The European Union is such an infallible scapegoat for the various ills that are thought to afflict us here in the early 21st century that it is a pleasure to note the existence of a European mandate whose application nearly always has a positive effect. I refer to the convention on national minority groups, which only last week was the spur to a Government announcement that the Cornish are to join the Scots, Welsh and Irish as an official national minority, their rights guaranteed by law and their collective frontage assumed to mean something rather more than the melange of pasties, piskies, tin mines and surfing weekends by which it is usually invoked in British popular culture.
The news was welcomed by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander – what with the area's long tradition of Liberalism, the Lib Dems have always been keen on arrangements west of the Tamar – who remarked that Cornwall had "a proud history and a distinct identity". Hard evidence of the latter was provided by the last census, in which 84,000 people declared themselves "Cornish" and the results of a 2011 schools survey, which revealed that 41 per cent of pupils in Cornwall's schools preferred this designation – up from 34 per cent two years previously. These are impressive statistics, set against which the centralism on which so much modern legislative orthodoxy instinctively relies starts to look very uncomfortable indeed.
They are also abetted by the past few hundred years of British history, where Cornwall's sense of its separateness has to be taken into account in everything from the Civil War, with Sir Bevil Grenville and his regiment of Cornish foot-soldiers marching up from the South-west in 1643 to fight on the Royalist side, to the ecclesiastical reconfigurations of the 19th century. Edward White Benson, for example, the first Anglican Bishop of Truro, arrived in the county in 1877 to find what was effectively a foreign land, dominated by non-conformist sects, where the queer, weather-beaten churches were dedicated not to St Peter and St Paul but to St Winnold, St Ia, St Carantoc and St Uny, and one local clergyman confessed that he had been instructed by the authorities who appointed him that his mission was "to fight with beasts".
The fascination of renaissant regionalism, whether in the UK or anywhere else, is that it flies in the face of all known prescriptions for national and international development. The march of globalism is so often seen as an unstoppable political and economic force that it can come as a shock to realise that large parts of the population are more interested in retreating from the mass solidarity that is regularly enjoined on them and defining themselves in much more limited terms. And so the hostility that greeted the early 1970s realignment of the local government system and the disappearance of various age-old counties from the map took Edward Heath and his ministers by surprise. The idea that there were people who liked the idea of living in Westmoreland, Huntingdonshire and Rutland, whose concept of their own place in the world depended on these affiliations, made no sense in a utopia of centralist planning, but there it was – and succeeding governments have tampered with it at their peril.
Not, of course, that regionalism always works in the same ways, or takes the same shape in different parts of the country. Martin Wainwright's excellent enquiry, Myth of the North, which concluded last week on Radio 4, had a great deal to say about the shifting alliances of regional life beyond the Trent and the manner in which Geordies, Lancastrians and Yorkshire-ites, painfully distinct when it comes to local issues, can instantaneously coalesce when the point at stake is one that seems to divide north and south. And then there are the counties whose essential characteristics have been changed out of all recognition by the demographic explosions of the past half-century – Essex, for example, which has become steadily less rural and more a part of the east London overspill, and where the old Essex accent been largely replaced by Estuarine.
The same point can be made of half-a-dozen southern English counties, which are increasingly places to live in rather than places in which a distinctive kind of life gets lived. On the other hand, there are still stops down at the end of the line where the old certainties endure. As a child, growing up in Norfolk, I had it dinned into my head from an early age that the area was different from anywhere else. "Last breath of fresh air" my father would instruct as the family car sailed over the Suffolk border, for here was a man whose relish of the 1966 England World Cup triumph was in some small part tainted by the knowledge that the all-conquering manager, Sir Alf Ramsay, had once been in charge of Ipswich Town.
Curiously, this feeling of being out on a limb, existing in some odd part of Great Britain that, while benefiting from all the usual amenities, was somehow detached from it in a vital but ineluctable way persisted. Just as my father, telling the other RAF recruits where he came from, was instantly written off as a "swede-basher", so the Oxford college I attended in the early 1980s contained only two other people who lived within 30 miles of me. And did this relative isolation breed a desire to conform to the wider patterns of southern English life? No, it bred a proud separatism that during the 18 years I subsequently spent living in London, made me burn to get back to the Great Eastern Land as soon as I decently could.
Even now, three decades later, I can quite appreciate the urge that compels the schoolchildren of Lostwithiel to write "Cornish" on their census forms. For there are still people in Norfolk for whom a trip to London is an awfully big adventure and villages out on the Breckland flat where half the people in one street will turn out to be related to half the people in the next. When I was a teenager, nothing seemed more archaic or hidebound than this resolute immersion in locale. Now nothing seems more calculated to enhance that highly desirable sense of personal and collective identity than, to adapt that old Victorian cliché about social class, knowing your place.
The danger of this solidarity is, of course, that someone will start to employ it for economic ends. But the moment some council official decides to use Cornwall's newfound minority status in an advertising campaign to attract visitors, the thing is dead. Here on my desk as I write this is an invitation from a Conservative MP to attend a reception hosted by something called the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership Cultural Board, whose objective is to focus on Norfolk, and indeed Suffolk's advantages as "a vital cultural tourism destination". If the gap between local heritage and local heritage industry is growing uncomfortably close, then, as Cornish pride continues to remind us, there is still more to regional identity than a new way of fleecing the trippers.Reuse content