Cornwall and Internal Colonialism Part I

In the first of a three part blog post (second to follow next week) – I look at what Hechter has termed ‘Internal Colonialism’ and how it has impacted on Cornwall over time – and how the territory of Cornwall is trying to hit back!

Whilst Cornwall may have its own anthem and flag, a lack of a large and respected authoritative voice supporting its identity within the wider country of England has continued to hamper the wider consciousness of Cornish identity – leading to a state of affairs which can be termed ‘internal colonialism’. This theory describes a state of oppression of one ethnic group over another – particularly in economic terms. Hechter has particularly identified this in relation to the means by which Britain has historically set out to subordinate the Celtic regions of the UK: “The Celtic fringe of the British Isles has been underdeveloped to the benefit of England, and the growth of separatist movements…(is) a direct result of popular resentment at this state of affairs” (cited in Agnew: 2001: p 104). Cornwall has been on the receiving end of internal colonialism for decades, and for the majority of the 20th century, the only way it had of asserting its unique identity was, just like Catalonia, with sport.

Cornwall describes rugby union as its ‘national game’, and in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, it suddenly became very good at it once more. English rugby has a County Championship competition every season, with players representing the county of their birth or residence. The Cornish have always seen their county side as a ‘national team’. Playing the English counties every year was a chance to get one over their ‘internal colonisers’. In 1991, things went a step further. Cornwall reached the final at Twickenham Stadium – and so the ultimate opportunity was presented to demonstrate its unique cultural identity. Over 50,000 people travelled from Cornwall – some 10% of the territory’s total population – to Twickenham for the final. This, for a competition whose denouement was usually watched by around 10,000 spectators. “Every bus and coach in the county (was) booked to take supporters to the game, travel operators had to hire in vehicles from other parts of the country…an invading army hit Twickenham” (Gregory: 1991: p 28). This ‘invading army’ was the first hint that Cornish people were about to realise that the time had come to assert their own identity, and hit back at their internal colonisers.

The events of 1991 slowly saw Cornwall begin to express itself. As the decade went on, the momentum grew, aided by the territory’s historically weak economy. The Cornish were hit badly by the collapse of the tin mining industry towards the end of the nineteenth century, and consequently become one of the poorest regions in Europe. The most recent statistics on the Cornish economy, released in December 2014 only serve to highlight this fact. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) ranks regions by Gross Value Added (GVA) – what it terms as being “a measure of the increase in the value of the economy due to the production of goods and services” (ONS: 2014: p1). The average GVA for the United Kingdom per head was calculated as being £23,394. In Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, the figure was just £15,403 – this equates as being 64% of the EU average GVA figures (ONS: 2014: p 11-18). Consequently, Cornwall is awarded funding on a regular basis through the EU NUTS Region 1 fund. The award of this funding to the territory has done far more than just provide an injection of economic funds – “Cornish cultural distinctiveness became a mechanism that worked well in the EU context, providing extra weight to the central argument that is based around economic terms” (Willets: 2013: p 305). The European Union began to appreciate Cornwall as being something that the British government has refused to recognise for decades – different.

Next week – Referendums, Devolution and Identity


Agnew, J. (2001): ‘Regions in Revolt’ in Progress in Human Geography Vol. 25 No. 1

Gregory, C. (1991): ‘Cornwall: Rugby Champions’: Partridge Press: London.

Hechter,M: (1999): ‘Internal Colonialism: ‘The Celtic Fringe in British National Development: Transaction: London

Office for National Statistics (2014): ‘Regional Gross Value Added (Income Approach), December 2014’: Office for National Statistics: London.

Willets, J. (2013): ‘National identity and regional development: Cornwall and the campaign for Objective 1 funding’ in National Identities Vol. 15 No. 3.


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