Today, something sizeable is changing in British politics and it isn’t Boris Johnson’s hairstyle. Today, the UK officially has a new native ethnic minority: the Cornish Celts. Despite 2,200 complaints registered about Cornish mumblings this past week*, there is a distinctly more positive sound regarding this latest development.
Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury responsible for announcing the legal protection of the Cornish today in Bodmin, is the MP for Inverness, Nairn Badenoch and Strathspey, a region also notable for breeding separatist sentiment. Happily I am well acquainted with both Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands, having spent roughly 3.84% of my life so far in each place.
These two regions are fairly similar. Both have had a rather illustrious history of anti-governmental feeling, which today translates into lobbying for independence/devolution/further recognition. In 1497, thousands of Cornishmen put the security of the Tudor dynasty in doubt as they “swarmed through southern England”** in a rebellion initiated by “swingeing taxation and and corrupt officialdom”. The pretender Perkin Warbeck (masquerading as the younger of the Princes in the Tower) landed in Cornwall, following the gruesome executions of the rebellion’s leaders subsequent to their defeat at Blackheath outside London, and preyed upon the airs of revolt to summon thousands more Cornishmen to his standard and snatch the rosy complexion from England. Unfortunately for him, Henry (VII) was this time far better prepared and inflicted a massive defeat at Taunton with his “vastly superior forces”. During the English Civil War, Cornwall was a firm royalist support base. Throughout much of documented history, the Cornish Celts have resented centralised governmental influences since a certain faction believe themselves to be different.
The Highlands of Scotland underwent huge deprivation during the 18th century as a result of their support of Bonnie Prince Charlie during the 1745 Jacobite uprising (in addition to a less well-known one led by his father 30 years before). Despite comprehensive victories on the path to London, they were defeated (comprehensively) upon their retreat at Culloden, which lies in Alexander’s constituency. Even today there is no little pride in this involvement, a romanticised view owing in no small part to Sir Walter Scott. The banning of tartan, bagpipes and any demonstrations akin to Jacobite/Highlander pride, twinned with the Highland Clearances***, have not, it is fair to say, aided amiability between Westminster and the Highlands through time. Again, there exists a certain faction who believe themselves to be different.
Ever since the Act of Union in 1707, with the monarchies of England and Scotland having been united in 1603 (and Ireland and Wales already taken under the English regal fold prior to that), Westminster has endeavoured to unite the United Kingdom. Inevitably, certain factions will always feel that they are unheard and that they are being compromised. For the Highlands, with Scottish devolution in 1999, there has to some extent been a lessening of that pressure. But, since “Devo-Max” is off the cards, September will tell us whether or not a centralised London government bears the confidence of the people it represents and governs. For Cornwall, recognition as not being English now clearly marks them out as different. The Scots, Welsh and Irish – the most prominent native ethnic minorities – all have devolved parliaments and governments; after years of persistent lobbying and petitioning headed by Cornish MP Dan Rogerson, will this be the first stone towards devolution?
The Cornish are predominantly a Celtic race, and the language is strikingly similar to both Welsh and (less so) to Scots and Irish Gaelic. These races sometimes believe them to be the true Brits – after all, the original “British” were Celts, and their descendants are now largely believed to be the Welsh and Cornish, driven into the corners of the island by invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes. If these minorities, with their roots in the soil of ancient Britannia****, have gained recognition or devolution, will the English get a devolved parliament? Certain factions favour this, too. Perhaps this symbolic move by the coalition also signifies their respect for difference and diversity within one union of peoples, a move to dissuade the Scots from voting with Salmond in September.
So, exactly what does this mean for now? It means that the government will actively strive to protect the Cornish from racial discrimination, whilst making extra room for Cornish views during legislative discussions and promoting Cornish pride. Maybe St Piran’s Day (5th March) will be more widely celebrated, the pasty tax abolished and the legend of King Arthur revitalised. And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a new parliament in Falmouth.
As I opine, we ought to stick together. As David Cameron often says, diversity enriches our union, and to break it up for every faction who desires a better deal for themselves would be like getting a divorce because one person wants Crunchy Nut and the other Special K. There is room to buy both; there will always be room, provided we respect each other’s opinions and include them in valid and open discussion, which the new status of minority will help to ensure.
The Scottish independence referendum will take place on 18th September 2014.
**Thomas Penn, Winter King
***during which sheep were considered more valuable than the native Scots, forcing mass emigration to the US and Canada since the land was requisitioned by English landlords
****from a linguistic point-of-view, it’s also intriguing that “Britannia”/”Britain” and “Brittany”/”Bretagne” are so similar, given that genealogists believe the Cornish to be ethnically the same as Bretons