The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Mebyon Kernow & Cornish Nationalism


Seaghán Ó Murchú • 30 November 2005

Unlike Scotland and Wales, Cornwall represents ambiguity as a Celtic nation. Formerly Celtic-speaking, its last native speakers having died before the nineteenth century, for five centuries it remains an English county. This paradox, accepted by many of its residents, introduces this study by Bernard Deacon, Dick Cole, and Garry Tregidga. (Cardiff: Ashley Drake-Welsh Academic Press-Griffin Press, 2003. ISBN: 1-86057-075-5.) Mebyon Kernow & Cornish Nationalism sums up, concisely and dispassionately, the formation of the 'Party for Cornwall' in 1951, its revivalist and antiquarian predecessors, and its inspiration for wider Cornish Solidarity pressure groups and Cornish Assembly campaigns now agitating for de-evolution in the wake of SNP and Plaid Cymru's successes over the past decade.

The language had faded well before industrialisation took full hold over Cornwall. Contrasting with Welsh and Scots nationalist efforts in the early 20c, Cornish progressives took the momentum that erosion of agriculture as a basis for most of its residents provided, and celebrated the spread of the machine. Yet, by the end of the last century, the last tin mine having closed after millennia digging and refining the metal that made Cornwall famed, the trust placed in mechanisation had crumbled. Instead, the influx of second-home owners from 'up-country' loomed, along with the relegation of Cornwall as a touristed but otherwise neglected backwater by Westminster, as larger threats. Reasserting Cornish Celtic identity has both played into the hands of those vacationing or retiring there, and tricked those predicting that cultural nationalism could never lead to political activism among those once again proud to be Cornish, not English.

The second chapter surveys the early 20c language movement. The Celtic Revival, as elsewhere in the Atlantic archipelago, remained mired too often in antiquarianism. Garbed druids were picturesque, but failed to use their powers to halt emigration of the land's youth. Many who sought to resurrect the language fought against any accompanying radicalism, paralleling the Gaelic League-IRB Hyde-Pearse contentions. Henry Jenner is here quoted in 1926 as claiming 'no wish on anyone's part to translate the Irish political expression "Sinn Fein" into Cornish, [or] to agitate for Home Rule for Cornwall [or to] foment disloyalty to England's King or the British Empire.' (16) Jenner's assurances of an apolitical revival showed how fearful many of the elder generation could be about any revolution, given the scale of Ireland's recent wars.

Only at mid-century, in the postwar British reassessment of conventional pieties, did nationalists form a constitutional party, Sons of Cornwall, MK. Even tiny nudges towards what was perceived as a call for federalism or regional representation aroused mainstream culturalists' fears echoing Jenner's jitters. Under Richard Jenkins and other committed activists, change began, however small. The competition, the content, and the compromises could be tiny: unable to select among three vying canonized candidates to be Cornwall's patron saint, it was agreed to consecrate the Duchy to their care as a trio.

But, by the early 1960s, more substantive rather than symbolic considerations loomed. Although the authors make no mention, the parallel with Sinn Fein in the Wolfe Tone Society ginger group of the mid-60s sharpens the depiction of what confronted a miniscule cadre. Young Cornish patriots, like their Irish and other Celtic counterparts, longed for not nostalgia but real advance into a politically relevant and economically practical terrain upon which the recovery by Celtic nationals of their land, their subsistence, and their citizenship could be contested and won. For MK, the enemy emerged after the Greater London Council was formed. The GLC proposed-hidden from local scrutiny-that their metropolitan overpopulation problem could be alleviated by the relocation of thousands of its urban millions to rural areas such as Cornwall. This 'overspill' would flood whoever and whatever remained of a native, regional, and Celtic culture, the MK argued. Inspired by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, MK fought back through conventional elections. Like the Welsh and Scots (and the Irish parallel again of Official SF-The Workers Party, unmentioned again by the authors), such methods sputtered and few gains were kept in the invader's Parliament. Powers of resistance again slipped away from Celtic control.

Three splits, in 1969, 1975, and 1980, weakened MK. Two of these led to splinter parties. The complaint reminded me again of that leveled against the Provos more than once. The older organisation, restless youth and militantly minded veterans complained, was too broad rather than too narrow a place for Celtic action. If everyone from soft-focus language lovers to conservative ruralists to itchy leftists belonged to MK, it could not move forward into grasping and holding onto meaningful gains, politically or practically.

By the 1970s, opposition did coalesce around one main enemy: housing. Holiday homes and the rising prices that tourism spurred combined. They undermined the ability of native Cornish to afford to remain in their homeland.

