MK has called for 2016 to be the Year of Cornish Recognition, when Cornwall’s territory, its right to an assembly and the Cornish identity and language become mainstream issues across the UK. For that to happen however, 2016 and, even more so, 2017 have also to become the Years of Cornish Resistance.
In May next year, Cornwall Council is up for re-election. The first Conservative/Independent unitary council administration wholeheartedly embraced the regeneration myth and a growth strategy that basically encouraged the continuation of large scale population transfers into Cornwall. The second Lib Dem/Independent administration has been more ambiguous about this strategy but has abysmally failed to offer much meaningful opposition to central government diktat or austerity politics. Moreover, it’s not even begun to galvanise the Cornish public behind calls for devolution or lead campaigns for fair treatment or a genuine re-democratisation of Cornwall. Quite the opposite in fact, as the general view of Cornwall Council on the streets, after a string of cock-ups, plumbs hitherto unseen depths.
The next elections are therefore critical. Here’s the chance to replace the majority of the current crew of councillors, who either ineffectually bleat about how they’re being bullied, or actively collude with the transformation of Cornwall into a lifestyle choice and a profitable playground for upcountry developers. But replace them with what? There are two obvious choices for any self-respecting Cornish patriot. The first is Mebyon Kernow (MK) the long-standing face of responsible Cornish nationalism, with four councillors at present out of 123. The second is less visible, the promising though somewhat shy movement around Cornwall for Change (C4C) or what’s occasionally called the ‘Alliance’.
Neither seems that convincing at the time of writing. Those of us opposed to Cornwall Council’s direction of travel have been unable to establish a convincing, membership-based and open campaigning group over the three years since disquiet over the Council’s plans for Cornwall first surfaced. There’s been a lot of talk, some bloodcurdling threats, some lobbying of elected members, promises of undisclosed forthcoming action, but nothing substantial. Even a website has still to appear, let alone a coherent strategy or the material basis for a credible intervention in the 2017 elections.
Which leaves us with MK. Since last year’s General Election disaster and in particular since the new year MK has come in for a degree of criticism. It’s not doing enough; it’s not visible; it’s not well organised. There’s nothing new in this. Since the 1970s at least, Cornish nationalism has comprised of an organised core, a constitutional party fighting elections and competing with the state-wide parties in Cornwall, plus an unorganised and fluctuating penumbra or margin. The latter snipes away at MK’s ineffectiveness and promises, though never quite achieves, unspecified more effective action.
Back in the 1970s for example, we had the Stannary short-cut. People jumped at the opportunities presented by never-repealed, long-ignored charters to point out that we already had our own Parliament. ‘All’ that was needed was UK Government recognition of our legal rights and there was the short-cut to independence. Nothing could be simpler. Except that central government will only begin to take this seriously when ‘the law’ is backed up by a massive show of resistance that challenges the legitimacy of the London Government in Cornwall. Given the state of public opinion this is at present unlikely.
The MK activist would rightly respond that, for this to happen, years of patient and solid work are required, electioneering, publicising, agitating, leafleting, arguing for devolution. Given the constant need in Cornwall to educate new generations of residents, the democratic road is a long and thankless one. No wonder that many of us, and I include myself in this criticism, shirk the task. After a few years active in MK, we shrug our shoulders and retire to other, less onerous and more immediately productive, fields of endeavour.
Although it’s understandable, it’s too easy from outside to criticise MK for its inability to make its presence tell. If anything, this is more acutely felt because we so desperately want it to succeed. We put our faith in MK. But that investment is then regularly dashed in the cold baths of succeeding electoral cycles. We swing from wildly over-hyped pre-election enthusiasm to bitter post-election gloom. Hope turns to despair, love turns to hate as we decide never again to invest our dreams in MK. Or at least not until the next election.
All of which is deeply frustrating to MK members as their fair-weather friends come and go, offering a litany of advice and complaints but insufficient solidarity and support. As one contributor on Facebook rightly put it, MK ‘needs all hands on decks’, especially given its lack of resources. But instead, we prefer to skulk on the sidelines and moan about those lack of resources.
While a lot of the criticism levelled at MK is unrealistic or unfair, this is not to deny that the party needs to re-assess its position and recognise that at present it’s been treading water and not going anywhere electorally. Of course, things can always change and change quickly. We’re told a week is a long time in politics. But MK has been waiting 65 years for that week. Can it do anything to bring it a little closer? Is it time for a fundamental and long overdue re-think? In the second part of this blog I’ll try to stop rambling and offer a few thoughts on a possible change of direction.