WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE CORNISH ?

1 October 2009

Being Cornish does not necessarily or usually mean being a political nationalist

Look at these (updated) figures which show how many people describe themselves as Cornish or are so described by their parents.

Whatever reservations there may be about the figures and their meaning, they are markworthy. Let us assume that the current school figures, about three in ten, represent the base of people calling themselves Cornish: extrapolated that suggests that about 130 000 adults living in Cornwall describe themselves as Cornish. If one counts in children, who by and large outside adolescence will not be competent to give an answer about their ethnicity though they are, for example, often counted in the data about religion, the total is around 160 000.

The data in my Cornish numbers post was derived from selected groups but until there is a countywide and compulsory census, or an independent and professional poll, these are the figures we have.

There are rational reservations about these raw figures, apart from their non-universal nature and the range of meanings of the word ethnicity. Let me briefly mention two here (explored more fully in the later post, Who is Cornish?). People are asked to choose only one ethnicity though some people reject such polarisation and actually see themselves as having more than one. The figures therefore represent an imposed unicyclist view of ethnicity which does not necessarily correspond with the individual’s view of his ethnicity. We do not know how many people consider themselves Cornish plus. There is also a risk of taking an ethnic self-description as representing significance for an individual and the community that it may not have: people may see other aspects of their identity, such as their socio-economic group, work, lifestyle, village or town, or interest groups, as equally or more important than ethnicity. Consider, a similar point may persuasively be made about self-descriptions of one’s religion: large numbers in the England national censuses say they are Christians but surveys strongly suggest religion is relatively unimportant for most in everyday life.

Note that there are definitions of Cornish ethnicity which reject the open self-assignment of national and school censuses and look to descendant criteria-based tests and I shall explore these in the later post too. Cornish ethnicity, like many others is an astatic concept.

What do Cornish ethnicity and identity mean in Cornwall today to those who claim them? How do they play out in everyday life? Do they equate to support for political nationalism? This post develops what I wrote here.

Consider public tests of the support for political nationalism. The details of the votes are here.

Mebyon Kernow (MK) is the explicit nationalist party. The MK vote varies considerably in different elections. The party does not contest all possible seats but perhaps the most representative votes are the countywide and parliamentary ones. The recent 2009 unitary elections showed MK, in the constituencies it contested, getting about one in six of the votes cast there. In the last parliamentary elections MK polled around one in sixty votes cast. MK is seen as a party for the local stage not the national one and even there does relatively poorly. It is clear, too, that most people who regard themselves as Cornish do not support the Cornish nationalist party. MK has minimal representation on councils in Cornwall: three unitary council members, proportionately the same as before the council’s creation this year, and very few town and parish councillors. In total votes in Cornwall, including seats it did not contest, MK has embarrassing low support: about 1.4 percent of all votes in the 2005 general election, 3 percent in the 2005 county council elections, 4 percent in the 2007 district council elections, and 4 percent in the 2009 unitary elections.

Nor can the political parties outside MK be described as politically nationalist. Some members are nationalists but not the parties. They certainly support indeterminate localism (as mainstream parties across England do locally) and local culture (as parties across England do locally); but I think this is more accurately seen as local patriotism and support for more powers for elected authorities in Cornwall (and elsewhere in England) than support for political nationalism.

Outside a few initiates there is little or no interest in Cornwall that I can discern in the bill for self-government that Dan Rogerson, Libdem MP for North Cornwall, has introduced into the Commons. The numbers signing the various nationalist petitions have generally been embarrassingly few. In addition to MK, there are some small other political nationalist groups but I think they are unknown to most people here and appear insignificant in their lives.

There is a chasmic dissonance between the numbers describing themselves as Cornish and the numbers voting nationalist or actively belonging to or actively supporting political nationalist groups. Most people describing themselves as Cornish do not back political nationalism; their understanding of their ethnic identity does not necessitate belief in nationalist constitutional positions and that particular interpretation of history; it does not in itself have implications for governance. Why?

No, I do not believe it is because Cornish people have been befogged, deceived, or otherwise misled about political nationalism and their identity. That seems to take a low view of the capacities of people to understand their world and I reject that view outright. I think it is because they have understood political nationalism and have freely chosen to reject it while still being Cornish.

Look at the inadequacies of Cornish political nationalism.

Negative
Nationalism too often comes across as negative, presenting a misconceived victim culture: Cornwall uniquely suffers, is short changed, hard done by, is deceived. Nationalism can be a gloom and doom sect of broken Cornwall, looking back to a prelapsarian Cornarnia where everything was better.

Fog
The wider Cornish nationalist fudge about independence (from England? from the UK? a devolved regional assembly or a national parliament? a souped-up unitary council? more decisions taken locally?) does not win credibility by ambiguity though fog probably magnifies numbers. On the question of the funding of a self-governing Cornwall there is a similar fudge: it appears that Barnett Formula taxpayers and the EU will provide; no one seems to be suggesting that Cornwall will fund itself.

I shall look at the difficulties in nationalist claims about an assembly/parliament in a separate post.

Bread and butter
Cornish nationalism generally does not have any distinct and realistic answers to questions about the creation and distribution of national wealth and services, let alone about the national deficit, or questions of everyday life such as the price of heating the home or filling the car, whether the job seekers allowance scheme works well, by how much we can realistically increase the minimum wage, how we can further reduce waiting times for hospital treatment or make school classes smaller. Constitutional and provulgate issues which engage many nationalists have little appeal to people immersed in the possibilities and problems of life. Of course, some individual nationalists have a genuine and keen interest in the larger and everyday issues. I think MK’s policies are generally naive and unrealistic and, reading off election results, so do most voters.

Thus, a widespread and rational rejection of political nationalism as irrelevant to life as lived today. Cornish people — people who would describe their ethnicity as Cornish rather than only English or anything else — do not see a necessary link between their being Cornish and celebrating that identity on the one hand and political nationalism on the other, a point that some nationalists apparently have difficulty with. I believe people do understand what it means to be Cornish in a new way which does not require old-fashioned political nationalism. Being Cornish is now a personal and cultural identity; it does not necessarily or usually mean being a political nationalist. A Cornishman, confident about who he is, justly proud and happy in his Cornish identity, proud of Cornwall and its past and present achievements, aware of its joys and difficulties, can wave a flag, enjoy a festival, and support his local rugby team and not vote nationalist. It’s clear that is so for most.

NOTE
The link to the PLASC data in the post has been updated to the 2010 school ethnicity returns.

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