Part Two in an Occasional Series (for Part One, see November 2014) featuring Cultural Geography related publications on Cornwall!
Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development by Michael Hechter (1999): Transaction Publications: New Brunswick
Given the recent three part series on this blog about Cornwall and Internal Colonialism, it seemed only right that this second tranche of book reviews focuses on the text that was the major influence on my writing of that series.
Professor Michael Hechter is presently the Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington having previously worked in a similar position at the University of Arizona, and as a Fellow of New College, Oxford. This text was originally published in 1975, with this version being a timely update. It is a seminal work of its time for its examination of ethnic identity through the lens of social movements and how the powerful sense of Celtic spirit and identity has ebbed and flowed since the nineteenth century. The key focus of the text is spent examining how, and why the Welsh, Scottish and Irish people have continually sought to maintain a separate identity in the way that the English never have. Hechter approaches this by looking at the relationship between England, its peripheral regions and the Celtic nations. Whilst the author concludes that “ethnic solidarity will inevitably emerge among groups which are relegated to inferior positions in a cultural division of labour”, he does so despite one very glaring omission.
Hechter managed to leave out one of the constituent members of “the Celtic fringe” – Cornwall! Indeed, it was this notable omission which led me to write the three part blog post on ‘Cornwall and Internal Colonialism’. Whilst Hechter could argue that Cornwall is not a separate ‘nation’ in the way that Scotland or Wales is, it is an undeniable fact that Cornwall is a member of the Celtic fringe, and has many unique qualities which would have enriched Hechter’s narrative further in ways that merely focusing on Scotland, Wales and Ireland have not done. Indeed, the simple fact that Cornwall is a Celtic land that would seem to be a part of England, despite having a totally different indigenous culture, and a language that was oppressed by the English. You can’t get a more dominant form of Internal Colonialism than that!
Consequently, there were a number of missed opportunities and generalising statements about England which left me scratching my head. I mention three such examples below.
Firstly, there is the comment that “trade among neighbouring English counties was substantial with the relative absence of cultural discrimination” I’m not at all sure that remark can be applied to the Celtic fringe of Cornwall! Hechter also talks about the Welsh having to pay tithes to the Church of England, with “Welshmen resenting taxation by an alien church”. True, but it appeared to me that another open goal was missed with a clear opportunity to talk about the monumental impact of the Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall – you can’t get more of an assertion of Internal Colonialism in “The Celtic Fringe” than that! What goes to make this situation worse is a paragraph discussing rebellion in England in the mid 1600s. Hechter puts this down to being “instigated by peasant rebellions directed against enclosure and the overstocking of the commons by the gentry”. Yet no mention of the fact that one of Hechter’s “Celtic Fringe”, Cornwall, had three rebellions against varying degrees of English interference, rather than against land enclosure issues!
Anyone studying notions of regional or Celtic identity and culture should read this book, but I urge them to do so with an inquiring and critical mind.
Next Week: Time to take a less overtly political subject as I begin to examine the importance of Cornish Identity through the sport of rugby union.