16 March 2011

The photographs of the celebrations of St Piran’s day, 5 March, fill the local newspapers. In fine weather children danced and pranced in the streets, probably organised by their schools but very clearly enjoying themselves. People played cheery music, sang, bedecked themselves, and marched with flags.

This was street patriotism everyone can be happy about, the sort of festive celebration you find all over Britain and the world though you can overdo the marching purposefully with flags.

It is a happy circumstance that Piran is lost in the fog of history and indeed may never have existed. We can ignore the fantastical nonsenses told about him. It is best to take most saints with a pinch of salt: the instincts of the Reformation Protestants were right about this. He is a peg on which to hang this day; belief in him is not required.

I have discussed before the disconnection between being Cornish and being a nationalist. St Piran’s day demonstrated it convincingly. Many people here enjoy being Cornish, are happy to be Cornish, confident in their Cornishness; celebrate it; if asked to choose one only descriptor may very well call themselves Cornish and put it on the flawed censuses; and think Cornwall special, though aware of ubiquitous uniqueness; but do not desire politics here to be a nationalist re-enactment of the middle ages. The vast majority of people in Cornwall, by whatever nationality and ethnicity they call themselves, think the most important things in their lives are the everyday experiences around home, family, work, friends, neighbourhood, and health, as do people in the rest of England.

As for nationalists, they make their case, speak and write freely, demonstrate freely, learn and speak and write Cornish if they wish, fight elections freely. Nationalism presents what I see as the Ptolemaic model of Cornwall with its constitutional positions and its particular interpretation of history – and political nationalism and separatism sink like a millstone. People in Cornwall can indeed distinguish between being Cornish and being a nationalist; the former does not necessarily imply the latter.


The superfluity of words in the unitary council’s hazy draft document, the Case for Cornwall, boils down to two demands: give us more money and let us spend it as we choose, though of course the demands are not put in so candid a form. The ‘we’ is the unitary councillors. Always ask Who decides? and do not be blinded by first person plurality.

Note that this is seeking the enhancement of local government, not the semi-independence of political Cornish nationalism.

How much more money is sought? How will it be spent and for what purposes? Ah, let us see.

Present deficiencies in Cornwall
The document lists some of the well-known present deficiencies in Cornwall such as low paid work, seasonal work, low productivity, unemployment, modest educational achievements of many, high house prices. As it says, “Our economy is underperforming”.

It lists the work the empowered council will do such as focusing on low wages levels, improving skill levels, providing affordable and decent housing, providing private sector investment, improving productivity, even tackling inequality.

It is a noble list: these are the ills and we shall cure them with more money and more powers to decide what to do.

Yes, yes, but how? How will the council – probably eventually called an assembly like London’s – grow the economy of Cornwall? How will it increase low wages? Provide affordable housing? Improve skill levels? Improve productivity? Provide private sector investment? Reduce unemployment? How will it reduce inequality? How will it increase life expectancy in areas of Cornwall where it is low? How?

There is a difference between glittering generalities and concrete plans. No one would dissent significantly from the diagnosis, what needs tackling though I think many would doubt the self-confidence of the present council that overflows in the document. However, if the council wishes to command belief it must explain how it would do these things. It is exact in identifying some sources for the money it wants; it must also be exact in explaining exactly how it would use that money and those powers, if it got them, to realise its goals.

This supposes that there is a link between local government empowerment and more funds on the one hand and economic growth and social goods on the other. I do not think that link has been convincingly demonstrated in reality or theory. The council’s response earlier this year to the inquiry on fiscal devolution to cities and city regions struck me as an unconvincing account of the link.

How much money?
The council’s response to the above inquiry also sets out its serious lack of knowledge on the possibilities of financial self-sufficiency in Cornwall: “We have been unable to assess the level of information that we need to create a comprehensive picture of income and expenditure for Cornwall”.

Downsizing local government
I have another concern. The document robotically calls for “fairer funding” for Cornwall, not an objective and absolute figure as the immediately above section shows but the code for unsatisfactory comparisons and more money, but the austere future will be less funding. There is scant recognition in the document that local government is changing in this time of austerity; vast cuts in funds are quietly and radically downsizing it, reducing it, withering it. The ability to deliver public services at a reasonable level is being compromised. The document scarcely explains the future will be pared down and does not assure us that there are worked out plans that take that into account in the devolution demands. The document does not explain how a downsized, underfunded Cornwall Council will deliver its goals.

I think the document also fails to acknowledge that it is describing the current contingent economic model not an essential one. It places too much reliance on what it calls Cornwall’s “defined geography”, an extraordinarily narrow perspective in the vicinal and cooperative world of 2014. The incoherence is realised as there is an anxious assurance that the isolationism isn’t isolationist and the council works with other bodies outside “defined” Cornwall.

