Wednesday, 5 March 2014

My speech at the Cornish Assembly document launch

Below is the text of my speech to the launch of Mebyon Kernow- the Party for Cornwall's consultation document "Towards a National Assembly of Cornwall." The document is available online here and we are urging people to have their say and feed back to us. Quotes from my speech have already been featured on the Western Morning News site and on the Mebyon Kernow website. The full text is:

Myttin Da, Good Morning. Gool Peran Lowen. Happy St Piran’s day to you all.
My name is Rob Simmons and I’m here today to talk about the history of Cornwall’s claim to devolution.
I’m basically going to run through some key dates and events. Hopefully in the future this event today, will be added to a future list. The day in which the long held dream and plan of a Cornish assembly, had some flesh added to its bones.

Wishes for the future aside, it’s hard to know where to start in a history of Cornwall’s historical claim.  We could delve back into the annals of history and talk of ancient Celtic kingdoms, pre dating the Roman and Anglo Saxon invasions of Britain and conjuring up names like Dumnonia. We could start with Wessex’s ultimate triumph over the Cornish and the setting of the border at the Tamar in the tenth century. Or indeed of the Earls of Cornwall and the later Dukes or of the ancient Cornish Stannary Parliament. But these are matters for historians.

Today, I want to talk about the modern fight for self-determination for Cornwall. The modern argument and movement that holds the belief that greater political power in this far south western corner of Britain would be beneficial and indeed necessary for change.

By the late 19th century, there was a general cultural revival among the Celtic nations, ancient traditions and of course languages came to be revered and respected like never before. This was evident as much in Cornwall as elsewhere but unlike say Ireland, this pan Celtic cultural renaissance did not immediately manifest into a political home rule movement in Cornwall.

In a time before Mebyon Kernow, it was not from nationalists in the traditional sense, it was liberals that made the first calls for home rule. Then a radical and anti-metropolitan movement, questioning elites and filled with principles (I could go on, but let’s just say, not a lot like today’s Liberal Democrats).

One of the most influential Cornish liberals was the founder and editor of the Cornish Guardian, a man called Alfred Browning Lyne. He wrote in 1912:

"There is another home rule movement on the horizon. Self government for Cornwall will be the next move… The metrolpolis is coming to mean everything, and all the provinces approximate towards the fashion of the centre… We think this is much to be deplored and we do not see why Cornwall should not join in the “regionalist” movement."

Skip forward a few decades and Mebyon Kernow was formed in 1951.  Intially a pressure group, the beginnings were laid for a political thrust toward Cornish devolution. The first chair of MK Helena Charles, standing as an independent in St Day in 1953. Was elected as an independent standing on a platform of decentralisation amongst other things, to quote her election leaflet:

"Until the government of Britain is decentralised, and local government made really responsible, we shall continue the present state of affairs in which an anonymous clerk, in Bristol or London, can make decisions vitally affecting rates in this Urban District."

A decade later in the 60s and Mebyon Kernow was officially contesting elections as a party and growing in numbers. Producing posters that proclaimed:

Campaigning and posters aside the real coherent push for a Cornish Assembly was to come much later. Buoyed by the successful referendums in Scotland and Wales in 1997. Activists in Cornwall looked on with much envy at the creation of the Welsh National Assembly and the reconvened Scottish National Parliament in 1999.

The chance to make the case for a Cornish assembly then came. On St Piran’s day 2000 Mebyon Kernow launched a campaign for a Cornish Assembly and set to collecting signatures to show support for Cornish devolution. Tony Blair’s government had desired to set up regional government, which would have seen Cornwall subsumed in a wider south west region, further centralising decision making and jobs out of Cornwall. But he had issued a caveat. To quote the then Prime Minister:

"No region will be forced to have an elected assembly. But where there is public support for one, we believe people should be given the chance to demonstrate this in a referendum."

The gauntlet had been laid down for Cornish campaigners, here was a prime opportunity to show public support for a Cornish assembly and with hard work and determination we would be rewarded with a referendum and offered the choice to decide our own future.

I was proud to be a  part of a dedicated band of energetic volunteers achieved an amazing feat of collecting over 50,000 signatures supporting a Cornish Assembly, or to be exact 50,546.
Cornish rugby captain Dean Shipton signing

Soon the campaign snowballed, later in 2000 a cross party Cornish Constitutional Convention was set up. An Ipsos Mori poll confirmed the massive groundswell of support from the public. 55% of respondents were in favour of a Cornish Assembly and a massive 70% wanted a referendum on the subject. It was clear what the public thought and their representatives reflected this. Every single one of Cornwall’s MPs backed the campaign for a Cornish assembly.

Cornwall County Council and Carrick District Council passed motions calling for a referendum. Going one better North Cornwall District Council, Restormel Borough Council and Penwith District Council each supported the establishment of an assembly. Added to this 28 town and parish councils from Bude- Stratton in the north to St Just in the west and of course Truro City Council itself, supported either the assembly or a public referendum.

I don’t believe there has been a more unifying political issue in modern times, even campaigns against the hated Devonwall and pasty tax didn’t have this kind of influence and reach in Cornwall

The petitions were delivered to 10 Downing Street and summarily ignored, previous promises to listen to the people and not force through a top down approach went out the window. Mebyon Kernow and other activists continued to keep up pressure. Bert Biscoe chair of the Cornish Constitutional Convention wrote to the then Minister for Communities and Local Government David Miliband. The minister was very clear in his response explaining the Labour government’s stance:

“I recognise that Cornwall has many of the strengths of a natural region, with its strong sense of identity, history and culture. However I am not persuaded that the existing regional boundaries need to be changed or for Cornwall to be given an assembly.”

In a cynical attempt to show they had listened the Labour government in conjunction with the Liberal Democrats. Decided to centralise local government and dress it up as a form of devolution. That in some way the formation of Cornwall Council was equivalent to a Cornish Assembly. This was despite the fact no additional powers were granted to the new body and as a juxtaposition to the assembly campaign, it was widely disliked and seen today, by many, as a failure.

To sum up the history of Cornish devolution is a long one there have been many struggles along the way and no doubt more in the future. There are ideological arguments of a nationalist nature pulling at the heart strings of this proud Celtic people. But there are also practical arguments, about the skewed nature of being on the periphery of a heavily centralised state. But if we look to Wales and Scotland they struggled and struggled but in the end the centre gave in and ceded some of its jealously guarded power. And now to the future, thanks for listening.

The petiton is available to sign online here. And the assembly document is online here.

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