The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 Part VII

Kernewek, Politics and Representation

“We have non-Cornish people representing us at Westminster who really don’t get who we are or what we need. The death of the proper Cornish MP died with David Penhaligon” (D: Lon: 28th January 2017).

The quote above sums up the general view among my respondents about politics and politicians in Cornwall. Something similar was verbalised at every single one of the focus groups that I held. David Penhaligon, Liberal MP for Truro from 1974 until his tragic death three days before Christmas 1986 when his car was hit by a van, remains the embodiment of what a Cornish politician should be. Even when he served in the so called Lib-Lab pact from 1977-1978, his constituents and the wider Cornish community remained the focus of his politics (Penhaligon: 1989). A key reason given for the desire of a new generation of Cornish MPs following in Penhaligon’s footsteps is the fact that many Cornish people I spoke to believe strongly that their present members of parliament are “too busy putting party first and Cornwall second” (K: Pen: 10 February 2017). A prime example of this was seen when not one of Cornwall’s six MPs backed an early day motion signed by Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs to restore funding for Kernewek (Early Day Motion 1429 Session 2015-16).

At the present time, all six of Cornwall’s MPs are Conservative. Traditionally, the territory is a Liberal heartland, with Labour winning occasionally in the Falmouth/Camborne region. The Conservatives had not won a seat in Cornwall between 1992 and 2010, and when they finally succeeded seven years ago, they only took one seat (Democracy Cornwall: 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2015).

Can it be ventured that the Conservatives now holding every single Cornish parliamentary constituency could be linked to increasing numbers of in-comers from other parts of the UK? It seems that opinion is evenly mixed. There are those who felt: “Most people moving here come from places like Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. They’re Tory areas and they bring their votes with them!” (M2: New: 13 February 2017). Others felt that it was simply a local example of the wider backlash against the Liberal Democrats’ role in the coalition government, and that “normal service will be resumed for the Lib Dems in the next General Election in Cornwall” (K: Pen: 10 February 2017). Garry Tregidga, who has carried out extensive research on the political situation in Cornwall over three decades felt that the explanation for Cornwall ‘going blue’ was down to: “Media fear factors. The Cornish people watched the Nine o’clock News every night during the campaign and saw the Lib Dems being ripped apart and the Conservatives outlining the dangers of the SNP unless you voted for them, so they went Tory” (Interview).

Whilst there was little overall agreement about the reasons for Cornwall becoming represented entirely by Conservative MPs, there was universal agreement between the indigenous population and in-comers in my interviews and focus groups about the damaging social and cultural consequences that Cornwall has faced as a result of their vote. The reasons for the increasing anger boil down to three areas – the abolition in government funding for Kernewek, perceived disregarding the consequences of granting Cornwall status as a National Minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention (Morris: 2017), and the likely imposition of a cross-Tamar parliamentary constituency. My respondents were very clear in their belief that all three of these issues have led them to join Kernewek language classes or indigenous Cornish cultural groups. A representative opinion to highlight this fact was that: “The denigration of us by Westminster is at the centre of everything to do with language and culture” (M: Red: 11 February 2017).

The main issue here is the government’s alleged misunderstanding of the consequences of awarding Cornwall National Minority Status in the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention in April 2014. Both the issues of language funding and a cross-border constituency would, upon reading the Framework Convention, go against what National Minority Status stands for. Campaigners point to Article Five Paragraph Two of the document that seeks to prevent the “assimilation of persons belonging to National Minorities against their will” (Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorites An Explanatory Report: 1995). In terms of language funding, there were Cornish people able to quote verbatim Article Five Paragraph One and Article Fourteen Paragraph Two which order signatory governments to ensure that National Minorities are able to develop and preserve culture and be provided with “adequate opportunities to learn the minority language” (ibid). Matters were not helped in October 2016 by Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government saying:-

“Some in Cornwall see their county as distinct from the rest of their region, a special case that should be handled separately from everywhere east of the Tamar. If we’re going to make a success of the South West, that whole attitude has to change” (South-West Growth Summit: 2016).

