s in it for us’, so is ‘debate’ in Cornwall often reduced to the financial impact of EU grant aid. We are one of the few regions of the UK that directly benefits financially from EU membership in the shape of massive regional grant aid since 2000. Which should make Cornwall one of the keenest Remain hotspots in these islands. Bremainers point to the loss of those grants and regard Cornish Brexiters as turkeys voting for Christmas. This is too simple. Brexiters question the efficacy of EU grants yet are quick to promise they’ll be replaced by UK government grants.

Boris Johnson tries to tempt a seagull with a pastyBut can we believe that? Or is this another of those blank Brexit cheques they seem so quick to hand out? As well as paying for the needs of the NHS, the EU ‘dividend’ has been promised for Cornwall’s grants, for farmers, for exporters, indeed for anyone who complains they’ll lose out from Brexit. This £7.1bn (not the £18bn claimed by those horsemen of the apocalypse – Farage, Gove and Johnson) – is going to have to go a hell of a long way.

Call me a cynic but it’s really not very credible. The UK Government’s record in handing on EU money to Cornwall has hardly been inspiring. It’s persistently dragged its feet, holding on to EU grants for up to two years and slow to stump up matching funds. Generally, it’s been unwilling to delegate control for spending Cornwall’s grant money to Cornwall itself or Cornish-based institutions. Would this suddenly improve after Brexit? With the same set of centralist, austerity politicians in control?

On the other hand, the impact of EU grant aid has hardly been independently assessed by academic researchers. An evaluation in 2015 by a private sector consultancy firm was less than overwhelmingly positive. The project class who run Convergence and the former Objective One handouts have been extremely coy in encouraging research on the impacts of their activities. Their decision to allow mega-projects like the university campus at Tremough or the Eden Project tourist attraction to commandeer the bulk of EU funding rather than spread it around among SMEs has never been properly evaluated.

Adopting the former strategy, just because it’s easier to manage, has resulted in a degree of leakage. Grant money destined for Cornwall has leaked out to non-Cornish institutions such as the University of Exeter. The number of well-paid jobs created that have gone to existing residents rather than new residents must be limited. The jury remains out on EU grant money managed by an unaccountable project class with limited knowledge of Cornish communities.

Yet, while EU grants may have supplemented the outdoor relief scheme for the middle-classes that passes for government policy these days, would Brexit be any better? Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and co have no discernible track record of supporting the devolution of powers to Cornwall or to Cornish institutions. Ukip was the only political party in Cornwall in 2014 that did not welcome the granting of national minority status to the Cornish. Even the Labour Party in Cornwall jumped on that particular bandwagon. Ukip (although not its voters) is also opposed to a Cornish Assembly. Ukip tends to beleive that regionalism is just a plot by the European Commission and that the raw deal Cornish fishermen get is entirely the result of the EU, which lets successive UK fishing ministers off the hook nicely.

The UK Government has consistently ignored our demands for equal treatment with the other nations of these islands, demands patronisingly dismissed by Cameron and his ilk with ignorant references to South American rivers. In contrast, European institutions, both in and out of the EU, seem readier to listen to demands for the recognition of the Cornish and more prepared to take our status seriously. While the project of the Europe of the Peoples gathers dust in some corner of Brussels, or is it Strasbourg, the support and solidarity of European Free Alliance (EFA) partners within the EU offers a potentially useful pressure point which should surely only be given up after a lot of careful thought.

I’m sure the Cornish voter will be giving the upcoming referendum a lot more of that careful thought than voters in the other shopping centres of Britain. In particular, we need to think through the consequences of a Brexit decision. It may be an attractive idea to put one to the public school toffs who run the Government and ignore Cornwall. But how will voting for another lot of public school toffs who also ignore Cornwall help?

MK is supporting Remain
MK is supporting Remain

While the EU is no shining beacon for regionalist demands, if the UK leaves the EU then a Scottish departure becomes more likely. This will leave Cornwall stranded (with Wales) within the increasingly English dominated rump of the UK. An England even more prone to be run by political forces deeply opposed to the need to devolve powers to those regions and nations that are left.

If we add the possibility of an economic slump to the unsettling context of a triumphant, but narrow and backward-looking English nationalism, things become even more worrisome. Can we then expect a neoliberal and conservative political class, even more entrenched in the institutions of governance, to distract and divide its people by turning more and more on ethnic minorities, the disabled, the unemployed, the poor and the peripheries, as useful scapegoats for post-Brexit problems?

A post-Brexit England just doesn’t look like a very attractive place to be stuck in. So anyone looking forward to the prospect of Cornish devolution should grit their teeth, forget about the unctuous Cameron and vote Remain.

Fear and loathing on the referendum trail 7: Combating climate change

The biggest challenge facing the planet is runaway global warming. As the media distract us with trivia, the globe spins onward towards its tipping point, propelled by our addiction to fossil fuels and stubborn refusal to countenance the possibility of changing our way of life to prevent it. The Paris agreement of last year, when governments agreed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees but declined to provide many specific examples of how exactly they would do it, is already dead in the water.

Temperatures this year have soared to record levels. At this rate the 1.5 degree limit will be reached and passed within a year or two. Meanwhile politicians prevaricate, caught in the vice-like grip of their allegiance to neoliberalism and subservience to corporate interests. The super-rich have to maintain their planet-destroying lifestyles, the fossil fuels have to be exploited, profits have to be made.

Which outcome, Brexit or Bremain, is most likely to confront the urgent need for environmental regulation and de-carbonisation of the economy? This is clearly another transnational issue and can only be solved on a transnational scale. Again, we’re back to trust.

The leading ranks of Brexiters are dominated by those in denial about man-made climate change, people like the two Nigels, Lawson and Farage. Lawson, who curiously prefers to live in France, set up his own Global Warming Policy Foundation to oppose climate change mitigation policies. Meanwhile, Farage admits to not having a clue about the causes of dangerous climate change. Ukip policy in last year’s election included a plan to scrap the Department for Energy and Climate Change and end ‘burdensome green levies’.

Does this man understand the issue of climate change and global warming?
Does this man understand the issue of climate change and global warming?

Another leading Brexiter, our own PR lobbyist, MP and ‘farmer’, George Eustice, wants to scrap the EU’s birds and habitats directives and re-direct the ‘green dividend’ to farmers. Scrapping environmental protections across the board is likely to trigger an even more frenzied developmental free-for-all on sites currently shielded by EU designations.

With most environmentalists lining up behind Bremain, on the climate change crisis criterion alone the decision looks pretty clear cut. Vote Remain. Putting the Brexiters in charge of the environment seems like another case of John Major’s python in charge of a pet hamster, except that the python may well succumb to the current wave of global mass species extinction before the hamster.