Time to put culture back into civic nationalism?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOV 19, 2013

In the mid-1970s attempts to position MK as a more ethnic nationalist party were seen off as the party followed the SNP and Plaid Cymru along a path of civic nationalism. Over the decades a worthy social democratic pantheon of fairness, environmental sustainability and social justice came to dominate MK’s discourse. Yet two decades of righteousness have failed to achieve the long-awaited electoral breakthrough. True, MK’s vote stood up quite strongly to the surge towards the populist far-right Ukip and a centralist/centrist Labour Party in the most recent of our now infrequent local elections earlier this year. This was achieved despite its familiar virtual invisibility in a media in thrall to Westminster Tweedledum/Tweedledee politics and the excitable thrill journalists seem to get from being seduced by far-right demagoguery.

If we transcend the moving right horror show for a moment we might nonetheless spot some lessons for MK in the populist surge. Political scientists suggest that identity politics have become more salient since the 1970s. Fundamentally therefore, does a shift to cultural issues and identity politics – observable across Europe – suggest that a scrupulous avoidance of ethnic nationalism might be overdue for dusting down and re-examination?

The response to Russell Brand’s fuck ‘em all political analysis might suggest as much. In a world where all the real decisions are made well away from democratic oversight and where politicians fall over themselves to hand over large chunks of social life and virtually all our economy to the corporate boardrooms and the globalised super-rich, voting takes on a rather surreal irrelevance. People sense that the democratic ritual is fairly pointless, even if they don’t understand why and can’t articulate it. Sadly, the uselessness of voting for the Lib/Lab/Con gang carries over into a general disaffection with voting as such. So people sit on their hands or cast their votes purely as a protest. As we witness in the declining turnouts at elections and party system fragmentation.

In short, with the economy off-limits as a neo-liberal consensus grips the political class, and choice reduced to marginal and meaningless differences, people turn, if they turn anywhere, to culture. A vote for Ukip is hardly a vote for a set of policies. Most of their voters are blissfully unaware they’re even more corporation and austerity-friendly than the stale old gang. Instead, it’s an inchoate raging against the death of real politics, a search for certainties which, even if long gone, still call out to us from the graves of past generations. In our dumbed-down, celebrity-obsessed, corporate media culture the appeal of lost causes is hardly surprising.

But are cultural politics doomed always to be reactionary? In a racist, militaristic, authoritarian society such as Britain, cultural politics will inevitably take on a reactionary tinge. However, there are alternatives. For example, if popular support for the values underpinning the old NHS were properly mobilised it has the potential to challenge the political consensus by appealing to a constituency long-ago jettisoned by New Labour but one that looks back to the welfare state with pride.

Green politics too has its conservative element as Barbour-clad nimbies watch the ever-encroaching march into the countryside of the neo-liberal end of history dystopia of shopping, supermarkets and suburbia. And in the peripheries of the UK, Scottish and Welsh nationalism provide more progressive alternatives to the post-imperial posturing of English culture.

Which brings me to Cornwall. Since the 1970s, although political nationalism has been confined to the margins, making painfully slow, albeit real, progress, cultural nationalism has blossomed. Cornish people are now much more likely to define themselves as Cornish, as a hybrid Cornish/English identity appears finally to be shrivelling, hopefully to die a painless death sooner rather than later. The numbers describing themselves as possessing a Cornish national/ethnic identity doubled in the 2000s according to the Census. This indicates a growing cultural confidence since the late twentieth century. A plethora of flag-waving, sympathetic attitudes to the revived Cornish language, despite its strange blend of modernity and medievalism, enthusiasm for ‘Cornish’ music and other cultural icons, all provide more qualitative evidence for this.

Yet this doesn’t translate automatically into support for MK and political nationalism. To some extent, this may be because the Cornish cultural cringe persists. We continue to be confronted by a transient and ever-changing colonialist elite who sell us their poisonous ‘solutions’ for our plight while sagely informing us how terrible things would be if they weren’t here to help us. But it’s also because MK has been reluctant since the 1970s to play the cultural card.

