Cornish Independence: dream or future political force?

‘You wouldn’t want to mention it in the pub, for a start.’ By this, Cornwall-born Johnny refers to Cornish nationalism, a highly contested topic that has drastically shaped how Cornwall views its place on the map. Though dismissed by some as little more than a political farce, Cornish support for its independence has deeply historic roots, predating Roman times. Demonstrated by those who fly St Piran’s flag, nationalist dreams of sovereignty permeate Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, reflecting its original Celtic culture.

Known politically as the ‘Case for Cornwall’, full Cornish independence from England would likely entail the creation of a devolved Cornish Assembly, harking back to the original Stannary Parliament and holding the same powers as in Wales or in Northern Ireland. The closest Cornwall has come to this status so far is the 2015 ‘Devolution Deal’, authorising Cornish control over its health and social care services, transport, and enterprise and skills funding policies. However, for nationalists, this is not enough. Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish nationalist party, argues for future amendments to the elements overlooked in the Deal such as housing and planning. His demands also include more Cornish autonomy over its governance, comparable to the contemporary political independence debates within Scotland. His critique  demonstrates the ongoing tussle for Cornwall’s national status to be recognised.

Moreover, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent ’Levelling Up’ speech announced the revival of Cornish and other County Deals, sparking debate over whether Cornwall should have an elected Mayor as a further sign of devolved political power de jure. Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives, argued for Cornwall’s deal to be named a ‘Duchy Deal’, referring to Cornwall’s constitutional ‘Duchy’ status, thereby reminding the government of Cornwall’s legal authority to veto Westminster legislation. Thus, in his adamant conviction for this ‘Levelling Up’ policy to be beneficial for Cornish nationalism, Thomas poses a stark challenge to the English government.

Portloe, Cornwall. Credit: Edward Webb via Wikimedia

However, today’s reality is still far from Cornish nationalists’ dream of independence. Even by accommodating this County Deal, Cornwall implicitly accepts the authority of the English government over its own. Importantly, where does this dream of independence stem from?

Cornish nationalism majorly relies upon the recognition of a distinctly Celtic identity, originating from early first century Dumnonii Celtic populations. This cultural and political identity was threatened by Roman rule, until their retreat back across the Channel in the 410s. Though far from fellow Celtic nations like Brittany, the renewal of Celtic culture and Cornish political sovereignty after the Romans left illustrates the determination and individualistic natures of the Cornish people at that time. As John Reuben Davis argues, Cornwall ‘remained as an independent British territory in the face of pressure from Wessex,’ over the next several hundred years. This subsequent revival of Celtic culture into the sixth century draws parallels with the contemporary Cornish struggle against controlling governance.

Cornish political alliances made with ‘othered’ fighting forces, including Scandinavian raiding parties, highlight their struggle for political sovereignty when facing the most powerful governing force of this time, Wessex. Most notably, the 838 Battle of Hingston Down, where a Viking ship of men aided the Cornish in their final recorded battle against Wessex, parallels modern Cornish alliances with smaller forces, in order to challenge centralised political systems. One example of this is its celebrated place among the Six Celtic Nations as a recognised Celtic political and cultural polity.

Interestingly, the fight for modern Cornish nationalism also subtly materialises within alternative portrayals of the ninth-century subduing of Cornwall, after Hingston Down. In spite of the 927 expulsion of Cornish forces from Exeter, as described by William of Malmesbury, Davis argues for the continuation of a distinctive Cornish identity with the subsequent creation of a separate bishopric for Cornwall as well as a fixed Cornish border at the Tamar. Furthermore, Davis’s championing of the underdog reflects a modern historiographical trend toward studying the Cornish revolt as part of Cornish cultural and political identity in itself. As Mark Stoyle identifies, Cornish revolts are now seen as ‘part of a continuum,’ that goes on long past medieval times, into the Tudor period and beyond. Thus, this historic and unique Cornish identity perseveres across history.In short, contemporary nationalist demands echo the distinct and rebellious nature of the Cornish identity. Their independent streak may continue to be revealed through the sui generis nature of the local governance of the Isles of Scilly. Scilly’s partial devolution from Cornwall, recognised as a separate local authority under the 1930 Isles of Scilly Order, with its own county council to match,bypasses Cornish removal of English authority, thereby moving towards a different kind of independence. Like Scilly then, Cornwall may look to more creative methods to reinstate local governance. Cornwall’s dreams of reinstating its sovereignty may never come to fruition. Yet, the echoes of its recalcitrant past undoubtedly remain key to its fight for independence today.

By Sophie Bodenham, Summer Writer

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