Back in the summer of 2017, a separatist group called the Cornish Republican Army took responsibility for setting fire to Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant on Porthleven harbourfront. The flames and smoke caused severe damage, enough to persuade the celebrity chef to close the doors for good.
It was one of many acts of vandalism and arson carried out by the CRA which deliberately set out to target English commercial interests in Cornwall. They destroyed English flags, spray painted over the Tudor Rose on English Heritage road signs, and carried out several arson attacks on holiday homes.
Although Cornish nationalism rarely receives mainstream media attention, except in exceptional instances of violence or as a source of English entertainment – such as Sun headlines about the ‘Ooh Arr Aye’ and films such as Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education – the Duchy of Cornwall has a long history of resistance to Westminster rule, having only become part of England in 1889.
Many nationalists argue that Cornwall remains a territorial and constitutional Duchy with the right to veto Westminster legislation. It is not merely an historic county of England, as it wasn’t officially incorporated until the Local Government Act of 1888 which established county councils. Technically there’s still a Cornish stannary parliament, as it was never formally dissolved after its last official meeting in 1753.
Since then, there has long been discontent among Kernow’s nationalists, with one militant group – named An Gof after the revolutionary Cornish blacksmith who led the rebellion of 1497 – bombing a St Austell courtroom in 1980 and catching fire to local businesses around this time, in protest at what they termed Westminster’s “failure to recognise the region’s unique cultural heritage and needs”.
Still today, local teens and elderly people alike often pull down ‘offensive’ St George’s flags or spray paint over the Tudor rose on English heritage signs. Some nationalists even want tourists who are not interested in the region’s strong Celtic heritage driven out. Calling these people English, rather than Cornish, is guaranteed to spark a heated outburst.
Two Cornwalls at Britain’s periphery.
It’s not hard to see how such sentiment arises. There’s a well-documented body of research showing that successive Westminster governments have failed to develop policy for growth and prosperity in the once magnificent coastal towns at the periphery of Britain. Seaside communities from north Ayrshire to north Wales to Land’s End are suffering from high levels of unemployment and low GDP per capita, as well as the social consequences of the lack of financial shortfall.
Like their predecessors, Boris Johnson and his Conservative government have shown they are willing to treat Cornwall as little more than a playground for wealthy holiday makers, whilst the Cornish working class is subject to a never-ending cascade of England-centric policy-making. The recent coronavirus furlough and self-employment financial support packages failed to take account of the fact that much of Cornwall’s population relies on insecure, seasonal employment, meaning record numbers of people were rendered ineligible for the schemes. The village shop in David Cameron’s favoured holiday destination of Rock may stock caviar, freshly-caught lobster and costly bottles of champagne, yet the Duchy’s food banks are at capacity as locals struggle to cover their living expenses.
Infuriatingly, the world once again saw Cornwall through rose-tinted glasses during this year’s G7 summit, with sun-kissed images of wealthy democratic leaders soaking up Carbis Bay’s white sand and crystal clear water. Little attention was paid to the fact that one in three kids in the Duchy lives in poverty.
There is a huge disparity between local salaries and house prices, with Truro consistently deemed one of the top three least affordable cities in the country due to the increasing gap between income and house prices. Cornwall’s inflated house prices are largely driven by the number of tourists seeking second homes by the sea – an issue that’s set to be exacerbated after the recent G7 spotlight on the region – placing properties even further out of reach of locals.
While empty fisherman’s cottages line Mousehole’s waterfront each winter, Cornwall council struggles to find accommodation for the homeless people bearing the impact of the region’s supposed housing shortage, and it’s common for single-parents to spend consecutive summers moving between B&Bs and hotels, as rooms are rented out to higher paying tourists.
Things could be different. The Channel Islands implements a policy whereby local residents – or people with a family connection to the area – have access to a more competitively priced local housing market, while second home owners from the mainland pay a higher price to purchase a property. Instead, Cornwall’s Tory-run council simply intends to deal with the Duchy’s long-neglected housing crisis by providing disused caravans and sleeping pods to those seeking affordable living quarters.
Meanwhile in St Austell, local business owners trade their wares amid boarded-up high street stores, whilst people struggling with substance misuse openly use and sell drugs. The problem has been exacerbated by the Tories’ cuts to drug addiction and treatment services, with coastal holiday resorts at the forefront of heroin and morphone-misuse deaths.
Another Cornwall is possible.
Whether it’s a beachfront communities or inland areas such as Clay Country, Cornwall has been a net loser from globalisation, with once-prosperous industries such as tin and clay mining, fishing and agriculture gradually declining. The Duchy’s 500,000 residents are now heavily dependent on tourism, with 33% of GDP coming from the 4 million holiday makers who visit each year.
Resentment between local residents and tourists continues to grow. Kim Conchie, chief executive of Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, recently warned locals: “We mustn’t get to the situation in Wales in the 1970s where they burned down second homes. You can’t tar everyone with the same brush.”
But calls for tolerance among the working class of Cornwall fail to take account of the real problem, which is the fact that many Cornish people currently stand no chance of achieving a comfortable standard of living because both secure, well-paid employment and affordable housing remain so far out of reach. Unless Westminster takes the unlikely step of generating policy to revive our tired industries and develop new fields of expertise, the vast gap between Britain’s core and its periphery will only continue to grow.
In recent years, the people of Cornwall have witnessed the growth and achievements of independence movements in other Celtic nations, specifically Wales and Scotland, which have shown what can be achieved by disrupting the status quo and extending devolution.
In Wales, the existence of the Senedd has allowed the nation to generate policy targeted to its specific cultural and economic needs. Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament has given communities the right to buy local land and introduced the Scottish Child Payment to help tackle poverty.
So, for many Cornish nationalists, it’s no longer a question of whether the Duchy will secure a greater degree of autonomy: it’s a question of when.
Dr Rebecca Tidy is a freelance journalist specialising in social policy, elections and nationalism, and an honorary research fellow in the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter.
Breaking Britain is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).