To most of the world, Cornwall is just another county of England. Perhaps to be lumped together with Devon – as in the case of the Devon and Cornwall police force. Or perhaps to some, with Somerset, Dorset, and a few other ‘Ooh-arr’ places to form South West England – as in the case with the now-deceased bodies, the South West of England Regional Development Agency and the South West Regional Assembly.
But some contend that Cornwall is more than just another county. Mebyon Kernow (or, the Party for Cornwall) reckons that the county is, in fact, a Celtic nation – one that should be given the same opportunities for self-determination as Wales and Scotland. Mebyon Kernow, unlike Plaid Cymru or the SNP, do not list independence among their aspirations. Instead, the key point of policy is that a National Assembly for Cornwall should be established (on which, more later).
So how would Loveday Jenkin, Mebyon Kernow’s candidate for Camborne and Redruth, summarise Cornish culture, exactly?
“We’ve got a distinct, unique identity, national minority status, our own language, and Celtic roots. Since Celtic times, there have always been distinct phases of Cornish development. Mining, for example, your Poldark-type stuff. You’ve also got that post-industrial phase [from late nineteenth century onwards], with a lot of emigration to other parts of the world.
“There are Cornish communities all over the world… People have a very interesting connection to the rest of the world: Cornish people are actually quite outward-looking, but maybe not looking up towards London so much as looking to other places.”
Jenkin also highlights the Cornish language, which died out in the eighteenth century, but which was revived in the early twentieth, as a key part of Cornish identity.
“The fact the language exists is very important to Cornish people, whether they speak it or not. You see it around more and more, because there’s a process that when street signs are replaced, they’re replaced bilingually… There is a Cornish language office based within the council that supports Cornish language projects, though it doesn’t get a lot of funding.”
In what is perhaps a strange twist in history, Jenkin suggests that social media is helping keep Cornish going, when it was mass media that did so much damage in the first place.
“We can tweetya and textya and Skypeya… There are bands who sing in Cornish. Young people are particularly connecting, through social media as well.”
Mebyon Kernow has, Jenkin suggests, benefited electorally, if not organisationally, from young people’s increasing interest in Cornish-ness.
“There’s increasing support [from young people] in terms of voting and supporting stuff on social media… But they don’t necessarily come to councils and become part of those sorts of things. I’ve got two sons in their twenties and they’re proud to be Cornish. But I don’t think I’d get them to come along to a boring old meeting.”
Mebyon Kernow is not an insignificant force in local Cornish politics: they have four councillors on Cornwall Council, including Jenkin and Dick Cole, the party leader. That’s the same number as UKIP, and it’s not far behind Labour’s seven. Even so, no one has predicted Mebyon Kernow is about to make a Parliamentary break-through in Camborne and Redruth – Lord Ashcroft does not even list them separately in his summaries of his polls.
So what is the role of standing for Parliament in the wider Cornish nationalist movement?
“The point of standing for election – my father [Richard, founder member of Mebyon Kernow] was one of the first people to stand for Parliament for Mebyon Kernow – is that you give people the opportunity to vote for something different.”
Pointing to the electoral history of the area, which returned Conservative George Eustice from 2010 to 2005, Liberal Democrat Julia Goldsworthy from 2005 to 2010 for the now-defunct seat of Falmouth and Camborne, and, for the same constituency as Goldsworthy, Labour’s Candy Atherton from 1997 to 2005, Jenkin says, “They’ve tried all the three others. They’ve had Labour, Lib Dem, Tory, nothing has necessarily changed. The decisions made in London haven’t necessarily affected what’s happening in Cornwall.
“Even if Mebyon Kernow candidates don’t get elected, by having a high vote, as we saw in Scotland with the referendum, you’re making sure the politicians who are in Westminster, whoever they are, take some notice of the differences in Cornwall.
“In the past we’ve had people who’ve said, ‘We really like your policies but we’re going to vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out.’ Or, ‘We’re going to vote Tory to keep the Lib Dem out.’ But as soon as they got in, they went into coalition together, so people feel very let down, particularly by the Lib Dems. So people have really got nothing to lose this time by voting Mebyon Kernow.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jenkin and Mebyon Kernow would prefer a different electoral system to the one used currently. “The mixed system they have in Wales seems to work quite well, with some areas first-past-the-post, but across the whole area you’ve got the regional list.