Respondents who were both indigenous and in-comers, referred to these comments as a perfect example of the government not comprehending the fact that National Minority Status does prove that Cornwall is distinct from the rest of its region, and it does make it a special case. Indeed, the coalition government’s own press release announcing Cornwall’s new status in April 2014 stated:-

“The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish” (Department for Communities and Local Government: 24th April 2014).

The overwhelming view among my respondents was that Westminster are just “paying lipservice to the Cornish without really understanding what it (National Minority Status) or us (the Cornish people) are all about” (L: Red: 11 February 2017). It should, therefore be no surprise that some Cornish people feel that the physical distance between their region and Westminster is akin to being ‘out of sight and out of mind’. This has arguably lead to a situation identified by Hoosen as a “geographical dimension (which) is fundamental, ultimately and increasingly inescapable and to be ignored at our peril” (Hoosen: 1994: p 370).

If this situation, and the actions of the present group of Cornish MPs are seen as attracting people to actively participate in Cornish culture and learn Kernewek as an unintended direct result of their policies, one may be forgiven for questioning whether this could lead to a long awaited electoral breakthrough for Mebyon Kernow (MK), Cornwall’s own political party. My respondents did not seem to think this was likely. Views on MK ranged from wild misconceptions (“Mebyon Kernow are nationalists, they would cut the Tamar Bridge in two and block anyone from England coming in” K: Pen: 10 February 2017) to the commonly held view that “A vote for MK is a wasted vote” (M2: New: 13 February 2017). When I suggested to those who held the latter opinion that, several years ago that could have been the view of people when asked whether they would vote SNP in the historic Labour heartlands of Scotland, they offered a potentially more telling explanation for not voting MK:-

“There’s too big an influx of people from upcountry living here so you will never have enough people voting MK for them to have any voice. People from upcountry bring their politics with them” (P: Res: 12th February 2017).

With 60% of Cornwall’s population believed to be in-comers (M1: New: 13 February 2017), this argument is far more convincing. Tellingly, MK’s leader Dick Cole told me that he believes his party “will always struggle in the General Election as they are never about local issues. That’s why we do well in local elections and council elections” (Interview). At the present time, Cole’s party hold four seats on Cornwall Council, but their vote remains largely static. MK lost 466 votes between the 2009 and 2013 Cornwall Council elections, but gained 296 votes between the 2010 and 2015 General Elections (Democracy Cornwall 2010 & 2015). Added to this the refusal of the broadcast media to give MK any party political broadcasts (due to the party not standing in a sufficient number of English seats to be granted one), it appears that any hopes of Cornwall’s political party breaking through remain slim. In this situation, those in Westminster would have little challenge in Parliament on the impact of their policies in Cornwall. In my research around the territory, it was clear that there remained a vacancy for a group to latch onto the apparent desire of those living in Cornwall to use indigenous language and culture as a weapon against Westminster’s inability to comprehend Cornish issues and needs. That group could turn out to be Kernow Matters To Us (KMTU).

The group’s mission statement pledges to campaign for a voice for Cornish people which is listened to. Additionally they pledge to ensure that Cornish people have access to suitable housing, health and social care and are able to actively learn about their own culture and history (Kernow Matters To Us: 2016). The national media have picked up on the momentum gained by KMTU and they now contact the group for views on Cornish issues before going to Mebyon Kernow spokespeople, as has been seen in their media profile over the past eighteen months. KMTU have been particularly prominent in campaigning against what they term as “the Disneyfication” of Tintagel, and their vocal opposition to this saw large articles written in The Guardian (Morris 2016) and a feature in the 19th February 2016 edition of the BBC One programme The One Show. The group also speak out publicly against second home ownership and the consequences of it for the Cornish people and Cornish identity. The increasing profile of KMTU includes a social media presence which is significantly larger and more active than that of MK. Indeed a look at the respective group’s Facebook pages over a four day period (20th-24th March 2017) reveals thirty-one posts on the KMTU page compared to four for MK. KMTU’s increased media profile and use of social media campaigning could suggest that the Cornish people are turning to a group with more of a social and cultural activist foundation than a political base.

