The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 Part IV

The Nation State and Internal Colonialism

Keating (2001) suggests that literature focusing on groups such as the indigenous Cornish is inherently written from “a hostile or patronizing perspective. Minority nationalisms are dismissed as archaic, narrow-minded and ‘ethnic’” (p xii). Conversely, there are theorists whose views would support the fact that Cornwall’s history may qualify it to be a territory which could be described as a separate nation state.

Cobban (1969) [1945] believed that a “nation is a community which is, or wishes to be a state” (p 108), with UNESCO providing a more detailed definition of a nation-state as being one where “the great majority are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture”. Here, the emphasis is on having a large group of people with a separate culture as being the crucial aspect of being a nation state, and members of Cornwall’s indigenous community would argue that they can be categorized into this group. Where problems arise is in the crucial addition of the phrase ‘great majority’ in UNESCO’s classification. It is questionable whether most inhabitants of Cornwall would identify themselves as being of a common (indigenous) identity, something which is made even more tenuous by the amount of in-migration into the territory, which has led to one academic calculating that this group accounts for approximately 60% of Cornwall’s population (M1: New: 13 February 2017). Hobsbawm (1990) has highlighted the fact that “the word nation…mean(s)…people belonging to a state even when not speaking the same language” (p 17) which emphasizes the increasing difficulty of effectively classifying Cornwall.

There is also a question mark on whether Cornwall self-identifying as a nation state would lead to anything more than increasing the “hostile and patronizing” reaction that Keating observed at the opening of this section due to the highly limited powers of a nation state compared to a sovereign state. Here, the diverging path is all about an emphasis of power, with a sovereign state defined “as having a permanent population, defined territory, one government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states” (Shaw: 2003: p 178). At the present time, Cornwall has no form of self-government and is wholly dependent on the power of the wider English nation, a situation which Hechter (1999) would recognise as Internal Colonialism.

This term was first referred to by Russian populists to “describe the exploitation of peasants by urban classes” (p xiii) before being used later to highlight the “economic underdevelopment of certain Russian and Italian regions” (ibid p xiv). On a wider scale, Hechter argues that the most prominent adverse impact of Internal Colonialism on the Celtic regions of the United Kingdom is caused by the English (or more specifically the Westminster government) imposing policies which had the perceived impact of making the Cornish, Welsh, Scots and Irish economically dependent on England. This is something which, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s with the final death of the historic mining regions of Cornwall and Wales only became more pronounced (Payton: 1992, 1993, 2004).

The economic impact of Internal Colonialism can also be seen in terms of reduced investment in infrastructure. Hechter (1999) highlights the fact that “peripheral rail routes are only built to suit English centres of production” (p 149). Proof of this can be seen with a glance at the Cornish rail network, which could at best be described as withered. Major towns such as Launceston, Wadebridge and Bude do not have stations, and a bus trip to these places can involve a very long journey.

Reactions against perceived impositions of Internal Colonialism occur primarily when “the cultural identities of regions begin to lose social significance” (ibid p 3), and there are those who would argue that the time is ripe for this reaction to gather momentum within Cornwall. This can lead to what Hechter (ibid) has termed peripheral sectionalism and involves a gradual momentum towards self-determination. The presence of political, cultural and linguistic distinctiveness are the main driving forces behind such movements. Whilst the vast majority of indigenous Cornish will not seriously consider independence from England, they do invoke their history as a separate territory, with the badge of vastly different cultures and language to emphasise that “Kenedhel heb tavas yw Kenedhel heb kolon” (“A man who loses his tongue has lost his land” [M: Interview]).

