The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 – Part II

Introduction Section II: Contemporary Identities in Europe – Politics, Culture and Language

This research project has its roots in both a session I chaired at the 2015 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference at the University of Exeter entitled: ‘The Contemporary Growth of Regional Identity in Europe’ (RGS-IBG: 2015), and the ‘Cornwall Connections’ conference that I co-organised with the Institute of Cornish Studies, which took place in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in March 2016.

The session at the 2015 RGS-IBG Conference gathered together researchers who were studying European regions such as the North of England, Cornwall, Catalonia, Veneto and Brittany. The topic was particularly relevant at the time that the session took place as Catalonia was several weeks away from launching another bid for secession from Spain and the Lega Nord had enjoyed success in Italian regional elections a few months previously which saw it become the largest party in Veneto (with Luca Zaia becoming President of Veneto) and the second largest party in Lombardy (Consiglio Regionale del Veneto). Session delegates such as Professor Klaus-Jurgen Nagel and Professor Fabrizio Eva, argued that these events were partially explained by the indigenous populations becoming concerned about the dilution of their separate identities and a lack of comprehension of regional issues from the national government. These parallels were voiced in the vast majority of the other presentations during the session, and in the examples given by the audience in the question-and-answer section where additional examples of regional identities in Germany, Canada and Australia were provided.

Held six months later, the Cornwall Connections Conference focused on social and historical links between Cornwall and London, with a particular focus on geo-politics. There were several papers which dealt with a Cornish sense of maltreatment from Westminster, and how this has manifested itself within London-based Cornish cultural groups, and those within the territory agitating for change. The parallel arguments which emerged from these two conferences prompted a desire within me for further investigation.

As I began to study the issues during the summer of 2016, I saw the need to examine closely paradigms around reactions against internal colonialism, sonic geographies (including sonic exclusion) and the expression of regional or quasi-national identities through culture. It was very apparent that, regardless of which particular region that my own research would focus upon, it would act as a bridge towards territories which were experiencing similar situations. The essential dichotomy that these regions have, is how to solve the problem that Moreno (2002) has termed “the dilemma of nationalities” (p 399). The populations of such territories are made up of those that are ultra-nationalists/secessionists, a second group who feel they belong more to the wider nation of which their region is part, and a final one who have no strong feeling either way. The debate heard at the RGS-IBG conference session in 2015 suggested that more people were being swayed by the secessionist opinions.

So, what were the events that led to feelings of diluted regional identity? How exactly were national governments ignoring the needs of their regions, who were the people amplifying regional frustrations and what techniques were they using to amplify it? Looking at Catalonia and Veneto, these issues were a perceived increase in EU migration and difference in the amount of money that the national government was taking from a region in taxation and the amount that was coming back in terms of investment (Eva: 2015 and Nagel: 2015) Figures from 2014 suggest that Catalonia alone is responsible for 19% of Spain’s total GDP but only receives back 9.5% of total government spending (Agència Catalana de Notícies – Catalan Government News Agency). Where this particular region has succeeded is in terms of a well-organised ‘Catalanizing’ agenda led by a large middle class group which crucially included the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie (Keating: 2001 and Miley: 2013). Having such an influential group of people driving the Catalan argument has led to the Convergència i Unió (CiU) political party being able to launch a hugely successful coalition known as JxSi – Together for Yes! The group only missed out on an overall majority in the Catalan parliament by eleven seats in September 2015 (Generalitat de Catalunya – Catalan Government). Such movements have ensured that the Catalan is the main language used for teaching in the territory’s schools, although at present this is under threat from the Spanish government (Agència Catalana de Notícies – Catalan Government News Agency).

Within Cornwall, there are similar concerns over indigenous identity, finance, government policy and migration (although, crucially, this is migration from other parts of England rather than the EU as a whole). Trotsky (2017) [1932] believed that change could only occur when the masses entered forcibly into the realm of rulership over their own destiny. To achieve this, it would be necessary for those agitating for change to have degree of influence within the fields of education, language, religion and the media in order to formulise what Gramsci (1971) termed passive revolution. Historically, Cornwall’s middle-and upper-class owners of mines and land in Cornwall during the 18th and 19th centuries turned their backs on Kernewek in order to trade with businesses across the River Tamar, which meant having to learn English. If the drivers of an economy embrace a different language, and consequently a different culture, then a dominant voice in a region disappears. Equally, religion was not going to come to the aid of the Cornish, and indeed, it played a major role in the loss of Kernewek as a widely spoken language due to the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer.

Only since 2004 has the territory had a university, and, indeed, the joint University of Exeter/Falmouth University campus at Penryn does not contain a Celtic Studies department – a situation which marks Cornwall as the only Celtic region not to have such a faculty within a university in the territory. This historic lack of a higher education institution meant that it was impossible for any sort of radical debating venue for the educated elite of the territory to be established. Allied to this issue is the status of Kernewek in schools. Cornwall does not have devolved government in the way that Scotland, Wales and Brittany do. Consequently, there can be no indigenous language policy without it being agreed by the Westminster parliament, which would involve amending the National Curriculum to include provision for Kernewek language teaching (see later sections).

Closely linked to position of democratic deficit is the political situation in Cornwall. The territory’s own political party, Mebyon Kernow has historically struggled to gain both publicity and votes in Westminster elections, unlike their related parties in Scotland and Wales. Indeed, in no constituency did they gain more than 2% of the total vote in the 2015 General Election (Democracy Cornwall: 2015). This fact has meant that very little pressure can be applied on a national level to the government if the party performs so badly in elections. Interestingly, Cornwall’s most celebrated politician – David Penhaligon, along with others such as Andrew George and Peter Bessell, left Mebyon Kernow to gain electoral success (Penhaligon: 1989). The consequences of a lack of political pressure being applied by a Cornish political party at Westminster for recognition and change has also been reflected in the 2017 Compliance Report from the Advisory Committee on the Council for Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities which was critical of the government’s treatment of the Cornish (Morris: 2017 and Doronieth Kernow). The report expresses major concerns about the Conservative Party’s removal in funding for Kernewek, the potential imposition of a cross-border Cornwall/Devon parliamentary constituency in the present Boundary Commission Review and the Cornish people’s inability to self-identify as Cornish in National Census. The report also criticises English Heritage for the way they have persistently distorted Cornish history (Doronieth Kernow see also later sections) and both BBC and ITV for their minimal profile of Kernewek but also a lack of coverage of Cornish news stories (compared to ones highlighting events in Devon).

NEXT WEEK: Literature Review – Part I: Cultural Identity Theory.


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