15 November 2011
The Devonwall question, playing out before the Boundary Commission for England, has thrown up some interesting claims about levels of support for the desire to keep constituencies entirely in Cornwall with no Devonwall seat in both Cornwall and Devon.
As I see it, the thrust of the claims is twofold: the opposition to Devonwall is widespread throughout Cornwall and that opposition is felt strongly. The basis of the opposition seems to me to be that Cornwall is unique, singularly different from other counties, and should therefore be treated accordingly.
Let me unravel this.
Opposition is felt strongly. Yes, it is but people feel strongly on all sorts of matters – vegetarianism, war in Afghanistan, who should win a contest on television. Other criteria are required to weigh against the strength of feeling. Additionally, noise is not numbers and more accurately one should say some people feel strongly about the question.
Opposition is widespread, nigh universal in Cornwall. Well, assertion is not proof and the figures that are public do not support this claim. I earlier looked at the unimpressive public numbers in the roundup post Cornwall border. Very, very few of the roughly 430 000 adults in Cornwall have rallied or signed public petitions about this; of course I do not know how many have fumed privately or written private letters about it and the Boundary Commission will presumably tell us in time how many wrote to it from Cornwall opposing Devonwall. I am dealing here with public expressions of opposition. The most popular petition that I have seen got 453 signatures, the Saltash rally was poorly supported. At the public session of the Commission on 10 November at Truro the Western Morning News reported that “the room was near-empty for the daytime debate, with only around a dozen people”. There is no current public evidence of widespread opposition to Devonwall or even interest in the question among people in Cornwall. A few certainly feel strongly against Devonwall; most do not, or at any rate do not express any opinion, for or against. The current public evidence suggests that the vast majority of people in Cornwall are not engaged by this question.
Unique and essential
Let me now look at two particular arguments against Devonwall.
Cornwall is unique and special. I looked at this in my post Ubiquitous uniqueness. Yes, Cornwall is unique and special and so is every other place in England as the Lords debate explored in that post showed. Additionally, I think some of the Cornwall claims under this head are not so much to do with ideas about a unique county but rather are based on the view that Cornwall is a separate country from England, that is, they are expressions of Cornish nationalism.
The border is essential to Cornwall’s uniqueness. I have looked at uneventful crossings of the border in this post; by housing benefit, for example, where economic similarities between parts of Cornwall and Devon are seen as strong enough to make a common area for broad market rental criteria sensible. Recently I noted in the post Crossing the Tamar a report that “Somewhere in the region of a quarter of Cornish [health] patients do not go to Truro; they go to Plymouth” (Judith JOLLY, Lords Hansard 2 November 2011 column 1325).
The Cornwall/Devon border is regularly disregarded with no ill effect in Cornwall. I do not believe that these crossings of the border have diminished the reality of Cornwall and I do not believe that a cross-border constituency will either.
None of this affects arguments about the rightness or wrongness of cutting the number of parliamentary seats, of a five percent leeway, of crossing over perceived community boundaries: but these questions were decided, if not settled, by Parliament and are irrelevant in practical terms now.