“Devonwall” seat proposal – the government ignore Cornish pride at their peril

The Strand, Bude by paul walterThe Strand, Bude, Cornwall

On Wednesday I was lucky enough to be in a choir leading the singing of “Trelawny” in an ancient Cornish church. “Trelawny” or “The Song of Western Men” is the “unofficial Cornish national anthem” written by Rev R.S. Hawker. The congregation joined in with the choruses – most enthusiastically – and rapturous applause from “one and all” followed the song. It was a magical moment and reinforced that great feeling of community which one feels amongst Cornish people. There’s a real passion and pride about the Cornish nation.

The Boundary Commissioners and Theresa May should have been present at that church. I have a hunch that witnessing such strength of feeling, they would think again about their proposals for a “Devonwall” seat. The church in question is just south of Bude and part of the proposed parliamentary constituency of Bideford, Bude and Launceston, straddling Devon and Cornwall – or, I should say, Cornwall and England.

Of course, sitting in London looking at a map, it all makes sense. You can’t make the numbers work so you have to spill over into another county.

It all makes sense in a similar way to the proposal of the then chairman of Bude Stratton Urban District Council in the sixties, who said Bude should be part of a council area shared with parts of North Devon. The bin lorries would have less distance to travel and the water pipes would be shorter, blah blah blah. The chairman had the audacity to put the matter to a local referendum (it all seems incredible in retrospect but I promise you it happened). A public meeting was held at the Headland Pavilion on the cliffs at Bude. The chairman went on and on, as did a number of experts. Money saved, less distance travelled, much closer to Bideford than Truro, blah blah blah blah blah. After an hour of this stuff, a well known retired County Councillor stood up. He was a big man with a big voice. He simply said:

You’re missing the point. We’re Cornish and we are proud to be Cornish!

The subsequent cheering, applause and stamping of feet brought the house down. The local feeling was made clear and the referendum was lost by about 600 votes against and a dozen or so in favour.

Such is the strength of feeling. Cornwall is not a simple county like other counties. A government announcement in 2014 said:

…the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities.

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. For the first time the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.

So, the Boundary Commissioners wouldn’t propose a parliamentary constituency half in Wales and half in England, or half in Scotland and half in England – so why the hell are they proposing a constituency half in Cornwall and half in England?

I’m delighted to say that Cornwall Liberal Democrats are strongly fighting this proposal, as written on their Facebook page:

Frances Tippett, Chair of Cornwall Liberal Democrats – and former Councillor for the northernmost parishes of Morwenstow, Kilkhampton and Launcells – said: “We support the principle of equally sized constituencies, but only if flexibility is applied to take account of natural communities; and this vast rural constituency could hardly be seen as that.

“This boundary review was always flawed, based on a Tory calculation that it would gain them seats. The losers from their cynicism will be the poor and disadvantaged across Cornwall and beyond, those who feel so let down by the political system that they do not register to vote and therefore are not counted when these reviews are done; yet are the very people whose interests should be paramount in all that we do in the future.

“As the Electoral Reform Society point out, the real scandal here is that the poor and marginalised will be less not more represented in our democracy, and so I urge local people on both sides of the border to hold their Conservative MPs to account and to oppose these unnecessary and damaging proposals.”

Dan Rogerson, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for North Cornwall, and former MP, added: “In the last Parliament, Cornwall’s Liberal Democrat MPs voted against similar proposals and blocked them. Now Cornwall has six Conservative MPs. The people of the Duchy will be watching to see whether the hapless six have the ear of the Prime Minister and can change her mind on this, or whether they are powerless lobby-fodder for this anti-Cornwall Government.”

I’ve got a feeling that Theresa May will soon realize she has made a mistake here, when she hears the strength of feeling in Cornwall about this. Perhaps she should just watch “Poldark”. Ross Poldark miraculously got off a charge of starting a riot and encouraging theft/smuggling in last week’s episode. Except it wasn’t that miraculous when you consider that, as I understand it, no Cornish jury ever convicted any Cornish person of smuggling. There was such a sense of Cornish identity and feeling of the struggle against the powers of government and big business, that it never happened. And that sense of identity and struggle continues today. Theresa May messes with it at her peril.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • “I’ve got a feeling that Theresa May will soon realize she has made a mistake here”

    *She* made a mistake here? What on earth does that mean? She had no part in the process.

    You might argue that the coalition government made a mistake in drawing up these rules by not making Cornwall a protected region like the nations and the Island seats. But note we lib dems are just as blameworthy for that error as she is.

  • ^Exactly.

    Furthermore, no, you should not say ‘the border between Cornwall and England’ as Cornwall is part of England. You may not want it to be but it is.

  • Alastair Thomson 16th Sep '16 - 4:36pm

    I respect the wishes of the Cornish (or indeed the Devonian) people if they wish to avoid constituency boundaries that do not cross their county borders. However, I’d be interested to know what solution is proposed. Is it constituencies of a smaller size (unfair to the rest of England) or a larger size (unfair to Cornish voters)?

  • Alastair Thomson 16th Sep '16 - 4:42pm

    ^ Whoops, apologies for double negative above.