The council’s view of itself in the document is not only too self-confident; it disregards the concern that it disregards the interests of Cornwall’s far flung parts. There are complaints that the council is over-focused on Truro. The council’s own localist agenda amounts to little more than offloading difficult services such public lavatories, more cloacalism than localism.

The draft document was accompanied by political nationalist ideas: “The Cornish have minority status, we have one heritage.” I understand pride in Cornishness but the political nationalism is a misdirection of reality in the county. In the 2011 census 59 percent of people in Cornwall gave their nationality as solely English; 10 percent gave it as exclusively Cornish. The heritage of the majority of people in Cornwall includes far more than only Cornwall. The document should acknowledge the diversity in Cornwall, the value of all nationalities and cultures in Cornwall, and explain the place of English people and culture in its devolved Cornwall.

Of course political nationalism may be being used only as a marketing tool for an economic devolution argument, a bolster for that argument; perhaps Cornish is intended to mean everyone who lives in Cornwall. But consider that bit in the document about cornishing English Heritage in the county. Why? What is the justification for this? None is given. What would be the practical difference if a local organisation ran the Cornwall sites? None whatever apart perhaps from some partisan history; it is naked, pointless, petty, tribal political nationalism.


27 August 2014

A month ago I explained in the post MK stranded in yesterday that Mebyon Kernow (MK), the Cornwall nationalist party, was being left behind in devolution debates and stuck with a medieval model. That post looked at the positive comments on devolution in England from Andrew Adonis of the Labour party.

Labour pushes devolution in England
Now in a letter of 25 August 2014 to local authorities, Hilary Benn has reinforced Labour’s devolution message for England. Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties also support devolution in England. MK’s devolution fox is shot. They are not the party for Cornwall but the party for yesterday.

Benn, the shadow secretary of state for local government, says Labour will “pass power, money, and responsibility” to local authorities who will be expected to work cooperatively with one another. Labour will devolve “£30 billion of existing public spending over the next five years” to local councils and local economic bodies for the funding of growth projects decided by those local councils and bodies. Councils that prove themselves competent will be able to negotiate for more devolution of powers.

Response to asymmetrical devolution
Labour is giving convincing details of its England devolution project. The project is a belated but welcome response to the rising awareness among people in England that their country was disadvantaged by devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The devolution asymmetry has caused unacceptable anomalies such as MPs from Scotland voting on laws that basically apply only to England, the asymmetrical distribution of the Barnett formula and its consequences for public services in the four component countries, the divergent party political support in those four. Labour seems to have come to a commendable understanding that the present arrangements are unsustainable and there must be democratic change for England.

Crossing boundaries
It is especially welcome that Labour’s ideas are not bound up in an inflexible model, the failed regionalisation model. Now we are being offered an elastic and practical scheme that encourages cooperation across boundaries that have often been unhelpfully rigid. This reduces the likelihood that localisation will turn into parochialism and a postcode lottery of provision and opportunities.

How petty and parochial and irrelevant the Tamar obsession seems set against this.

Incidentally,there is a welcome promise in Benn’s letter to secure the building of more homes – again a contrast with Cornish political nationalism – but no acknowledgement of the last Labour government’s appalling record in this sphere, the worst domestic inaction of any Labour government in Britain, I think. That dismal record reflects the comfortably housed Labour cabinet’s utter failure over thirteen years in government to grasp the importance of house building, especially affordable housing, and I wonder whether the party is yet ready to prioritise housing.

Will it happen?
Of course all parties support devolution in England in opposition but have a less glittering record in office. Will it be different this time? I think it will because there is a keener awareness in central government of its limitations and a more realistic approach to devolution by local government. Localisation in a time of austerity also handily throws responsibilities and flak upon local authorities.

The irrelevance of MK
MK, the party of yesterday, is a failure. It has failed to attract much support for its signature proposal, a Cornish legislative assembly. Since I wrote my last post on this six weeks ago only six more signatures have been added and of course not all are from Cornwall. Remember the failures of political nationalism that I have charted: Campaign Kernow, the Cornish Fighting Fund, the petitions for an assembly, the petitions for a holiday on St Piran’s day. I sense that nationalism is now reluctantly with understandable disappointment and bewilderment facing up to MK as a failed political cause, oh dolor repulsae. I have pointed out several times MK’s dismal electoral record with few seats in local government, no seats in parliament and nowhere near getting any. This political failure continues while cultural Cornishness, even the invented and kitsch pieces, happily flourishes apart from the reconstructed language. See the Piran and Ptolemy post for an account of this discrepancy.

