17 November 2011

I am going to try to untangle the separate elements in the oyster freedom of information case and glance at more parliamentary questions about the duchy of Cornwall.

I think some Cornish nationalists are rejoicing as they see this case result as a justification of their views about the status of Cornwall. I think the hosannas are premature. Let’s see.

What is the duchy?
The duchy is not delimited by or coterminous with the county of Cornwall and never has been and it has always owned property outside Cornwall; it presently owns assets in twenty three counties. The duchy is not an independent, sovereign entity outside England, a de iure state, a crown dependency, or extraterritorial whatever – Cornish nationalism has a flexible, ranging vocabulary. It was established in 1337 and the charters which deal with the creation of it refer to the income-generating properties and the offices of the dukedom, including estates outside Cornwall, indicating that the major purpose of the duchy was an estate to provide a fitting income for the duke, the heir to the throne of England (and now of the UK), not the establishment or acknowledgement of Cornwall as a territory separate from the rest of England. The creation charters refer to Cornwall as a county using the very same Latin word (comitatus, ‘county’) to describe Cornwall as the other counties mentioned in the charters such as Devon, Surrey, and Hertford.

The nationalist contrast is not between private estate and public body, between the Grosvenor estate and BBC or between South West Water and the Low Pay Commission, for example. It is between the duchy as an income-generating entity and the duchy as a sovereign, independent state with a ruler of its own outside England. This latter is the nationalist claim and it is not addressed by the oyster decision.

Duke’s powers
There remains the separate issue of the powers of the duke of Cornwall. Over the past weeks we have learnt that the duke is consulted about proposed legislation that touches on his property (though see the Duchy questions section at the end of this post), that he is asked for permission for the legislation to be put to parliament, that he lobbies ministers. What he, or the duchy advisers, say is kept from the public.

I think there is no convincing case for secrecy. We should know what he says to ministers, his correspondence with them should be subject to the freedom of information act. I think there is no convincing case for consulting him (as opposed to others with private interests affected by legislation) or giving him (or the monarch) a veto of any sort over proposed legislation.

Why? Because Britain is or should be a democracy and there is no place in a democracy for privilege and power by birth. That of course has implications beyond the duke of Cornwall. I see that monarchists may argue for such privilege and power.

To sum up. Cornwall is a county in England; the nationalist argument that the duchy of Cornwall is a sovereign state with the duke as king is not proved or advanced by the oyster case; the secrecy surrounding the duke’s lobbying is unjustified and so is any veto he might have.

Incidentally, as I understand it this case falls under the Environmental information regulations 2004, not the general Freedom of information act 2000. The regulations do not apply to Scottish public authorities which have separate ones.

The hosannas fade.

Duchy questions
Perhaps here I might notice four recent written questions about the duchy of Cornwall: see Hansard 14 November 2011 columns 498W and 532W (click on the column numbers). The last three answers (column 532) tell us what we know already, including that the duchy is a private estate and is not subject to the Freedom of information act 2000.

The first answer (column 498) tells us that the queen’s consent is sought – which probably means required – to those parts of any proposed legislation that affect the prerogative or financial interests of the crown or duchies of Lancashire and Cornwall. Interestingly, the government reply says that “In the case of the duchy of Cornwall, the consent is needed because of the sovereign’s reversionary interest in the duchy; and currently, while there is a duke of Cornwall of full age, it falls to be given by the prince of Wales”. The reference to “reversionary interest” and the phrase “it falls to be given by” would benefit from further clarification.


Stannary law defunct 14 July 2011

Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate 13 May 2011

Government: ‘Cornwall is part of England’ 12 January 2011

Duchy of Cornwall 20 November 2010

Crown Estate owns sea and seabed off county of Cornwall 12 October 2010

Stannary law obsolete 21 May 2009

Cornwall today 11 April 2009

Who owns the Cornwall foreshore? 11 February 2009

Cornwall is part of England – and staying put 9 October 2008

Cornwall today 11 April 2007

– and Aristotle’s teeth