Monday, 10 October 2011

Keep Cornwall Whole Saltash 12 months on.

Last year on the 10/10/10 was the Keep Cornwall Whole rally in Saltash, 12 months have passed since then. I thought now was a good time to look back on the KCW campaign and it's dismal failure. The campaign successfully managed to unite the Cornish political classes against the Devonwall constituency. Certainly various facets of the campaign were very successful in gaining media attention both in Truro and occasionally London. The cross party group managed to secure a meeting with Nick Clegg, to discuss Cornish concerns. So why did the campaign ultimately fail?

Government obstinacy

I think firstly and foremostly the government were not willing to concede point that the Cornish border should be treated differently and should be given a special status. Whether in terms of ethnicity, culture, administrative borders or history the powers that be in London did not accept any of these arguments as valid enough to contradict the mathematical formula to decide new constituencies. This attitude showed through in the Commons debates with both the unwillingness to give Cornwall an exception when the bill was drafted and the willingness to whip coalition MPs into voting against the amendment that would have protected Cornish parliamentary integrity.

Labour pulling out of KCW

Despite having their member Jennifer Forbes speaking at the Saltash rally 12 months ago and sending the same person to London to speak to Clegg, Labour pulled out of KCW. I don't know why they did so, three possible explanations are:

1. Jennifer Forbes was the only Labour member opposed to a Devonwall constituency. Neither Charlotte Mackenzie, Candy Atherton or Jude Robinson went or spoke at the meeting with Clegg or at the Saltash rally. The leader of Cornwall Labour (or Cornish Labour if you prefer the adjective to the noun.) Jude Robinson for example recently blogged about the new Devon & Cornwall Police commissioner, I know it's a different form of Devonwall but her respect for the Cornish border is clear: The Devonwall Conspiracy. Also we might consider that none of the Labour top brass spoke on this issue, in other words the Lib Dem, Tory and Labour leaderships in London all didn't understand or appreciate the fuss about the Cornish border.

2. Labour has always been painted as out of touch with Cornwall by the other parties. It is a familiar refrain that Labour do not understand Cornwall and the Cornish. Leaving KCW for Labour was a great way of showing that in fact it was the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who were out of touch with Cornwall and Cornish opinion.

3. The danger for a political party lobbying with other parties is the fact that they soon become synonymous and their principles and policies become blurred. The Liberal Democrats are intent on learning this fact the hard way in coalition government, but Cornish Labour were atune to the need to keep distance between themselves and their opposing parties. Certainly if the Keep Cornwall Whole had been successful it would have been coalition MPs taking the credit.

I think Labour certainly missed a trick with this issue, they could have secured the Cornish border as a meaningful boundary within the UK and won a rare victory against the government. More high profile campaigning on the issue in the early stages would have been very effective. To play the 'what if' game, if  all Labour members had turned up and voted for the KCW amendment and they had whipped their members the amendment could have passed. (The amendment failed with 243 votes for and 315 against, Labour has 258 MPs about 40 didn't turn up to vote, inc. Ed Miliband). Labour could have lobbied harder to Keep Cornwall Whole, lack of willingness and commitment to the cause meant they did not.

A lack of coherency within Keep Cornwall Whole

The majority of campaigners, believed that the Cornish border was not to be messed with, that it is an important ethnic, cultural, economic and political frontier. As such it should not be crossed at all, let alone as a side issue to cutting the number of MPs. Cornwall's politicians had this to say (all taken from the

"There’s a definite, natural line and boundary between my constituency and the city of Plymouth. I certainly would not be prepared to lay down and accept that we have to cross county boundaries and the Tamar.”
‘Sheryll Murray, Conservative MP for South East Cornwall’

“There is an issue of the very natural boundary of the Tamar, doing it as a mathematical exercise is too rigid.
“We are economically different, there’s all the cultural aspects as well, and we need to make sure that we come up with boundaries which make sense.”
Dan Rogerson, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall
“A cross-border constituency would have a negative influence on Cornwall’s identity and economic direction.” 

Cllr Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow

We should have the chance to let our MPs know how strongly we feel about Cornwall.   I support working with other counties across the region in partnership and I believe we are stronger for it.   But this is an historic county – some say a region.  Whatever your view, are we going to stand around and get flannelled by politicians who want to manoeuvre our borders away on the qt, while we are on holiday?

Jude Robinson – Labour Spokesperson for Cornwall 

“We love England so much, we want to protect its border”

Andrew George MP Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives

The message is clear from all parties that the Tamar should not be crossed by an MP, that Cornwall is indeed a special case for a variety of reasons. So it was with some surprise that the amendment to Keep Cornwall Whole was not a standalone amendment, it was clustered in with a number of other cases, mostly large sparsely populated areas and islands who also would be bettered served by whole constituencies. There was certainly some strength in combining forces with other places and MPs but the other places all had geographical issues (amendment 183). None of them shared in the attributes of the Cornish frontier (they were all beyond doubt cases worth breaking the rules for) none of them marked the divide between 2 peoples Celtic Briton and Anglo Saxon, Cornish and English. There was no coherency the debates in parliament, they did not match the rhetoric and headlines before hand. Instead of building the argument for Cornwall as a special place and for our border have great significance and then making that case in parliament and change in tactics took place. If the KCW campaign wanted to argue that lots of place should be excluded from the rules and Cornwall was one of them, why not do that all along? If they did not want to stand up and explain how proud the Cornish are of our border fair enough. But they should have done it earlier.

I am by no means an experienced campaigner but I recognise that a campaign has to build an argument, that the central point should be supported by other points and the central point should always be paramount. To change this central argument was a mistake by Cornwall's Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, the amendment should have been Cornwall specific. This would have allowed an actual vote wholly on our frontier and for our border to be given the due consideration of a debate in parliament.

We can't escape the fact that our border stands to be disregarded thanks to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, they introduced the policy and party members were not able to dissuade their own parties before the bill entered parliament. They were also not able to get many coalition MPs to vote for the amendment Cornwall was a part of. In terms of Labour they were also unsuccessful in getting their whole party to vote for the amendment. To boil it down politicians of middle England were not swayed by the arguments of the Keep Cornwall Whole campaign and it's various members. We were not able to convey to them what this meant to Cornwall and we failed to evoke any sympathy/ empathy for Cornwall's border.

That said, I think the debate was won and lost before the vote on the night of the 2nd of November 2010. I believe that the campaign lacked direction and focus particularly the disconnect between campaigning outside of parliament and inside it. KCW needed a coherent argument, it needed to make the same points in the House of Commons and the House of Lords as they did do in the press. In this they failed. Which is a pity as a better coordinated set of arguments would have been a stronger argument and might have swayed other MPs to vote to Keep Cornwall Whole. We deserved our own amendment, a millennia of our history both English and Cornish was cast aside as a footnote to an amendment that was itself a footnote to a bill and another debate itself. We deserved better than that.

These are just my thoughts on the subject, others may well agree or disagree with me, either way please feel free to comment below. And I can only apologise to any hard working people who fought against Devonwall and feel I have done them a disservice above. I can only say I appreciate the hard work put in, but the strategy failed however hard people worked and however well they made arguments.

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