Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 a pivotal year for Cornish devolution

In early 2013 I wrote a post reviewing the last year and focusing on devolution in 2012. The idea was to highlight how the debate had come along in that year and how publicity for the cause had grown. Looking back at that no, it is easy to see how far the issue has come. Back in 2012 there was the odd mention here and there in 2014 it has ballooned and it would now be an unenviable task to link to all of the mentions of a Cornish assembly and devolution. 2014 was an important year in this debate and I review some of the debates below, for MK and the other political parties, Cornwall Council's recent interventions and looking to the new year and the future for the Cornish devolution movement.

Part of this story can only be understood by casting our gaze north and looking to Scotland and the huge events around the independence referendum. Mebyon Kernow's reaction to the indyref was to welcome the opportunity to rethink the structure of the UK. Whilst everyone considered the previously unthinkable idea of Scotland breaking up the union. MK set to the task of making people consider the idea of more power to Cornwall, not independence but devolution to Cornwall.

The Tory MP Sarah Newton had a cynical take on this approach as she put it: “Predictably supporters of a Cornish Assembly are jumping on the independence bandwagon." link Since the referendum was called MK had worked hard getting Cornwall's claim to more powers on the agenda. Cynical? perhaps. A great opportunity to strive for a better Cornwall and to make that argument? definitely.

For Mebyon Kernow's part we've launched an assembly document titled: "Towards a National Assembly for Cornwall" (pdf link). This outlines our ideas for devolution and the powers we think Cornwall needs under a law making assembly. This document sparked debate and went out first to consultation of the party membership and latterly a public consultation. Alongside the donkey work of laying out this vision into a 28 page booklet. We have campaigned online, through blogs and social media, press releases, tv appearances and roadshows at events around Cornwall.

However we are not the only ones campaigning for devolution There have been notable interventions by members of the Cornish Constitutional Convention, most notably 2 senior Cornwall Councilors Julian German and Bert Biscoe (both Independent). Julian wrote a piece called "Why Cornwall's case for a regional government is strong" in the Western Morning News. Bert wrote in the same newspaper: "We are the region most likely to make a success of devolution." as you can from the titles, they're strong pieces and both well worth a read.

In terms of parties the Greens are worth mentioning first. They've always been technically in support of devolution to a Cornish Assembly but are not always that forward about it. Their intervention at the start of the year was bold and brave. They endorsed MK's devolution plans and even the leader of the Green Party came to Cornwall to meet Dick Cole and pledge that parties support for a Cornish Assembly and ultimately Mebyon Kernow's vision. I say bold as most parties go to great lengths to undermine other parties, nice to see someone willing to do politics differently.

Of the established parties the Lib Dems seem the most enthusiastic about Cornish devolution, mostly due to the fact that Labour and the Tories have very little interest. But Clegg's party puts out muddled comments about Cornwall and more powers and their campaigning is on the subject is very limited. The cause of this inertia seems to be disagreements between what shape devolution should take. On the one hand there is MK's position devolution needs to be to a new body, that has law making powers and is not run by Westminster. On the other there's an idea of having more responsibilities to Cornwall Council but leaving central government most of the say. The Lib Dems seem on the fence. Some talk of a legislative assembly others more powers to local government.

This is all despite the fact they passed at Spring Conference a policy on devolution titled: "Power to the People" which was lauded as a great leap forward for Cornwall. But is in itself muddled it mentions Cornwall a few times: "Propose an English Devolution Enabling Act whereby
legislative devolution is in principle available to Cornwall" (P.11)

Then later:
"Our vision is of greater power being exercised by either:
• Strengthened, existing institutions (such as the unitary
Cornwall Council), or
• Agreement to new institutions covering a wider area than
existing local authorities, or
• Simple associations of existing local authorities working
together to exercise the powers they choose to have
devolved (this scenario is most likely in areas where fewer
powers are sought)."

Despite this confusion between a legislative assembly and more powers for Cornwall Council, Julia Goldworthy uses this to boast: "Ours is the only UK party committed at the highest level to a Cornish Assembly, and we have the capacity to deliver it." link. The reality is this commitment is confused and muddled and not backed up by firm ideas. Which is a shame because the Lib Dems have been in government for five years and have failed to use this time to push Cornish devolution (in whichever form) onto the government's agenda. With bleak prospects for the general election, the idea the Lib Dems will have the capacity to deliver it post May is looking very unlikely.

In the last year much has changed in the devolution debate, the Lib Dems have talked about it. Mebyon Kernow and the Greens have supported firm ideas and campaigners and councillors have expressed opinions. The debate has changed and developed. However for the Tories and Labour this process has passed them by completely. The important Survation Poll which asked people about devolution, revealed 60% in favour of taking power from the center to Cornwall a further 49% were in favour of a Cornish Assembly. This must have phased them, as both remain both against a Cornish Assembly and generally dismissive of the idea of devolution.

Both Labour and Tory supplement their support for central rule with vague ideas about giving more powers to Cornwall. unfortunately these ideas solidify into little else but glib comments. There is no detail, no plan, no party policy, it is almost as though both wish to stick their heads in the sand and not have to deal with the question of Cornwall's governance and the opportunity more powers presents to Cornwall. UKIP in this regard seem similar. It's to the detriment of Cornish politics that neither of the three will dedicate any time or energy to constitutional matters and enter into the debate in a mature and interested fashion. This inertia has led to all three being rudderless and adrift from public opinion which is generally in favour of more powers to Cornwall.

The most impressive intervention (to my mind) in 2014 was from John Pollard. An independent councillor and leader of Cornwall Council, under his leadership the council has produced plans. I may not agree with all of the points. But I haven't talked about them thus far so won't be too critical on them (I'll lave that for a later date). As John Pollard himself wrote:

"Mebyon Kernow, not surprisingly felt that the whole document lacked ambition. While understanding that view, I am certain that we need to discuss the achievable and then build to anything more. This is why we have published a list of the things we need now and a list of what we would ask for next.

So the next few weeks will be interesting to say the least. I was sent a cutting from the Metro – the free London newspaper which had the headline – Council Leader ask for Home Rule for Cornwall! Well hardly, but…………………………………"

The next year has the massive event of the general election, this will politicise the debate on Cornish devolution. Hopefully the debate will widen and Tories, UKIP and Labour will realise that this may not be their idea but it is an elephant in the room and that big beast may well sit on them if they aren't careful. Hopefully the Lib Dems will gain some realism and work towards proper plans with other people and retire their notion that they are a big player in UK politics and will continue to be. For Mebyon Kernow and other campaigners dedicated to getting powers for Cornwall. We have the opportunity of a general election and a new government. 2014 is a year that people have pushed like never before, 2015 will be no different. After the general election and whatever happens in it, devolution campaigners ought to put aisde their differences and work to get a deal that Cornwall wants. The first step in this process is by talking to people, taking time to understand what people want, not what politicians want. 2015 is a year of opportunity, those that like central rule will try to distract and derail the push for more power, but I could well imagine sitting here this time next year with significant more progress towards a National Assembly for Cornwall. Well that's my new year wish.....

Blydhen Nowydh Da
Happy New Year

p.s. you know the debate is getting more varied when you can review the year without finding time to talk about the recognition of the Cornish people back on St George's day, good times :)

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