Wasn’t it Ghandhi who said ‘First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’?
The Cornish are clearly still stuck in the first of these phases although, when we’re privileged enough to be noticed, we can slip easily into the second. Then we have to endure the usual spate of half-arsed, neo-racist and puerile jokes from those embarrassed, shocked and/or insulted by the very idea of a Cornish people who deserve equal status with the other nations sharing these islands.
A year ago, the Government announced it was bringing the Cornish within the scope of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in recognition of the ‘unique identity of the Cornish’. This was welcomed rather over-enthusiastically by most politicians in Cornwall, with the exception of Ukip and those who suspected it amounted to no more than tokenism.
A year on and apart from providing some continuing funding for the Cornish Language Partnership (although not enough to offset the cuts from Cornwall Council), little seems to have changed. The Convention provides a framework within which the Cornish could be granted equal status with the other nations. Its primary focus is cultural rights. However, there is precious little evidence that it has had any perceptible effect on that casually patronising elite attitude towards Cornwall so well summed up by David Cameron when he said ‘It’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake’.
Nonetheless, the Convention allows for the distinct possibility of more political action. For example, it could be used to challenge the juggernaut of developer-led suburbanisation that is de-Cornishizing Cornwall. For Article 16 says ‘The Parties (i.e. including the UK Government) should refrain from measures which alter the proportions of the population in areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities ….’ This leaves a lot of wriggle room and promises a bonanza for the barristers to quibble over. But it does provide another potential political pressure point.
Not that the Government seems over-keen to listen. Their compliance report to the Council of Europe, submitted in March, is basically a joke. The references to Cornwall and the Cornish in it are so superficial as to be meaningless. Listing all sorts of cultural endeavours that they had nothing at all to do with encouraging, the Government then firmly stamps its jackboot – ‘In extending the Framework Convention to the Cornish, the Government made clear that this was without prejudice as to whether the Cornish meet the definition of racial group in the Equality Act 2010 as only the courts may decide that’. So there we have it. In other words, despite the Framework Convention, they’re still stubbornly refusing to extend the same rights to the Cornish as to the Welsh or Scots.
It hardly comes as a great surprise that no party standing in this election apart from MK is prepared to right this wrong. In fact mention of Cornwall in the manifestos is rare. Well, actually, it remains invisible in the Tory, Labour and Ukip cases. The Lib Dems have one reference to a Cornish Assembly, which they persist in confusing with a jumped up local council. The Greens also mention Cornwall in the context of an Assembly but then, rather worryingly, also include Cornwall in a postscript on an ideal Green world. Here, you can enjoy your ‘two weeks on a beach’ in Cornwall, your re-nationalized train getting you ‘practically to the campsite gate’.
So the Greens are firmly locating Cornwall in that externally-created fantasy-land, one where Poldark gallops frantically and pointlessly along deserted cliffs and the sun is always setting. This isn’t far from the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’ of the broadsheet weekend supplements, as they implicitly encourage second home ownership and consign Cornwall to the status of liminal leisure zone for the delectation of the metropolitan professional and business classes.
It’s as if we exist behind a two-way mirror. From inside, we can see out, but from the outside people can only see their own stereotypes reflected back at them. Dazzled by their image of a romantic but domesticated Cornwall, impossibly remote in time but cosily close in space, they’re just not capable of taking Cornwall or the demands of its people for special consideration with any degree of seriousness.
Although, maybe it’s not a two-way but a two-sided mirror, as we also look into it and discover the same stereotypes, all soaring cliffs, thundering surf and slumbering self-confidence, staring sternly back at us. Unable to escape them, we shrug our shoulders and imagine how we might commandeer Cap’n Poldark in the interests of the Cornish people rather than letting him add to the tourist industry-led pillaging of Cornwall.
Now that we have the tool of the Framework Convention, do we need a forthright Cornish People’s Party unafraid to push for equal treatment and status with the other national minorities of the UK? Is MK that party?