“There was a huge opportunity to have done that when they did the boundary changes [2007, effective for the 2010 general election], because we moved from five seats to six. They could have kept the boundaries where they were and then had a regional one for the whole of Cornwall. And if we’d had a regional one, we’d have had much more chance of getting a Mebyon Kernow candidate elected.”
Mebyon Kernow describes itself as “progressive” and “left-of-centre.” That makes some sense in a place where the Liberal Party was historically strong. It would make far less sense in neighbouring Devon where, for example, two-thirds of 2010’s intake of MPs were Conservatives. Given the tendency for Devon and Cornwall to be lumped together, what would Jenkin say are the differences between the two places?
“The whole of the south west is treated as an amorphous south-west region. And a lot of the free-market policies of government don’t work [in Cornwall]. The government says you can have competition in hospitals. Well, where’s the other hospitals adjacent to Cornwall? There aren’t, because you’ve got sea adjacent to Cornwall. You can’t do that sort of thing.
“The government says you can choose which school you go to. But you can’t because there’s only a couple of other schools around that you could get to physically.
“So the difference of Cornwall is the sea all around, but also the character of the people. They tend to be doggedly independent and anti-establishment… People do feel different when they come across the Tamar.”
If Mebyon Kernow get their way one day, there will be a National Assembly for Cornwall, the point of which, Jenkin tells us, is to focus on strategic matters – there would be four district councils whose responsibilities would be the more mundane aspects of local government. “Cornwall council is so dysfunctional – and I’m a Cornwall councillor, although it’s not my fault – because it has to deal with everything from the individual placing of dog bins to multi-million European funding grants.”
Mebyon Kernow would also like tax varying powers. Jenkin immediately suggests two uses of such powers: “the business rates for town centres don’t make a lot of sense. It would be far better to encourage more businesses into town centres by reducing the rates and actually putting higher rates on the out of town shopping centres that are sucking all the life out of the town centres.
“The other thing is second homes – they’re a curse in Cornwall because we have some of the highest house prices and the lowest wages. If we could have a more penalising tax system, so that if people had a home that they weren’t using as their main home, they’d pay higher council tax, then that would help support the economy.
“Mebyon Kernow are saying it should be at least double. If you can afford to have a second home, you can afford to pay double the council tax.”
We talk about the problems facing certain certain coastal villages, where so many houses have been bought as second homes that the permanent local population has dwindled to approximately zero. A dramatic example of the problems this can cause is that of Helford, where fishermen had wanted to build a new quay, but the moneyed Helford Village Society, less enthusiastic about the plans, opposed the idea and took their point of view all the way to the High Court, where they eventually won.
“The Helford Village Society, which is mainly barristers from London, with a registered address somewhere up country, campaigned against these ‘mucky’ fishermen getting in the way. And yet they moved there because it’s a quaint fishing village… Just because a few rich people didn’t want their views spoilt by dirty fishermen’s trucks with a bit of rust on and things, they didn’t get it through.”
But to return to Camborne Redruth, where does Jenkin reckon her support is coming from?
“Our support comes from across the political spectrum. My area that I represent for Cornwall council [Crowan and Wendron] is quite rural – you might have considered it to be quite Tory. But most of the farming area votes for me. And we’re quite left of centre so we take quite a lot from the Labour party and the Liberal Party.”
It’s surely odd for a left-of-centre party to take Conservative votes?
“They’re old style Tories. They’re people who know about the land; they’re not Tories like the Tory Party as it is now. It’s just, traditionally, if you were a farmer, you voted Tory.
“When you talk about the fact that you need to maintain rural communities, farmers are also part of the rural community, they’re involved in the local chapel or the local shop, and they understand the importance of community.”
And what’s a success for Jenkin on May 7th?
“Ideally we’d like to see a significant increase in the Mebyon Kernow vote: if we could get up into the 20%, then we could no longer be dismissed as not a serious player in the game. And even if we didn’t get people elected this time, then people would think more seriously about voting for us next time.”
PS if you’re wondering what “Lovely to meet Loveday and Zoe” is in Cornish, it’s “Ass yw splann metya gans Loveday ha Zoe.”