Like those apocryphal buses, you wait ages for a discussion of devolution to Cornwall, and then two turn up in the same week. Hot on the heels of the Liberal Democrat parliamentarians’ call for a Cornish Assembly, Cornwall Council debated its ‘Case for Cornwall’ on Tuesday this week.
If the Lib Dems’ protestations stretched credibility to its limits given their sorry past record, the councillors’ level of comprehension of the issues involved takes us to another planet entirely. If, like me, you are insane enough to sit through the webcast of this so-called debate, don’t expect grand talk of new democratic settlements. You’ll have to wait in vain for a fleeting glance of anything resembling a vision. Any flights of fancy about enhancing democratic participation were as rare as snow on Scilly. And if you’re allergic to mentions of constitutional change then you’ll be entirely safe here.
What united Independent, Lib Dem and Tory councillors instead was their determination to avoid any prospect of ‘another layer of bureaucracy’. (Not a ‘layer of democratically elected representatives’ note – a bit of a give away as to how they see Cornwall Council perhaps.) In this way do the consequences of the disastrous single unitary authority foisted on us by Lib Dems and Labour in 2009 come home to roost. This local government body with its excessive pretensions squats like a bloated Buddha over the road to an Assembly, pre-empting and diverting rational debate on the subject.
The ‘debate’ on Tuesday was summed up by Council Leader John Pollard (Ind) as ‘excellent’, which must suggest he slept through most of it. Councillors constantly and lazily employed the word ‘Cornwall’ when they actually meant ‘Cornwall Council’, as in ‘what’s best for Cornwall’. The ‘Case for Cornwall’ stems from a decision to plead for fairer funding from central government. And it reads like it. In reality, it’s just a timid call for some extra powers for Cornwall Council, containing precious few concrete proposals while being vision-free.
In the elephant of paperwork that produced this mouse, there’s just one mention of a Cornish Assembly. That comes when it’s reported that some members had argued for ‘more ambition … [and] something more akin to Scotland and Wales’. Heaven forbid. Ideas along those lines were firmly quashed by the Council’s leadership, which rejected those ‘minority’ views and instead adopted a model of ‘Cornwall Council and [unnamed] Cornish partners’ rather than a Cornish Assembly.
Dick Cole, on behalf of MK, moved an amendment ‘to include the option of a Cornish Assembly which which would have democratic control over the wider public sector as in Wales and Scotland’. Other councillors, not content with erroneously equating Cornwall Council with Cornwall, then queued up to insist that Cornwall Council was already an Assembly. Bert Biscoe (Ind) said ‘this Council is the Cornish Assembly’, while Derek Holley (Ind) joined him in cloud cuckoo-land by observing that ‘we are sitting in the first Cornish Assembly’.
While Independents seemed confused about the status of the local government body they are elected to, the debate might have been expected to shine a powerful searchlight on what the Lib Dems really mean by devolution. It didn’t, turning out to be more like a glow of dim candlelight. For Lib Dem councillors Joanna Kenny, Jeremy Rowe and Sue James, Cornwall Council was the ‘building block’ for devolution, while it was entirely unimportant whether you called it a Council or an Assembly.
This betrays a sad lack of comprehension among Cornwall’s Lib Dem councillors about what regional governance entails. They seem blithely unaware that Cornwall Council is in fact a local authority. Either that, or they’re willing to abolish local government in Cornwall altogether. Because their plea for more power for Cornwall Council was of course coupled with the mandatory assurance that whatever happens, we mustn’t under any circumstances demand ‘an extra layer of government’. Even though that’s actually what we need to bring us in line with Scotland, Wales and London. And most of England for that matter. For example, Lib Dem prospective candidate for Truro & Falmouth, Simon Rix, daringly went so far as to explicitly state ‘I support a Cornish Assembly’. But then ruined it by promptly adding ‘although not as an extra layer of government’. Which means exactly what? A tarted up local authority is NOT a strategic regional assembly. On the other hand, a regional assembly without local government would be a democratic travesty.
At the end of the day, a clearly bemused and frustrated Dick Cole was supported by just 14 councillors, with the other 80 or 90 voting for this dumbed down plea for more powers for Cornwall Council and in effect rejecting the possibility of a visionary new democratic settlement for Cornwall. As usual, the vote was not recorded.