People used to be ashamed to say they came from Cornwall... not any more
Minority status is in the bag. Now the fight is on to secure devolution. But not everybody sympathises with the separatists’ campaign
For the Cornish nationalists gathered excitedly at Truro County Hall yesterday, there was only one topic of political conversation: what now?
The canteen and meeting rooms didn’t quite have the buzz of the Westminster Village, but after 20 years of campaigning, the representatives of the people west of the River Tamar were celebrating the declaration that the Cornish were a national minority, just like the Scots, Welsh and Irish.
At the centre of the action, inside the drab, concrete council building, which some hope will become the heart of Cornish autonomy in the future, Dick Cole, the leader of the Cornish nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow, was busy working the small crowd.
“This week’s victory is historic news and a step towards Scottish-style devolution after donkey’s years of campaigning,” he told The Independent over coffee and a bacon roll between meetings.
Archaeologist and county councillor Dick Cole isn’t your average party leader. He survives on his modest council allowance, his party has less than 600 members, and he turns up to meet me in a shaggy woollen jumper, not a smart suit.
The land of pasties and St Piran is some 200 miles from the Westminster bubble, though, and Cole’s passion for Cornwall is clear: “People see Cornwall as a place from travel shows or the travel and property supplements of the Sunday newspapers, but there’s real poverty here.”
“There’s more to Cornwall than the glossy lifestyle world of surfing and holiday cottages, there’s a lifestyle of struggling going on here. This victory not only means we can celebrate what’s great about Cornish culture, tourism and business, but also look towards looking after ourselves.”
He is, of course, talking about Mebyon Kernow’s call for a Cornish assembly, along the lines of the Scottish model with tax-raising powers. Mebyon Kernow stops short of calling for independence, but wants an assembly to counter what Mr Cole calls the “centralisation on the overheated South-east and London”.
It’s a big call for a minnow of a party, but it’s supported by others in the area, including independent councillor Julian German, who also represents the Cornish Language Partnership, a body dedicated to promoting the Cornish language. Like many local politicians in the area, Mr German has long called for a protection status for the Cornish.
“If you look at all of the academic criteria of becoming a nation, then Cornwall passes all of them. We have a shared identity, a shared history and a common culture.” Mr German tells me as he and local Liberal Democrat MP Dan Rogerson come and join Mr Cole for a round of celebratory backslapping and handshakes.
Beyond the council building – where Mr German and Mr Cole break off to advise a council official on a Cornish translation for a dual-language road sign – only 84,000 people out of half a million residents of the county declared themselves as Cornish in 2011, while there are just 557 declared speakers of the ancient language.
Mr Rogerson says that this will change: “The negativity of declaring yourself Cornish is well and truly a thing of the past. Now young people are proud to be Cornish.”
One proud Cornish youngster is barmaid Megan Job, 19, who works at the Old Ale House pub in central Truro, where on Thursday evening Cornwall’s “proud day” was the only topic of discussion.
“Of course I’m proud to be Cornish. We say it’s only four degrees of separation down here. Everybody knows everybody,” she tells me over a pint of local ale. “I like the idea of supporting Cornish being taught in schools. I know it has no use at all in the outside world, but it’s important to celebrate our way of life.”
Others in the bar are slightly more cynical. John, who didn’t want to give his surname, as he works with several proud Cornish nationalists, said: “You don’t hear Cornish being spoken in the street in Truro. In fact, the Cornish are quite diluted, as so much property has been sold to people coming in to retire who made their money in the Home Counties”.
Enjoying the sunshine in Truro yesterday afternoon, retired nurse Jackie Hollingsbee, 66, who can trace her Cornish lineage to the 16th century, welcomed the protections the Cornish nation will now enjoy, but “hates to think it will mean more money going towards the teaching of the language”.
She said: “We really do feel like the forgotten county down here, cut off at the end of the train line and forgotten about by London when it comes to healthcare and services. Getting those sorted is far more important than an assembly or the language.”
Back at County Hall, Dick Cole is determined to change that but admits “devolution is process, not a one-off event”. Mr German agrees, adding: “You’d struggle to find anyone in Cornwall who really wants to be independent. We couldn’t survive.”
Others, such as local councillor and musician Bert Biscoe, look to the example of Wales and to the European Union, rather than Scotland and full independence.
“I’m not a Cornish nationalist, I’m a man of Cornwall and I look forward to a Cornwall with its own assembly that’s proudly part of Great Britain,” he tells me in his study, which is packed full of books on Cornish history and culture.
He does still have one bone of contention with the “London media”, though, and it’s the depiction of a Cornish campaigner recently in the BBC comedy W1A. He says: “It’s easy to laugh at the Cornish, and we should have a sense of humour, but just repeating old stereotypes of loony nationalists is pretty mean-spirited.”
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