Is MK done for?
MK is not a serious contender party; it is rejected by the people of Cornwall, its ideas ill-developed, its arguments unconvincing, its whingeing tedious, its policies a tabula rasa bereft of details and costings. Its devolution notions have been outflanked. Can MK change, adapt its policies to the new circumstances? As yet it uneasily rests in the mistaken old certainties. If it does not change, and soon, it will wither away. Oh, I expect there will be an occasional flash but an unchanged MK is done for.


dolor repulsae: see Ovid Metamorphoses, book 3, Echo’s pain of rejection

MK and the grand academy of lagado 11 February 2014

Empowering Cornwall 8 March 2012

Since writing the original and revised posts (below the line) yet another form of the Cornish language has appeared, Reunified Cornish or Kernewek Dasunys. This is an attempt to accommodate the different ways of spelling Cornish in the other forms of the reconstructed language. This is the sixth version of Cornish on offer – or the second compromise version if you prefer.

The six versions are often abbreviated by their admirers and detractors: KD, KK, KN, KS, KU, KUA – in strict alphabetical order as I wouldn’t want it thought I had any preference. These are abbreviations of the Cornish names; one also finds the English abbreviations RLC, UC, and UCR for KN, KU, and KUA. Not exactly the stuff of pub chatter or the supermarket checkout queue.

Four versions and two compromises. It is becoming difficult not to laugh/cry/scream.The whole thing is beginning to remind me of The life of Brian and the fissile and futile Judean movement.

Just a reminder. There are about 520 000 full-time residents of Cornwall. About three hundred of them speak Cornish of any sort fluently.


Until about the end of the eighteenth century Cornish was spoken in Cornwall. The date of its demise is disputed because it is
unknown but the death of Dolly Pentreath in 1777 is popularly given as the date. This Cornish was a Brythonic Celtic language, related to Breton and Welsh. It slowly died out in Cornwall over many years, at first in the east of the county and eventually as the everyday language in the west.

There are now several versions of reconstructed Cornish broadly based on the limited written remnants of the language at different periods. There is much reconstruction, well, invention actually, of vocabulary, for modern life, as in all languages, for concepts and things for which no word is found in the few documents in Cornish that have survived. At the beginning of the twentieth century came the first reconstructed version, Unified Cornish, based on the language of medieval religious writings. In the last quarter of a century three other versions have been developed. Common (Kemmyn) Cornish differs from Unified mainly in having a regularised phonetic spelling; Late or Modern Cornish is based on Cornish in its last years as a spoken and written language; and Unified Revised is a revision of Unified.

In early 2007 another version, Kernowak, appeared. This appears to be a compromise between Unified, Unified Revised, and Late and an amalgam of them. I am unclear whether this means there are now five or two (Kernowak and Kemmyn) versions.

Possibly between them the versions of Cornish are spoken fluently by about three hundred people and less confidently by several hundreds (Kenneth MacKINNON, 2000, An independent academic study of Cornish). A survey is to be undertaken in 2007 for a new estimate of numbers. Any self-assessment of language skill and use, however, is open to questioning.

In 2002 the British government recognised Cornish under part 2 of the Council of Europe’s charter for minority languages and is consequently giving £240 000 over three years, as match funding for European Union money, for Cornish. However, in practice to access most of this taxpayers’ money for what is coyly called development and promotion, the spreading of the use of the language, especially in schools, there has to be agreement on one single written version of Cornish, along with a standard grammar and standard rules for vocabulary construction.

The process for trying to agree one standard written version is underway. Frankly, I doubt all the users will agree and even if a standard form is decreed there will be noncompliance by some. The infighting among some of the advocates of the different versions is noticeably sharp.

The arguments for the promotion of Cornish seem not primarily about the theory that linguistic diversity involves differences in cognitive experience and diverse ways of seeing the world; but rather grounded in political motivations deriving from ideas about a distinct Cornish ethnic identity and devolved government.

Dave Sayers (‘Standardising diversity’) has looked at the moves to a uniform written Cornish in an exploration of language diversity as a dynamic continuum and as found within as well as between languages. He suggests that the Council of Europe misconceives linguistic diversity as the promotion of a uniform version of a minority language, disregarding internal diversity within a minority language. (A brief outline is here : see under Selected employment, 2005-2008.)

Cornish is increasingly used to suggest an enticing exoticism and a nod to history, as in street names and on tourist artefacts, making its use in some circumstances a marketing tool.

There have been classes teaching Cornish throughout Cornwall for many years but, despite the opportunities these offer for learning the language, the numbers estimated to speak Cornish fluently are very small. It looks as though most of those who see themselves as Cornish do not see speaking and writing and reading the language as necessary definers of their Cornishness. Despite the passion of the present language activists, I doubt whether this position will change much. For the vast majority of people in Cornwall all of this interest in Cornish is of little or no practical interest and I do not see bilingualism ever taking off to any extent. Speaking, writing, and reading Cornish are likely to remain a pursuit of the few.

[Original post written 6 February 2007; revised 21 April 2007; Sayers url changed 29 JUly 2009]