11 October 2010
The Parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, the one that will reduce the number of constituencies and make them of more equal size and introduce the alternative vote, begins its committee stage in the Commons this week. The bill as it stands is likely to lead to a constituency that crosses the Cornwall-Devon county border.
The Tory Libdems have introduced their bill with minimal public discussion. I think there should have been a public debate about the criteria for constituency boundaries, and certainly about the government’s contention that in the drawing of constituency boundaries approximately equally sized electorates should trump everything else. In places some people seem to prefer another yardstick. The Isle of Wight, facing a future constituency divided by the Solent, has produced a petition signed by 17 529 to keep a single island seat (Hansard 6 September 2010 column 148). Some people in Cornwall object to a cross-county constituency, including the six Tory and Liberal Democrat Cornwall MPs, unitary councillors, and the Labour and Mebyon Kernow parties. A demonstration was held on Sunday and, though as often with demonstrations, estimates of the crowd vary, the turnout was unimpressive after all the clamour.
Apart from a referendum on a possible change to the alternative vote next year, the Tory Libdem government is behaving as though the constituency issues of the bill are of no proper concern to the public. This is basically what happened about the shift to a unitary council in Cornwall. I think decisions about democratic foundations should be taken after an extensive public debate, the green paper route.
As for the objections in Cornwall to a possible cross-county constituency, although some of them rehearse views about Cornwall’s perceived difference and about natural units, many of them seem to focus on nationalist claims that the border represents a ‘national’ border between the countries (not counties) of Cornwall and England.
Actually, the border has changed very slightly in the past – see Notes below. Additionally, a Euro constituency was made up of Cornwall and Plymouth with various boundaries from 1979 to 1999; and currently Cornwall is part of a southwest Euro constituency.
Above all, a cross-county seat won’t change the county border between Cornwall and Devon any more than the Euro constituency does; that border will remain as it is.
If the government presses on, I think it is unlikely that the a majority in the Commons – of Labour with dissident Tories and Libdems and perhaps other nationalists – will vote for a Cornish exemption from the bill.
That leaves the House of Lords, unpredictable, though there is a lack of credibility in the unelected members of the Lords deciding how the Commons should be composed and elected.
For most of the time until the 1870s Cornwall was part of the bishoprics of Sherborne and Exeter, bishoprics that stretched across the county border.
The Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 moved several parish exclaves between Cornwall and Devon. For example, the western part of Bridgerule, a parish divided by the Tamar, was moved from Cornwall into Devon; Vaultersholme was moved from Devon into Cornwall.
Although the Tamar forms the county border for most of its route, in part of the north east of Cornwall the border deviates from the river.