CORNISH NATIONALISM

19 February 2007

There is a difficulty in any discussion of nationalism, be it English, French, Cornish, whatever: discussion tends to treat the ideology as monolithic and its advocates as part of a collective and not as diverse individuals. Cornish nationalism, like others, healthily varies, encompassing different views and approaches. This makes it difficult to generalise succinctly and to pick out the features which I think are defining, but which individual nationalists or strands may well not subscribe to. With that caveat – nationalism is not homogeneous and all the following comments should be read as about “some” not “all” people and strands – perhaps I can raise issues that I have with Cornish nationalism generally:

(1) I don’t think the right balance of difference and commonality is there; the focus seems to be on difference.

Of course some people wish to say they are Cornish, just as some people wish to say they are English or Chinese or Western European. Of course some wish to celebrate Cornish cultural particularisms – though many of these turn out to be more widespread practices than cistamar nationalism appears to know and some of the rest are, well, unimpressive, and one finds cultural particularisms all over England. Of course people in Cornwall, like people everywhere in England, wish to have a very large say in what happens in their governing. Different people in Cornwall will interpret these desires differently, and working out the differences and choosing between them is politics.

However, there is a balance to be had. It is right that individuals and groups celebrate the particularisms that they see as important to their identity. However, it is also important that this does not lead to estrangement from the generality of life throughout Britain and the range of universalisable values that make us all part of the enlightenment west. Do we not have more in common than nationalism supposes?

(2) There is too much attention on identity questions and too little on practical questions. I suggested in the post about Cornish rights: the real pro-Cornish agenda, to focus on identity issues rather than social and economic questions disfavours people in Cornwall. I strongly believe that the right to a roof over your head or local hospital services are more important than having a box to tick on a census – look at the post on petitions and which one commands most support among people in Cornwall. A house, a hospital, a school, a living wage or pension are real gains for people, a tick box or a formula is a token. Yes, one can argue for both but one should devote very much more energy into fighting for what makes everyday life better. (I shall write about formal recognition of the Cornish as a minority under the Council of Europe convention in a later post.)

(3) People here who aren’t nationalists genuinely care about Cornwall and legitimately see problems, causes, and solutions and possibilities in ways that differ from the routine nationalist ones. It is not anti-Cornish to disagree with what nationalism says. Nationalism does not have a monopoly of concern for people and life in Cornwall. It is not the only view of Cornwall, it is not the only vision.

(4) There is a victim culture: Cornish people are discriminated against, the government deliberately short changes Cornwall which does not get its fair share of public spending, and Cornish rights and true history are suppressed. Achievements in the economy are underplayed. There are indeed difficulties in Cornwall but most people find this grievance discourse to be simplified and nonsense.

(5) There is a naivety in identifying problems, attributing causes, and suggested solutions. Let me caricature this: as a general rule everything imperfect in life in Cornwall is the fault of the English and if the Cornish were allowed to get on with it all would be well; an assembly/parliament would turn Cornwall into a land flowing with milk and honey, a garden of Alcinous, just like that.

(6) The reality is that people here differ in their views about Cornwall and themselves: some people see Cornwall as an integral county of England and some as not part of England but a distinct country; and people here see themselves as English, or as Cornish, or as both, or as something else, or some other combination. I think that the only reasonable and democratic approach is to acknowledge these differences and to let everyone express his view and display the symbols of his views, flags and whatever; but nationalism offers a confused response.

Additionally, I think a large part of generalised Cornish nationalist sentiment arises not from identity issues but from the real and perceived poverty of Cornwall and a mistaken sense that Cornwall uniquely does not get a fair economic and financial deal from the British government. As people in Cornwall experience more prosperity the misperceptions of the grievance and victim agenda resonates with fewer and fewer people.

These things leave me chary of Cornish nationalism; and, indeed, of all nationalisms.

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