In 2011 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government steered the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill through Parliament. As a result of this legislation, and in pursuit of the aim of relatively equally-sized constituencies, a cross-border Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency is being proposed by the Boundary Commission. This will draw 43% of its electors from Cornwall with 57% from Devon. As you are no doubt aware, this has caused bemusement, dismay, anger and even outrage across Cornwall. For the first time since the Commons was elected in the 13th century, a constituency will straddle the administrative border of Cornwall.
Attempts by parliamentarians to amend this legislation in both Commons and Lords in order to exclude Cornwall from its provisions unfortunately failed. This was despite other places – Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight – being exempted from its provisions.
Unlike the Scottish island constituencies, which will have electorates after the Act of around 21-22,000 and 33-34,000, or the Isle of Wight (with two constituencies of 52-53,000 each), the people of Cornwall are not asking for greater representation. Indeed, they would be perfectly content with lesser representation in order to maintain the integrity of Cornwall for the purpose of elections to the House of Commons.
On the basis of electorate statistics in December 2015, five Cornish constituencies would average 78,775 electors. This is just 268 voters above the Boundary Commission’s window of 71,031 to 78,507. For the sake of just 1,340 voters the historical integrity of the Cornish border, critical for maintaining and enhancing the sense of place of the Cornish people, is being consigned to history by the arbitrary 5% variation limit in the legislation.
However, since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act was passed, a completely new context has arisen. In April 2014, the Government ‘fully recognised’ the Cornish as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. At the time the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated explicitly that this gave the Cornish ‘the same status … as the UK’s other Celtic people [sic], the Scots, Welsh and the Irish’. [https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cornish-granted-minority-status-within-the-uk]
The proposed cross-border constituency rides roughshod over the fundamental guarantee provided by the Government as recently as 2014 that the Cornish would henceforth be treated on an equal basis. The territories of the other four indigenous nations of these islands are being respected in the boundary revision and not breached. It is entirely unjust and illogical therefore not to treat the Cornish in the same manner.
Moreover, the imposition of this constituency will directly and indirectly breach
a) Article 5, paras 1 and 2 of the Framework Convention
The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.
as well as
b) Article 15
The Parties shall create the conditions necessary for the effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in cultural, social and economic life and in public affairs, in particular those affecting them.
There are four immediate possibilities therefore.
First, the Government repeals this Act and instead seeks ways to reform democratic processes in the UK in order to bring them up to date with practice in other European states.
Second, the Government recognises the very marginal exception necessary to provide five constituencies for Cornwall, thus respecting its historical boundary, and amends the Act accordingly, following the precedent of the treatment of Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight.
Third, the Government redraws Cornwall’s administrative boundary with Devon to include the areas of north west Devon that are proposed to lie within the Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency, thus bringing the administrative and representational boundaries again into line with each other.
Fourth, the Government changes (or recognises) the constitutional status of Cornwall so that it becomes a Crown Dependency, like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This would obviate the need for representation at Westminster.
Which of these options will you be urging on the Government? Or is there an alternative possibility I have not considered?
I note that one of the slogans at the recent Conservative Party conference was ‘A democracy that works for everyone’. For this laudable aim to be translated into reality, more tolerance and sensitivity towards the special case of Cornwall’s border and its significance for Cornish people must be displayed.
I look forward to your response.