But the radical action of another group of Mebyon, the Sons in Wales, the Free Welsh Army, and other shadowy contigents was not the acceptable face of Cornish nationalism. As the paper Cornish Nation became radicalised by such Celtic guerrillas in the early 70s, protests were lodged about its 'increasingly sympathetic coverage of Irish Republicanism.' (61) And in a media climate that loved the global warming of fist-pumping wild youth, the Cornish staged their own performance art. Posing as, inevitably, the 'Free Cornish Army,' students from Plymouth Polytechnic, among '40 fully trained units' as they claimed, marched and were duly photographed and publicized before the trick was spoiled. (62) The heated atmosphere of the decade did, however, lead to another substantial storm, albeit contained within the confines of the Cornish nation. The Cornish National Party broke away from a too-timid, so they charged, MK in 1975. Two years later, the CNP leader left, lamenting its 'infiltration by communist elements.' (67)

By the 1980s, then, MK languished. As with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, the authors explain, the Thatcher years hastened MK's retreat into 'internal reflection about its philosophical role.' (75) Restless younger members, often with socialist ideological support, formed into pressure groups for more immediate action. Ties with leftists and Greens were sought. An elusive An Gof entity threatened violence. MK and nationalists consistently rejected physical-force efforts. They preferred backing up anti-nuclear grassroots efforts. They fought 'Devonwall,' in which the Crown would consolidate Cornish with Devon's services after its 1974 reconfigurations of the British counties.

The new European Parliament, later that decade, inspired calls for local representation, but the Cornish constituency was deemed too miniscule.

With the 1990s, the anti-Poll Tax protests sparked a novel legal defense. It was deemed illegal under a treaty, never repealed or superseded it was argued, that was signed by England with Cornwall-in 1508. Allied as Cornish Solidarity, many resistors to the Crown expanded regional resistance. Although only as a fill-in line under a newly placed box marked 'Other,' the Cornish could present themselves to the rest of Britain as a distinct ethnic group for the first time. In 2000, ten percent of the Cornish electorate, or 50,000 voters, signed a call for a local Assembly. At the time this book went to press, this effort met with stalling by Westminster, but the authors cautiously conclude that such a renewed pride in Cornish regionalism signals a sea-change from ingrained attitudes dominant as late as the 1970s that diminished cultural heritage, belittled local tradition, or condemned political activism among the Celtic remnant at the tip of the British island.

Their summaries make instructive reading for The Blanket's audience. Deacon is a lecturer in Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter. Dick Cole currently leads MK. Dr Garry Tregidga serves as the Deputy Director for the Institute for Cornish Studies (at Exeter). They hold that the language activists have been often 'over-defensive'. (114) This may, they suggest, reflect decades-and centuries-of malaise in Cornish society. So long marginalised as the Celtic Fringe colonised within England itself, its natives lack confidence that its leaders can produce change and decide actions on the local level. Yet, the authors add, the cultural agenda derided by many as nostalgic decades ago now proves that results can be measured. The Celtic manifestations may be more displayed as kitsch in souvenir shops than before, but the Cornish flag flies, signs reflect bilingual heritage long suppressed, and resistance to the Anglophonic juggernaut can be seen more immediately than before by locals and tourists alike. (Compare my earlier Blanket review 'Eternal Elves of the West' of Marcus Tanner's The Last of the Celts, which has a pessimistic chapter on this heritage industry in Cornwall and considers all six Celtic nations as doomed to extinction as the language erosion in turn eliminates any ground upon which natives can survive with any indigenous culture or self-governing polity.)

Still, the visual recovery of a Cornish nationalism, the authors warn, does not wrest territorial security. The Cornish flag was forcibly removed from flagpoles after the 2002 death of the Queen Mother, they note. This symbolises how fragile are the symbols.

Flag-waving, they concur, may make Cornish prouder, 'but it has not fostered a clearly and consistently pro-active nationalist political activism.' (115) But, the druid-garbed revivalists of a century ago could never have predicted how fluid Celtic identity could become. Rather than looking back to antiquated slogans, the authors remind us, the newest Cornish symbols may be heard in music-and emblazoned on surfboards.


P.S. See the New York Times, 17 November 2005. Sarah Lyall's 'Saving Cornish: But Stop. Isn't That Spelled With a K?' About 200 can converse in Cornish. But four competing versions contend, and any e-mailer, Lyall claims, rather than selecting the 'wrong' version and so incite the recipient's hostility, had better write only in English.



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