KEEN SUPPORT for Brexit in independent-minded Cornwall shows largesse is no guarantee of loyalty, writes Bill Jamieson
What is it that will finally sway voters on the EU referendum on 23 June? Money, we might say. The debate has been dominated by competing claims on the economy, finance and our gross and net EU contributions.
It would surely follow that regions that have received large amounts of EU funding would be more generally disposed to Vote Remain. But intriguing anomalies abound.
This week the pro-Remain Financial Times carried a lengthy article on the paradox that is Penryn, a small town close to Falmouth on the south coast of Cornwall.
Here, EU largesse has been liberally scattered. There’s the brand new university campus on the hill above the town, built with more than £100 million from Brussels. Then, down at the water’s edge, the EU has helped transform a former coal yard into designer office space.
EU funding has helped spruce up roads and rail lines. And it has spent £50 million to help bring superfast broadband internet service to a region where it was scarce. Each EU funded development is boldly proclaimed with large advertising boards declaring EU regional fund support and bearing the EU insignia.
With such generous and well-signposted funding, you would expect Penryn to be solidly in favour of Vote Remain. But to the FT’s consternation, many in Penryn are ready to Vote Leave in the referendum.
Even the town’s long-time residents, the paper reported, struggle to comprehend.
It quoted Caroline Cox, who helps manage the EU-supported Jubilee Wharf development. “It’s absolutely astonishing,” she said. “It’s this flabbergasting situation where so much money has been put in [by the EU] yet people are turning their backs.”
With just 530,000 people, Cornwall took in more than €654 million (£506 million) from Brussels during the EU’s 2007 to 2013 budget cycle, among the UK’s biggest beneficiaries. And it has been earmarked at least €600m more – worth some €1,209 per person – up to 2020.
But this is a county that doesn’t like being told what to think or do. Cornwall is a reminder that the EU money does not necessarily buy love.
Five of the county’s six Tory MPs are backing Brexit. People who support remaining in the EU are panicking at the discovery of “outers” all around them.
Peter Moody, a printing company owner who does not believe the risk of leaving outweighs the potential benefits, expressed his astonishment to the paper: “My own wife wants out. I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell off my chair.”
But many smaller businesses have little engagement with regional EU aid. And some who sought support found the process too bureaucratic and cumbersome to complete, preferring instead to strike out on their own.
Now, as it happens, I know Penryn well. And I can vouch for the broad truth of this article – with one reservation. It described the town as “faded”. Actually, in recent years it has staged a marked recovery – thanks in some part to that EU largesse, and is now an up-and-coming residential hotspot. The yellow signboards of upmarket estate agent Savills are spreading as local buyers and incomers seek to avoid the raucous Hooray Henrys from London who have flocked to Padstow and Rock on the north coast.
• READ MORE: Bill Jamieson: SNP’s new dawn will be cloud-ridden
I would also say that, together with Falmouth, it is an exemplar of how seaside towns that fell out of favour and fashion over recent decades have revived, helped in no small part by a mushrooming of small businesses and service sector entrepreneurship. This is an example from which Scotland could usefully learn. A university campus and its injection of young people with housing, catering and service sector needs would do more for, say, struggling Rothesay than any number of programmes aimed at tourist attraction.
I can also vouch for a notably independent, anti-London streak in the Cornish character. Like Scotland, the county is struggling economically. Like Scotland, its inhabitants are quick to point out their differences from the rest of the UK. Like Scotland, it has suffered a drastic decline in its fishing industry due to EU policies. Like Scotland, it has struggled to address industrial decline.
Like Scotland, it takes pride in its identity and political distinctiveness, with Cornwall Council now pressing for significant devolution. And this is no recent quirk. The county has for centuries not conformed to Westminster ways: back in 1707 the Cornish Stannary parliament chose not to be a signatory to the Act of Union.
As with Penryn, much of Scotland has financial reason to look kindly on EU largesse. We receive substantial amounts from Brussels. The figures are set out on the Scottish government publication The Benefits of Scotland’s EU Membership with a foreword from Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs released late last year.
There’s the €985 million (£763 million) of European Regional and Social Funding we will receive between 2014 and 2020. There’s the €844 million EU contribution to Scotland’s Rural Development Programme over this period. There’s the €3.5 billion of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments that Scotland will also receive over these years. And there’s the €572 million of competitive funding won by Scottish universities between 2007 and 2014.
But here in Scotland we have a generally more pro-EU outlook, though perhaps not as marked as some pro-marketeers insist. And we certainly seem to be less exercised about the referendum than down south.
It’s a common jibe that this is simply a reflection of all the EU money we receive, with the added rider that it is really UK taxpayer money recycled back via Brussels.
But I sense that attitudes here may be shaped by more generic and long standing cultural and political allegiances. The development of the Scottish church was heavily influenced by the protestant insurgency in Switzerland and Germany. We have had a historically strong political affinity with countries on the continent, forging alliances of mutual interest – Scotland seeking a bulwark against English encroachment, and continental countries a potential military back door into England.
And Scotland’s outstanding philosophers and thinkers – Adam Smith and David Hume – drew heavily on their continental travels and experience.
Set against this, the current referendum battle – increasingly portrayed as an internal Tory Party fissure between Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson – is just not engaging Scottish voters. Indeed, south of the Border passions may be curdling: the greater the volume of warnings and scare stories about leaving the EU, the greater the risk for Vote Remain that voters will be turned off by a campaign dominated by finger wagging from the political elite and corporate bigwigs.
Penryn may be a timely reminder that this referendum is about more than finance and regional development grants and infrastructure matched funding. Money alone can’t buy EU love. It struggles to enjoy a report with Westminster, let alone Brussels. Fundamental concerns of identity, accountability and sovereignty are – as they historically have always been – powerful magnets acting on voter attitudes and behaviour. The “Puzzle of Penryn” is no anomaly, but a phenomenon that should give Vote Remain pause for thought.