In 2002, political scientists Simon Henig and Lewis Baston wrote that MK was ‘a serious and committed presence on the Cornish scene with potential for growth’. However, this is one growth that Cornwall hasn’t seen. So what is it that holds MK back? Is it technical issues and the electoral system, or policy positions, or something broader, involving institutional or cultural constraints?
The immediate disadvantages within which MK operates hardly require restating. Put simply, the electoral playing field is anything but level; it’s utterly slanted against MK. For example, as long as Cornwall is regarded as part of England, any regionalist party will be barred from airing party election broadcasts. MK’s Dick Cole has spent many hours fruitlessly banging his head against the stubborn, illogical ‘rules’ behind which the broadcasters hide and sums up the position comprehensively here.
But no-one imagines that if MK were only granted a few party election broadcasts everything in the garden would be rosy. However convincing Dick or his colleagues might be on the small screen, it’s difficult to imagine broadcasts alone triggering massive support, with crowds of people queueing up to vote MK. Let’s take a short detour into MK’s history. In policy terms MK is a child of the 60s. Its ‘left of centre’, broadly social democratic, greenish policy stance mirrors that of Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the UDB in Brittany. However, unlike Plaid and the SNP (but like the UDB), MK missed out during the first nationalist surge of the 1960s and then failed to break through in the 1970s. Moreover, unlike the UDB, it’s been unable to take advantage of an electoral system slightly kinder to minority parties and benefit from alliances with Greens or other left of centre parties.
In contrast, an antiquated Victorian voting system combines with the disdain of the media to conveniently marginalise MK. But how do voters actually regard MK? On the one hand it’s a more Cornish version of the Greens and on the other a leftist version of the Lib Dems. But it’s not clear whether there’s enough electoral space in Cornwall for two Lib Dem parties. That’s even more the case for two Green Parties; in fact it’s not obvious there’s enough room for one.
When it comes to what we might term the soft Cornish vote MK has traditionally lost out to the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals seized ownership of the anti-metropolitan issue back in the 1960s and have retained it for over half a century. The Lib Dems just do enough, with their recurrent (though hollow) calls for a ‘fair deal for Cornwall’, to hang on to that soft ‘Cornish’ vote. Ever the opportunists and conveniently policy-lite, these chameleon Cornish are quick to jump on any bandwagon going, from EU Objective 1 funding in 1999, to housing campaigns, to struggles against border-blurring, to support for a Cornish Assembly (even though in practice this somewhat ludicrously turns out to mean one or two enhanced powers for a discredited local government institution and more money for undemocratic quangos.)
This is why Ben Gilby’s call for MK to manufacture the issues that can convince Lib Dems to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ is fundamentally mistaken. Mistaken that is if the aim is to project MK as the more credible voice of Cornish devolution. Lib Dems have been all too adept at jumping on the bandwagon in the past. Invariably, this has meant them siphoning off support, capturing MK issues and policies but in the process neutering them, stripping them of content or otherwise discrediting them. In fact, the Lib Dems’ persistent success in doing this has been an important factor in MK’s failure to grow. MK will only achieve credibility and become a major player over the dead body of the Cornish Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems’ disastrous dalliance with the Tories during the coalition government opened up an opportunity, but it was one MK was unfortunately unable to exploit. Ben says that the Cornish situation will remain perilous ‘until there is someone in Parliament who can speak for Cornwall’. However, in the last parliament there was. Liberal Democrat Andrew George spoke for Cornwall. Here was someone who had impeccable Cornish credentials and could really have made a difference. If only Andrew had resigned the Lib Dem whip (over NHS ‘reform’ perhaps or his party’s support for a Devonwall constituency). Then he might have built a base for an independent broader Cornish alliance ( maybe including MK) and held on to his seat. Unfortunately, he didn’t take that chance, preferring to stick with the sinking ship of the Lib Dems, and went down with it. Until someone like Andrew breaks with the Lib Dems, or we elect an MK MP, we will continue to have no-one in Parliament who can forthrightly ‘speak for Cornwall’.
However, consigning the Lib Dem illusion to the dustbin of history, like party election broadcasts, is no magic bullet. MK faces more profound structural problems, problems related to culture, identity and social change. While recent years have seen a growing willingness of people to assert their Cornish identity, a strand of pessimism, defeatism and despair also still runs through the Cornish psyche. This is hardly surprising in the context of the massive social changes since the 1960s and the colonisation of our institutions by an incoming project class seemingly unaware of our heritage or status, or even hostile to it.
