Cornish seek political autonomy and recognition as a people

SPECIAL REPORT. Main Cornish nationalist party confident it will do well in next local elections · Over half Cornwall’s population support self-government based on the Welsh and Scottish model · One group intends to take the United Kingdom to the European courts for failing to recognize the Cornish as a people.

Could a fourth autonomous parliament, in addition to those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, soon be on the cards in the United Kingdom? The people of Cornwall, one of Europe's smallest stateless nations (3,563 sq. km. and a population of 526,000), certainly think so. The Cornish are not only adapting their ancient Celtic language for the twenty-first century, they also want London to recognize their distinctiveness and acknowledge them as one of the UK's "home nations". And progress is beginning to be made in the land of King Arthur.

In administrative terms, Cornwall is part of South West England, one of the nine regions that make up England. England's regional assemblies are not elected by voters, as they are, for instance, in Spain, and in 2010 they will be replaced by two new parallel structures, forums and agencies. Before the new system is introduced, many have spoken out in favour of Cornwall having its own democratically elected, autonomous assembly based on the Welsh and Scottish model. A survey carried out in 2003 suggested 55% of people in Cornwall would be in favour.

Mebyon Kernow (MK, ‘Sons of Cornwall' in Cornish) is the most active political proponent of a Cornish Assembly. At the party's annual conference two weeks ago, MK leader Dick Cole reiterated one of the demands his party has been making for years: an autonomous assembly that responds to the needs of the Cornish people. But this time Cole went further, calling on his supporters to "defeat" the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in next year's local elections: "We have to [...] put Cornish nationalists at the heart of local government in Cornwall," Cole said.

Dick Cole's strategy is to show voters that Mebyon Kernow is the only alternative to "undistinguished politicians that cannot be trusted to defend Cornish interests." The nationalist party is changing tack, not simply stressing Cornwall's cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, but its economic and social interests too. MK is now campaigning against unchecked urban expansion and campaigning in favour of keeping post offices open, for example.

How likely is it that Mebyon Kernow will succeed? The party is convinced that it will make major progress in next year's local elections. There is some evidence that MK is right to be optimistic: in the 2005 general election MK won 3,200 votes in Cornwall and in local elections two years later they attracted 10,000 votes (although in local elections voters can choose two candidates representing different parties). MK is now hoping to win over disgruntled Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters. The Lib Dems are accused of disrupting local government; Labour of failing to invest in the region.

Fighting to be recognized as a people

Cornish nationalists are aware that, for the time being at least, securing their own assembly will be difficult. But forcing the United Kingdom to recognize the Cornish as a distinct people would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. Last year, the Council of Europe urged the United Kingdom to "examine" the possibility of defining the Cornish as a distinct "racial group". If the Cornish people were given the same status as the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Roma and Sikhs, they would be entitled to protection under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which the United Kingdom has signed.

London has not yet acted on the Council of Europe's advice, so the Cornish have taken matters into their own hands. Last May, the Cornish Fighting Fund was set up to raise enough money to take the United Kingdom to the European Courts. By early December, 36,000 pounds had been pledged to cover legal costs. Supporters of the Fund want to force London to acknowledge the existence of the Cornish people, which may open the way for Cornish history and language to be taught in Cornwall's schools, and put an end once and for all to the "forced assimilation" and "ethnocide" of the Cornish people.

Revival of a language

The Cornish language is undoubtedly one of the most important symbols of the Cornish revival of Cornish. An ancient Celtic language, Cornish was spoken until the eighteenth century and began to be revived at the start of the twentieth century by Cornish enthusiasts. Their efforts are beginning to pay off. Today there are several hundred fluent speakers of the language and some parents are transmitting Cornish to their children. The United Kingdom officially recognized Cornish as a regional language in 2003, and although the protection it receives is slight compared to Welsh, the future of Cornish seems fairly bright.


Children wearing Cornish flags celebrate St Piran's Day.

Bilingual sign in English and Cornish welcoming visitors to Cornwall.

Cornwall (in yellow) is located in the far south-western corner of Great Britain.

Further information: