Which referendum option holds out most hope for those who dream of devolution of powers to Cornwall and Cornish self-determination?
Just as ‘debate’ about the EU at the nation state scale is reduced to the depressing level of ‘what’s in it for us’, so is ‘debate’ in Cornwall often reduced to the financial impact of EU grant aid. We are one of the few regions of the UK that directly benefits financially from EU membership in the shape of massive regional grant aid since 2000. Which should make Cornwall one of the keenest Remain hotspots in these islands. Bremainers point to the loss of those grants and regard Cornish Brexiters as turkeys voting for Christmas. This is too simple. Brexiters question the efficacy of EU grants yet are quick to promise they’ll be replaced by UK government grants.
But can we believe that? Or is this another of those blank Brexit cheques they seem so quick to hand out? As well as paying for the needs of the NHS, the EU ‘dividend’ has been promised for Cornwall’s grants, for farmers, for exporters, indeed for anyone who complains they’ll lose out from Brexit. This £7.1bn (not the £18bn claimed by those horsemen of the apocalypse – Farage, Gove and Johnson) – is going to have to go a hell of a long way.
Call me a cynic but it’s really not very credible. The UK Government’s record in handing on EU money to Cornwall has hardly been inspiring. It’s persistently dragged its feet, holding on to EU grants for up to two years and slow to stump up matching funds. Generally, it’s been unwilling to delegate control for spending Cornwall’s grant money to Cornwall itself or Cornish-based institutions. Would this suddenly improve after Brexit? With the same set of centralist, austerity politicians in control?
On the other hand, the impact of EU grant aid has hardly been independently assessed by academic researchers. An evaluation in 2015 by a private sector consultancy firm was less than overwhelmingly positive. The project class who run Convergence and the former Objective One handouts have been extremely coy in encouraging research on the impacts of their activities. Their decision to allow mega-projects like the university campus at Tremough or the Eden Project tourist attraction to commandeer the bulk of EU funding rather than spread it around among SMEs has never been properly evaluated.
Adopting the former strategy, just because it’s easier to manage, has resulted in a degree of leakage. Grant money destined for Cornwall has leaked out to non-Cornish institutions such as the University of Exeter. The number of well-paid jobs created that have gone to existing residents rather than new residents must be limited. The jury remains out on EU grant money managed by an unaccountable project class with limited knowledge of Cornish communities.
Yet, while EU grants may have supplemented the outdoor relief scheme for the middle-classes that passes for government policy these days, would Brexit be any better? Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and co have no discernible track record of supporting the devolution of powers to Cornwall or to Cornish institutions. Ukip was the only political party in Cornwall in 2014 that did not welcome the granting of national minority status to the Cornish. Even the Labour Party in Cornwall jumped on that particular bandwagon. Ukip (although not its voters) is also opposed to a Cornish Assembly. Ukip tends to beleive that regionalism is just a plot by the European Commission and that the raw deal Cornish fishermen get is entirely the result of the EU, which lets successive UK fishing ministers off the hook nicely.
The UK Government has consistently ignored our demands for equal treatment with the other nations of these islands, demands patronisingly dismissed by Cameron and his ilk with ignorant references to South American rivers. In contrast, European institutions, both in and out of the EU, seem readier to listen to demands for the recognition of the Cornish and more prepared to take our status seriously. While the project of the Europe of the Peoples gathers dust in some corner of Brussels, or is it Strasbourg, the support and solidarity of European Free Alliance (EFA) partners within the EU offers a potentially useful pressure point which should surely only be given up after a lot of careful thought.
I’m sure the Cornish voter will be giving the upcoming referendum a lot more of that careful thought than voters in the other shopping centres of Britain. In particular, we need to think through the consequences of a Brexit decision. It may be an attractive idea to put one to the public school toffs who run the Government and ignore Cornwall. But how will voting for another lot of public school toffs who also ignore Cornwall help?
While the EU is no shining beacon for regionalist demands, if the UK leaves the EU then a Scottish departure becomes more likely. This will leave Cornwall stranded (with Wales) within the increasingly English dominated rump of the UK. An England even more prone to be run by political forces deeply opposed to the need to devolve powers to those regions and nations that are left.
If we add the possibility of an economic slump to the unsettling context of a triumphant, but narrow and backward-looking English nationalism, things become even more worrisome. Can we then expect a neoliberal and conservative political class, even more entrenched in the institutions of governance, to distract and divide its people by turning more and more on ethnic minorities, the disabled, the unemployed, the poor and the peripheries, as useful scapegoats for post-Brexit problems?
A post-Brexit England just doesn’t look like a very attractive place to be stuck in. So anyone looking forward to the prospect of Cornish devolution should grit their teeth, forget about the unctuous Cameron and vote Remain.