Sadly, any subdued resentment that might be smouldering away in Cornish communities has been as likely to find its outlet in voting Ukip as in voting MK. In fact, a lot more likely in the past few years. The populist turn we have seen since the bankers’ crash of 2008 – either the xenophobic right populism of Ukip or the French Front National, or the radical left populism of the SNP, the Corbynistas or Podemos in Spain – seems to have passed MK by.
Nonetheless, as voter volatility and de-partisanship increases, does another opportunity open up for MK? Can the party tap into it? Is it best prepared to do so? Cornish political scientist Joanie Willett has convincingly argued that ethnic nationalism is more inclusive than the ‘regional brand’ of civic nationalism hesitatingly deployed by elites in Cornwall. The former is potentially more emancipatory and open to anyone with an attachment to Cornwall, whereas civic nationalism is based on consumption, greed and lifestyle. This demands a level of income that puts it beyond the reach of most Cornish folk.
Combine this with the fact that, as the mainstream parties have converged in their economic policies (all adopting neo-liberal, corporate-friendly policies in slightly differing shades), identity politics have become more salient. Should MK not therefore adopt a more forceful identity politics than the determinedly liberal, yet rather anodyne, civic nationalism that has been its hallmark since the mid-1970s? In parallel, is to time to play down its overt left of centre position and adopt a more catch-all position, a post-ideological stance if you like. This might combine an opposition to neo-liberalism and campaigning for democratisation of our institutions with a public focus on a few key populist policies (for example second homes and border-blurring), combined with a strongly pro-Cornish attitude. At present MK can seem merely like a mini-version of Plaid or the SNP. But does it need to be more distinctly Cornish?
To do that, a couple of other things seem in order. MK historically grew out of the Cornish cultural revival. This adopted a set of values that prioritised medievalism over modernity, the rural over the urban, Celtic purity over English regionalism, the Cornish language over the Cornish dialect. This had its strengths, in that it allowed a coherent counter-narrative to Englishness to emerge and to a degree thrive. But it also had its limits.
The revivalist movement never found it easy to build a bridge to the bulk of the Cornish people. With the rise of the ‘industrial Celt’ in the 1990s this became easier but a tension remains between revivalism and a populist Cornishness that sometimes finds it difficult to live up to the impossibly pure cultural demands of revivalism. Another Cornish academic observer, Neil Kennedy, has argued that the current revivalist project is flirting with a second wrong turn. It’s in danger of compromising or even sacrificing traditional ‘proper Cornishness’ in pursuit of the chimera of a tourist-friendly, consumerist ‘celtic’ culture that appeals to native and new-ager, resident and visitor alike. The danger in this lies in distancing revivalism even further from the everyday Cornishness and concerns of local communities.
If Neil is right then MK might be well advised to make a final break with the conceits of Cornish revivalism. This also means playing down the revived Cornish language, which should be treated merely as a useful symbol of difference than some ideal cultural destination. For too long, the much more widely used Cornish accent and dialect has been disparaged and downgraded. Yet the popularity of cultural commentators such as Kernow King, online and in person, hints at a resurgence of interest in the dialect and, more importantly, the possibility of creatively re-using it as an emancipatory tool.
Can we detect in this the seeds of a new Cornish populism, one that is neither ‘Celtic’ nor English, but Cornish and proud of it? However, to take advantage of this, MK surely needs a re-launch. New policies would ideally be combined with a long overdue name change, ditching the outdated and revivalist connotations of Mebyon Kernow. The name Plaid Cymru makes sense in the Welsh context, when a fifth of voters still speak Welsh and the language has an everyday presence; it’s less clear that slavishly copying the Welsh makes sense in the Cornish context when hardly anyone speaks Cornish. Instead of ‘MK: the Party of Cornwall’, why not just ‘The Cornish Party’ for example?
So there we have it. I seem to have argued myself into proposing a post-ideological, post-revivalist, populist Cornish party rising out of the ashes of traditional Cornish nationalism. Hopefully, this iconoclasm won’t be too shocking; it’s offered with the best motives. I remain convinced MK remains our best (and only) hope; but perhaps not exactly in its present shape.