Nairn (1977) has argued that a potential move towards self-determinism is long overdue in order to bring about “the extremely long-delayed crisis of the original bourgeois state-form” (p 19), which is akin to a “slow motion landslide” (ibid p 68). He believes that, in order for the landslide to gather pace, a wider “political baptism of the lower classes” (ibid p 41) is necessary. This view, it can be argued is finally bearing fruit in other Celtic regions of the United Kingdom at the present time as Scotland pushes for a second independence referendum, just three years after their previous one, and Cardiff has a developing Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru (Welsh Assembly). Yet in Cornwall, the trees remain bare of fruit. Despite a petition signed by over 50,000 people (approximately 10% of the territory’s population at the time) being handed into Downing Street in 2001 pleading for a Senedh Kernow (Cornish Assembly), the then Labour Government refused to yield, despite their commitment to English devolution after transferring some legislative powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Deacon et al: 2003). Why was it that Cornwall failed?

Billig (2010) may well reply that this was because too many people in Cornwall display what he terms as Banal Nationalism. For him, this is “not (the) flag which is being constantly waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on a public building”. For every 10% of the Cornish population that signed the Senedh Kernow petition, Billig would point to the 90% who did not. However, Joseph (2004) criticises Billig for neglecting to take into account a nation’s history, especially their “particular interpretation of recorded events” (p 118). For Joseph, the Cornish flag hanging on the public building would not be unnoticed, rather it is a signifier of a separate past, which could be used to build towards a separate future. This future is one which would depend on what path the indigenous people would follow, due to there being a distinction, as Snyder (1976) observes, between patriotism, which is “defensive, being based upon a love of one’s country” (p 43) and nationalism, which “takes on a quality of aggression that makes it one of the prime causes for wars” (ibid). Once again, we see a clear demarcation between Cornwall and its Celtic cousins, with historically, a notable lack of a widespread nationalist movement among the Cornish. Gong (2016) notes the influence that Celtic terrorism movements from the IRA in Ireland, to Wales’ Meibion Glyndwr and the Scottish Socialist Republic League have had (to these, I would also add the actions of the Front de Liberation de la Bretagne in Brittany), and queries whether the absence of a major Cornish resistance movement is seen as an excuse for Westminster to treat the territory with continued inertia with regard to devolved powers. Where there was a Cornish movement, An Gof in the 1970s and 1980s, they failed to carry out large atrocities either within Cornwall or across the River Tamar border. Gong questions what it would take for the Cornish to mobilise a force in larger numbers to be taken seriously and comes to the conclusion that it is unlikely to.

It could be argued that there is sufficient evidence for internal colonisers to excuse their refusal to release the grip with which they hold Cornwall even slightly. They would point to lack of a coherent indigenous community agitating for change which is born out by the total failure of the territory’s own political party, Mebyon Kernow to receive more than 4.2% of the vote in any constituency in a General Election (Democracy Cornwall: 2010 & 2015) and a cultural scene and language made up of reinvented parodies of ancient events, as an example of an area in a total state of confusion or delusion about its self-identity.

However, I would profoundly disagree with this sentiment. Cornwall has every right to identify itself as a nation. It meets every one of Kadchi’s Fundamental Tests of Nationhood (1985) [1951] due to there being “a separate historical past at least as ancient…as the surrounding land, an entirely different linguistic entity and a territorial inhabitation of definite areas” (p 904). Equally, the campaign of hostility and patronisation identified by Keating (2001) is an example of the oppressor:-

“weakening the oppressed to isolate them, to create and deepen rifts among them…by varied means, from the repressive methods of government bureaucracy to the forms of cultural action” (Freire: 1983: p 122).

Whilst there is very little appetite within Cornwall for an armed resistance campaign, there are growing movements led by cultural group Kernow Matters To Us (KMTU) to protest in more prominent ways than before due to major concerns about Westminster’s lack of understanding of Cornish issues. KMTU organised a protest against the proposed imposition of a cross border Parliamentary Constituency on 30th October 2016 which blocked the border between Cornwall and Devon at Polson Bridge, just outside Launceston for most of the day (see later section for a detailed discussion of KMTU’s influence). Hundreds of protesters waved anti-English placards and sung traditional Cornish songs.

NEXT WEEK: Social Identity Theory, Sonic Geographies and Sonic Exclusion. 

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