  • European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

    As “Brexit means Brexit” this convention will cease to apply when the UK leaves the EU, which we keep being told will have happened prior to the 2020 general election…

  • Laurence Cox 16th Sep '16 - 6:21pm

    As 182,665 Cornish electors voted for Brexit and only 140,540 voted for Remain; I say tell them to get stuffed. If they were incapable of understanding what a good deal they were getting from the EU, they don’t deserve to be listened to.

  • Andrew McCaig 16th Sep '16 - 6:36pm

    The mistake was and still is in reducing the number of MP’s, a knee-jerk decision in the wake of the expenses scandal which the Tories including Theresa May have continued only because it advantages them..

    Quite right to hold the Tories responsible for any consequences..

  • “It’s the Tamar, not the Amazon”

  • Don’t you still have a Devonwall region in the Liberal Democrats? If so, it doesn’t recognise Cornwall as being distinct from Devon in its own structures let alone as a state party distinct from England. AFAIK the only party that recognises such a distinction that operates in Cornwall is Mebyon Kernow.

  • Roland, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is a Council of Europe Framework, it has nothing to do with the EU.

  • Barry Snelson 17th Sep '16 - 1:56pm

    The Kernow stuff is a bit of harmless fun until you start telling some nice, decent Devon people that they are beneath you chosen people and don’t want to associate with them.

  • It is rather iinadequate to making the point about silly constituency boundaries for our national parliament without highlighting what should really be at the forefront of people’s minds: the need to take vast amounts of power away from Westminster and devolve it regional parliaments within a proper federal UK. There shouldn’t need to be any arguments over national constituency boundaries being across county lines because these should be less relevant for a UK parliament that *only* considers truly national political issues. We should be trumpeting the goal of massively devolved powers and keeping our promise to allow Cornwall, with its special national minority status, to be if it wishes a federal state alongside NI, Wales, Scotland and a multitude of English regions (whose borders and size are yet to be determined). Lib Dems should do all they can to promote a long-term vision of the UK as such, always in the same breath when criticising these silly boundary reviews. Affairs that relate directly and specifically to Cornwall should be governed by Cornwall, not by Wetminster through an MP who has a silly-shaped constituency.

  • I raised this as an objection back in the coalition days Paul and was roundly shouted down by those who felt it was a price worth paying for offering the public a referendum on that “miserable compromise”. This whole process is only taking place because of the Lib Dems in coalition.

    On a more general point wanting to be separate does not make those of us on the Devon side feel “beneath you” nor I hope vice versa… I often travel abroad from Plymouth to Saltash or Torpoint!!!

  • Steve Trevethan 17th Sep '16 - 3:39pm

    Perhaps we could try an electoral experiment in Cornwall, which, at least for the Cornish, has a significant social entity. Consider the Duchy as one unit of electoral area and use a meaningful proportional representation system within it. This might preserve the MP/elector proximity of the current system and more accurately represent the wishes of the voters.
    Most voters did not vote for the current government, yet we are being escorted to changes which appears to make that contradiction even worse.

  • Barry Snelson 17th Sep '16 - 4:57pm

    The Wales England boundary is a national one and has been there a long time. Historically, that particular fracture line was established after a great deal of strife, conflict and violent death.

    Drawing new fracture lines on a map may seem fun for those who believe they are ‘special’ but they should reflect on the effect of their claims on those who they must deem as less fortunate than themselves.

    The English county boundaries are all within one nation, England. If you want to destroy and disintegrate England, say so.

  • Barry Snelson 17th Sep '16 - 7:03pm

    I don’t know how many Devonians Steve speaks for but I assume the Boundary Commission did a fair and honest job in setting the boundaries and if I were in the Devon part of this new setting and read your piece I would be offended that you wanted a redraw that excluded me simply and only because I wasn’t included in your “Distinctive National Minority”.

    I am sure Steve is fair and correct but try asking more than one citizen of England before you clear your conscience.

    Nationalism (Scottish principally) is tearing, and will tear eventually, the UK apart. Do you envisage Cornish nationalism tearing apart England?

  • Barry Snelson 17th Sep '16 - 7:13pm

    Your reply appeared to grow in size while I was replying, the privilege of moderation I suppose.
    The “government” isn’t changing the County boundary so Cornwall is in no danger of being broken up, although such boundaries aren’t sacrosanct. My wife was born in a Lancashire town now in Cheshire.
    Keep the Kernow thing as a way of selling trinkets to grockles and all will be well and we will all stay friends.
    Refuse to share an MP with an ‘Engish’ person and you risk giving offence.

  • Barry Snelson 17th Sep '16 - 10:12pm

    Excellent Paul. When you used the term “at their peril” I thought you might be threatening the nation I love. My mistake.

  • ‘The Wales England boundary is a national one and has been there a long time. Historically, that particular fracture line was established after a great deal of strife, conflict and violent death.’

    Hmm Just like England was created with a great deal strife, conflict and death from the merger of of numerous small and large kingdoms? The Cornish were at probably at war, on and off, with Wessex and the other Anglo-Saxons from the 6-9th centuries AD. The last known Cornish king died around 875 and even as late as the 10th century the King of Wessex was forcing them out of Exeter and fixing the Cornish border at the Tamar.

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