The Sons of Cornwall are on the march, and this time it's away from London

West of the Tamar, the beat of the nationalist drum can be heard again, writes Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online
Half a millennium ago, 15,000 Cornish rebels marched on London. Now thousands of Cornish people are planning to do it again in the form of a commemorative march calling for greater investment in the region and the cutting of ties to England.

A resurgence in Celtic language and music together with chronic unemployment and perceived "racism" by the English have built up the concept of a Cornish identity to a level unprecedented in modern times.

A record number of Cornish Nationalist candidates will stand in the general election, on a platform which demands Cornish language lessons in schools and a Cornish assembly.

Nationalist politicans will be seeking to capitalise on the 500th anniversary of the An Gof rebellion next year, when 15,000 Cornish marched on London and fought the English army at Blackheath, south of the capital.

The 1497 rebellion, a protest at an English tax levied to raise money for a war in Scotland, led to the drawing and quartering of the two leaders, Michael Joseph An Gof and Thomas Flamank, and the death in battle of 2,000 rebels. In May, the march will be re-enacted peacefully, culminating in a mass celebration of the Cornish identity in London, with trade shows and cultural performances including a service in the Tower of London and a concert by the Cornwall Youth Orchestra in the Barbican.

Although the celebrations are ostensibly non-political, and will include those who do not advocate separatism, they represent a great opportunity for the nationalists. Dick Cole, spokesman for the Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) Party, said: "This is a very important year for us. We have got to go for it." Mebyon Kernow's candidate for South East Cornwall is Paul Dunbar, 49, a vineyard-owner from Liskeard. Already canvassing for votes, he is angry at the drain of local workers across the River Tamar to "England".

"What we need in South East Cornwall is the emphasis on indigenous enterprise and reducing the necessity for people to commute to Plymouth. It's over the border, it's big enough already and it doesn't do us any good," he said.

Alan M Kent, who is among a new breed of young Cornish novelists and poets, said: "The new literature is looking at the real Cornwall not the Cornwall of Ross Poldark and historical romance or the Cornwall of Arthurian legend. It's a rebirth after 100 years of stagnation. A century ago, the bottom fell out of the mining industry and Cornwall collapsed. It has taken 100 years for it to reclaim its identity.

"Cornish nationalism has become more sophisticated and organised, looking to promote the Cornish as an indigenous British ethnic group who should have the same status afforded to the Welsh and Scots."

Rob Burton, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, has carried out research comparing the Cornish situation with the national identities which have emerged in the former Yugoslavia. He said: "What has been interesting is the resurgence of Cornish identity among young people." Cornish youth has adopted surfing as its national sport, with participants decorating their boards with Celtic symbols, and the yellow Cornish tartan has become fashionable as a mini-skirt.

Many first-time voters were born during the 1970s when an earlier revival in Celtic identity, led to many youngsters being brought up to speak Cornish.The cultural revival has also been stirred by interest from the migrant communities of the Cornish diaspora who left after the collapse of the mining industry to start new lives in America, Australia and Mexico.

Amy Hale, an American researcher who is carrying out a study of the revival in Cornish culture for the University of California Los Angeles, said: "This is a really exciting place to be right now. There is a world climate which is allowing what is happening here to be taken much more seriously."

Philip Payton, of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, who last month published Cornwall, the first history of the county from a Cornish perspective to be written in a generation, said there were plans for a Cornwall University in Penzance.

Increasing numbers of local cars have stickers with the word "Kernow" and throughout the region, English Heritage signs at sites of Celtic monuments have been vandalised and dubbed "Cornish Heritage".

The EC has now designated Cornish as an officially-recognised living language and last month the Commission for Racial Equality formally recognised the separate identity of the Cornish people for the first time. The acknowledgement could form the basis for future claims against discrimination by English employers or institutions.

The ancient Cornish Stannary Parliament, based in Truro, has applied to the National Statistics Office demanding that respondents to the 2001 Census be allowed to describe their racial status as "Cornish". There are nearly half a million people living in Cornwall, of which roughly half were born Cornish though many newcomers have also embraced the culture.

The Stannary Parliament was set up by charter by Henry VII in 1508 and maintains the right to veto English legislation. In reality, the parliament has little power and in turn believes that Cornwall County Council, which is responsible for the day to day running of the region, does nothing more than pay lip service to London.

Senior members of the parliament are furious with the Prince of Wales for his perceived bias towards the English in the Duchy of Cornwall. They are especially angered by his decision to allow English Heritage to take care of Tintagel Castle, which is believed to be the ancient seat of King Arthur's court. Colin Murley, one of the Cornish parliament's Stannators, is no Royalist. "Prince Charles is obviously more interested in promoting the English nation than the Cornish," he said.