At the 1992 general election the Liberal Democrats called for Cornwall to be a region in its own right for economic planning and development. When Andrew George was elected Lib Dem MP for St Ives in 1997, he immediately tabled an early day motion calling for a Cornish Assembly. His arrival at Westminster might have been expected to put some backbone into Lib Dem representatives both there and back in Truro. This was much needed. As well as assiduously failing to reject the steady growth of Devonwall institutions, Lib Dem local councillors had in December 1995 refused to back a motion for a Cornish Assembly, only one councillor daring to support an explicit call for such an assembly.
By the turn of the millennium Lib Dems in Cornwall had indeed changed their tune (again). In November 2001 they voted to support the campaign for a Cornish Assembly begun by the cross-party and no-party Cornish Constitutional Convention. Lib Dem MPs were present when the petition containing 50,000 signatures was handed over to the Labour Government a month later. In 2006 too, Lib Dems at Restormel Borough Council signed up to a Democratic Declaration for Cornwall, initiated by MK councillor Dick Cole. This called for an elected Cornish Assembly. In the Lib Dems’ 2005 election manifesto for the County Council elections, they clearly stated ‘it’s time for a Cornish Assembly’. Then, on winning a majority at that election they bravely pledged to ‘establish detailed plans for a Cornish Assembly within a year’.
They didn’t. Instead, when the Labour Government in October 2006 invited councils to seek unitary status, the Lib Dem leadership on Cornwall County Council leapt at the chance. During the process of creating a unitary council Lib Dems constantly claimed, on the basis of no evidence at all, that a unitary authority would lead to the devolution of powers. They continued asserting this even when central government explicitly denied it. In January 2007, 36 Lib Dem councillors voted for the bid for a unitary authority, riding roughshod over local opinion, which was heavily against the abolition of the districts. Only five Lib Dem councillors voted against.
Essentially, they misunderstood the concepts of regional and local government, perhaps disingenuously mixing the two up. Whatever their motives, the occupation by local government of the Cornish territorial template has rendered the campaign for a regional assembly for Cornwall much more difficult, if not downright impossible. This became especially so given the dominant neo-liberal attitude to government shared by all three London parties. This views it as comprising levels of bureaucracy rather than levels of democratic representation and participation.
The disaster of the unitary authority was eventually passed into law in February 2008. In Parliament Lib Dem MP Andrew George spoke and voted against it, but Julia Goldsworthy and Dan Rogerson voted for it.
Having effectively killed off the chances of a Cornish Assembly for a generation or two, the Lib Dems then indulged in what many saw as a pre-election stunt in 2009 when North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson introduced a ‘Government of Cornwall Bill‘. As a private members bill this had zero chance of becoming law, but it enabled them to once more burnish their pro-Cornish credentials and distract people from the effects of unitary local government.
In reality, Rogerson’s proposal, calling for powers equal to the Welsh Assembly to be handed to Cornwall Council, which would simultaneously continue to act as a local council, was deeply flawed. It merely reinforced the aura of ill-informed confusion that surrounds Lib Dems on the issue of devolution. For instance, during the process of imposing a unitary authority, former Lib Dem MP Colin Breed had in all seriousness claimed it would be ‘akin to a Cornish Assembly’! A few years later in 2015, several Lib Dem (and some Independent) councillors were still mischievously claiming that Cornwall Council was in fact a de-facto Cornish Assembly.
In January 2015, councillors debated Cornwall Council’s feeble ‘Case for Cornwall’ (more a ‘case for Cornwall Council’), begging central government for a few extra powers (and finances). MK councillors moved an amendment to strengthen it. This called for the ‘devolution of significant political and economic powers’ and a ‘new democratic settlement for Cornwall’. Only ten other councillors (from a possible 119) backed this, with the vast majority of Lib Dems again refusing to back a stronger negotiating stance with the Government.
In the end, the ‘Devolution Deal’ of July 2015 was a pitiful measure, merely handing down various poisoned chalices such as bus transport and health and social care integration, while doling out £millions not to the Council, but the unelected quango of the Local Enterprise Partnership. While Council Leader, Independent John Pollard, could bizarrely spin this as ‘brilliant news for Cornwall’, even his Lib Dem partners were forced to admit ‘bitter disappointment’ at the outcome, having apparently failed to learn the first lesson of negotiating, which is to pitch your demands at as high a level as possible before you compromise, rather than compromising first.
Former Lib Dem MP Andrew George condemned the ‘devo-deal’ as a ‘cynical political game of spin over substance’. Unfortunately however, the exact same can surely be said of the Lib Dems’ consistent failure to stand up for Cornwall since the 1990s.