The future of any language is always dependent on the next generation engaging with and speaking it. In Cornwall, there are high hopes that children in the territory, who are growing up in an era where Kernewek is increasingly visible, may want to learn the language in greater numbers. Those of this opinion point to School Census data (previously known as PLASC data) which shows that the number of pupils in Cornwall who self-identified as Cornish rose every year from 2006, when 23.7% of pupils stated they were Cornish rather than English to 2013 (the last data set available) when the figure had grown to 46% – a total of 32,254 out of 70,097 pupils (Ethnicity breakdown from the schools census – Cornwall Council 2006-2013). However, a degree of caution must be applied, as there is a big difference between self-identifying as Cornish and actively learning Kernewek, as we will see in a forthcoming part of this dissertation.

The major barrier which exists to Cornish children learning their indigenous language is the fact that, since 1996 there has been no provision for it to be taught in schools. Up until this date, it was possible to take a GCSE in the subject, but the falling number of pupils taking the exam led to it being abolished (Linguae-Celticae: 2001). A campaign, involving Camborne & Redruth MP George Eustace, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, was launched last January to bring back the qualification, but at the present time, almost all of my respondents believe that it is not a realistic aim. Even at my Redruth focus group, where the vast majority of those attending self-identified as Cornish Nationalists, the prevailing view was: “Staff don’t have the time or the expertise (to teach Kernewek). Volunteers can only go into schools if the parents, teachers and Head are supportive” (M: Red: 11 February 2017). There is a question mark over what the impact of Kernewek being reintroduced into Cornish schools would be. Members of Language groups and the Nationalist community that spoke to me were positive that it would lead to vast numbers of young people communicating in the indigenous language. Yet experiences in the Republic of Ireland suggest that this does not lead to a sustainable growth in language use. O’Neill (2005) cites figures which state that, despite over 42,000 schoolchildren being taught in the Gaelscoileanna (Irish medium education), only 9.05% of pupils continue to speak in Gaeilge after the age on nineteen (p 279-280).

The respondents in all locations felt that the National Curriculum first needed to recognise and encourage the teaching of Cornish culture and Cornish history more widely in the territory’s schools – something which is still notably lacking due to “the provision of teacher training in Cornwall. They give no additional time in their training on local history and culture or on the Cornish language” (L: Red: 11 February 2017). The present cut in funding for Kernewek by Westminster, and budget restrictions that schools are facing nationwide has created a vicious circle whereby schools that may be keen to embrace Kernewek and Cornish culture are prevented to due to lack of timetable space and money. Whilst there were examples in Falmouth and Penryn of the university providing support, this is on a very small scale in the wider Cornish context. At the present time, this potential slack is being taken up by Cornish culture groups, such as Golden Tree Productions who have received funding from the Heritage Lottery and Arts Council as well as undertaking Crowdfunding for two major indigenous cultural projects.  Plen an Gwari (2015) – a book and connected school’s workshop campaign which embraced the Cornish language in telling the story of Cornwall’s literary and theatrical history and the 2016 Man Engine Tour, which was a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape being awarded World Heritage Site status. The tour saw a ten metre high giant miner made out of mining parts being paraded through Cornish town centres, accompanied by a presentation by Golden Tree Productions with prominent usage of the Cornish language and traditional Cornish folk songs and sea shanties. This raising of awareness of indigenous culture has had some impact on the youth of Cornwall. As one indigenous inhabitant from the Helston area told me:-

“I’m learning Kernewek, my kids are learning Kernewek. People aren’t fighting against our language now. It’s beginning to set out on the road towards co-existence with English, and that’s splann!” (R: New: 13th February 2017).

If awareness of Cornish culture and history can continue grow, there are grounds for positivity about the role that the territory’s young people will play. Yet the link between awareness and engagement with indigenous culture and actively learning the indigenous language is very tenuous indeed.

NEXT WEEK: The View of the In-Comers

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