Bill Jamieson: Cornwall finds strength in the SNP

The need for improvement to the railway line at Dawlish did not become an issue until it fell into the sea'.  Picture: PA
The need for improvement to the railway line at Dawlish did not become an issue until it fell into the sea'. Picture: PA
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SCOTLAND is not alone in its fight for independence – one county has been a law unto itself for years, writes Bill Jamieson

Here’s news to hearten Alex Salmond. There is a corner of a foreign field which is forever, well, rather keen on the SNP.

Down in far south-west Cornwall the independence referendum has become a source of renewed inspiration for Mebyon Kernow (MK), the Sons of Cornwall independence party.

Ah, Mebyon Whatsit, not a chance in hell but good for tourism. It’s always been looked upon with wry bemusement by independence campaigners. How could such a tiny thing be compared with the mighty SNP now?

After three months in this beautiful and romantic part of the UK, I had hoped to escape the worst of the Scottish winter on the Cornish Riviera. How ironic it turned out to be Hurricane Alley.

But the storms have passed, the sun has come out and the hillsides are ablaze with gorse as if a tin of yellow paint has spilt from an azure sky. In this county of many moods and aspects, the heathland of far west Cornwall around the villages of Pendeen and Zennor can seem very much like home. And when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

All this may seem well out of earshot of the roaring “indyref” battle. But I have not felt distant at all. Cornwall has long had independence “issues”. It prides itself on its geographical extremity and its difference from rUK. It holds its Tamar river division from Devon in fierce respect. It bristles at the remoteness and indifference of government from Plymouth. London is beyond the pale.

A passing spasm? Two weeks ago I hosted a visit from a prominent SNP supporter and commentator. As I welcomed him across the threshold I was able to reassure him with a strange and most remarkable fact. In fact, two such facts.

First, since the Charter of Pardon in 1508, Cornwall has enjoyed rights to its own parliament and veto over acts, statutes and laws passed by the Westminster government. These powers were granted in perpetuity and cannot lawfully be rescinded. They were confirmed as valid in British law in 1977 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones.

The second fact is that Cornwall was not party to the 1707 Act of Union. Indeed, until the mid-16th century, most maps showed Cornwall as a separate territory from England and in Henry VIII’s coronation in 1509, Cornwall was shown separately in the list of realms which formed part of his address.

Relieved of the crushing burden that he may have been still in “England”, my SNP guest fair tucked into the cream teas and Cornish pasties with the zeal of a monk broken out of Lent. He was able to feel, to some extent at least, home from home. Mebyon Kernow was formed in 1951 and describes itself as a Centre Left party. It has fielded candidates in elections to Westminster as well as local government in Cornwall. Currently it has four elected councillors on Cornwall Council and some 24 town and parish councillors. Its leader is Dick Cole, himself a parish councillor.

Might Scotland’s referendum ignite demands for devolution across the rest of the UK? Is there support elsewhere for Gordon Brown’s call for a move away from a centralised British system towards (ahem) “a constitutional partnership of nations”?

“The move towards independence in Scotland,” Dick Cole tells me, “has undoubtedly focused minds in Cornwall. There’s a realisation that if we don’t push for our own institutions we will be lost in organisation for the south west overall.”

What has boosted the party’s appeal in recent weeks is the apparent sluggishness of the Westminster government’s response to the flood devastation left by the winter storms. There is resentment that the attention of the major UK parties was only galvanised when the flooding hit the Thames Basin. “We’ve been lobbying for investment in transport infrastructure long before the floods hit,” says Cole. “The need for improvement to the rail line at Dawlish [south Devon] did not become an issue until it fell into the sea.”

Last week Cornwall celebrated St Piran’s Day with parades and parties across the county. The day marks one of the holidays observed by the tin miners of Cornwall. Little of this tradition remains other than the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and food. This may explain why the following day is known as Mazey Day, or for more befuddled celebrants, Hazey Day.

There was certainly nothing hazy about the opportunity taken by Mebyon Kernow to launch its white paper, compered by a Cornwall councillor with the redoubtable name of Loveday Jenkin and addressed by three of the party’s six prospective parliamentary candidates. The 28-page paper, with ringing declarations of Cornwall’s separateness from the rest of the UK, draws heavily on Scottish experience.

Cornwall, it declares, is a historic Celtic nation, just like Scotland and Wales, with its own identity, culture, language, traditions and history. To emphasise the point the introduction comes with a Cornish language version. It notes that Scotland’s devolved parliament has grown in stature and authority.

Mr Cole believes there is “a desperate need to address the unequal constitutional relationships between the various nations and regions of the UK, as well as the centralising influence of London and the south east of England. Cornwall is alone in having no form of effective self-government”. In a line straight out of John Swinney, “it simply lacks the tools to make important political, economic, environmental and social decisions for itself”.

MK wants Cornwall Council replaced by an assembly of 40 members, with powers over farming, broadcasting, economic development, energy, environment, health, planning, social services, sport, transport, infrastructure – and the ability to vary income tax powers. Familiar?

Here is a magnet of a county in which it is hard to feel depressed. But Cornwall is not well off: Gross Value Added per head in 2012 was only 61.2 per cent of the UK average.

So will devolved parliaments really catch fire elsewhere? Certainly MK hopes to make gains next year and the Liberal Democrats have now joined calls for more powers. MK may fall short of its goal of independence. But the party has undoubtedly gained from the SNP’s example.