A disinclination to appear backward-looking or reactionary and a desire to avoid accusations of racism are all laudable motives. But if it results in ceding the ground of cultural politics to the likes of Ukip, the BNP or the English Democrats, it could be a dangerously short-sighted strategy.

For 40 years the received wisdom has been that electoral appeals to Cornishness are doomed. Writing in the most recent Cornish Studies Peder Clark repeats the assertion that ‘a strident Celtic ethno-nationalism … is likely to have little general appeal’. This may be true in regards to a ‘strident’ ethnic defence. But it’s hardly proven that gentler appeals to Cornish ethnicity are inevitable vote-losers. Of course, there is another more practical argument against adopting identity politics. In a context where the Cornish have become a minority in their own land, electoral appeals to Cornishness cannot succeed as even if all the Cornish were to vote MK we’d still be outvoted.

But all this ignores an important factor. In our antiquated voting system you don’t need anything like a majority to get elected. Almost half of the current crop of councillors was voted in by less than 15% of the possible voters in their respective wards. The median vote for winning councillors was just 14.9% of their electorates this year, down from 17.7% in 2009. The median vote for winning Ukip and Labour councillors was even lower – at 9.3% and 10.8% respectively.

Given this, it’s at least of interest that in most wards, certainly in mid and west Cornwall, the number expressing an explicit Cornish national identity in 2011 was also between 10 and 20%.

So let’s propose a hypothesis. Let’s assume all those who went to the trouble of declaring their national identity was only Cornish vote MK. Let’s add in half of those who stated a joint British/Cornish identity and a third of the group who declared a joint Cornish and something else (usually English) identity. Unfortunately, we can’t compare the Census with the 2013 elections as those were fought on new boundaries. But in 2009, even though the turnout was higher and the proportions of the electorates voting for winning candidates consequently also higher, if the consciously Cornish had all voted MK the party would have ended up with 25 seats, not three.

if the 'Cornish' voted MK 2009

What would be required to achieve a majority? In 2009 there were three wards in which this Cornish vote was all gathered in and then surpassed. These were Callington, where Andrew Long not only won the ‘Cornish’ vote, which in that ward is very low at just 6.0%, but more than tripled it. In St Enoder Dick Cole almost doubled the ‘Cornish’ vote, winning 27.7% even though the potential Cornish vote by my measure was 14.7%. These two examples show that it’s very possible to win (a lot) more than the basic culturally Cornish component of the electorate, given excellent candidates. But it’s a tough ask to find candidates of such calibre across Cornwall.

The third ward where an MK candidate outscored the Cornish cultural vote was Liskeard North where Roger Holmes won 13.1%, in a ward where only 8.1% of people explicitly stated their Cornish identity on the census form. Roger’s vote indicates that a well known, locally based candidate should be able to increase the ‘Cornish’ vote by more modest factor of 50%. If this feat had been repeated across Cornwall then MK could potentially have won 61 of the seats in 2009 and been just one short of a majority. And that doesn’t include Callington! Put another way, these days a party only needs around 15-20% of all the electors to win a majority, a figure well short of 50%.

if 1.5 x 'Cornish' voted MK 2009

This is not pie in the sky speculation. It implies that if the consciously ‘Cornish’ vote could only be mobilised then MK could achieve a spectacular improvement on its actual results. The task would be to ally a cultural appeal to progressive policies and avoid the reactionary nostalgia that can still too easily become the cultural resort of choice for the proud Cornish person. But in a context where the Greens have begun to compete for the left of centre, green vote; where Miliband’s New New Labour hides its version of austerity politics behind a smokescreen of consumer-friendly soundbites; and where the Cornish Liberal Democrats sprawl like an exhausted and obese dinosaur blocking the road to Cornish liberation, is it not time to play the cultural card?

Postscript
In these musings I’ve been taking it for granted that there is or could be a natural relationship between asserting a Cornish identity and voting MK. However, it should be noted that in 2009 the correlation between the MK vote and Cornish identity – at 0.104 – was extremely weak and not significant. The reasons for this lack of correlation and its implications could certainly benefit from further exploration.

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