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Cornish nationalism

The Cornish political party Mebyon Kernow advocates the creation of a Cornish Assembly that would make Cornwall the United Kingdom's fifth home nation. (UK shown in green)

Cornish nationalism is a cultural, political and social movement that seeks the recognition of Cornwall, England, UK, – as a nation distinct from England. It is usually based on three general arguments:

  • that Cornwall has a Celtic cultural identity separate from that of England, and that the Cornish people have a national, civic or ethnic identity separate from that of English people;
  • that Cornwall should be granted a degree of devolution or autonomy, usually in the form of a Cornish national assembly;[1]
  • and that Cornwall is legally a territorial and constitutional Duchy with the right to veto Westminster legislation, not merely a county of England, and has never been formally incorporated into England via an Act of Union.[2]


  • Autonomy movement 1
  • Distinct cultural, national or ethnic identity 2
  • Constitutional status 3
    • The official position on the Duchy of Cornwall 3.1
    • The rights of the Duchy of Cornwall 3.2
    • County or country? 3.3
  • Background 4
    • History of the separate Cornish identity 4.1
    • History of modern Cornish nationalism 4.2
  • Support 5
  • Political parties and pressure groups 6
  • Political representation 7
    • In Cornwall 7.1
    • In the United Kingdom 7.2
    • In Europe 7.3
  • Violence 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Autonomy movement

Cornwall Council has held up the Channel Island of Guernsey as a potential model for future Cornish autonomy.[3] (Guernsey Parliament building pictured)

Cornish nationalists generally seek some form of autonomy for Cornwall. Some advocate a Cornish Assembly, a regionally elected legislature that would make Cornwall a region of the United Kingdom, aiming to bring the current unitary council and related institutions into similar political and administrative status as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whilst others advocate going further by recognising the Crown Dependency status of the Duchy and implementing equivalent arrangements.

Distinct cultural, national or ethnic identity

A street lined with shops is filled with hundreds of people. In the foreground are children wearing black vests each one defaced with a large white cross. The children surround a fiddler. In the background are spectators.
St Piran's Day is an annual patronal Cornish festival celebrating Cornish culture and history every 5 March

The percentage of respondents who gave "Cornish" as an answer to the National Identity question in the 2011 census.

Many supporters will, in addition to making legal or constitutional arguments, stress that the Cornish are a distinct ethnic group or nation, that people in Cornwall typically refer to 'England' as beginning east of the River Tamar, and that there is a Cornish language. If correct they argue the Cornish therefore have a right to national self determination.

Campaigners in 2001 for the first time prevailed upon the UK census to count Cornish ethnicity as a write-in option on the national census, although there was no separate Cornish tick box.[4] In 2004 school children in Cornwall could also record their ethnicity as Cornish on the schools census. Additionally, the Council of Europe has been applying increasing pressure on the UK government to recognise the Cornish for protection under the Council's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

In the world of Cornish sport also can be found expressions of Cornish national identity. In 2004 a campaign was started to field a Cornish national team in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. However, this campaign lapsed, was revived, but has now been abandoned.[5]

The notion that the Cornish are a separate ethnicity is sometimes[2][6] tied up with the notion that the Cornish are of Celtic blood, unlike most people in the rest of England. British geneticist Bryan Sykes has criticised this notion; he claims that the Celtic identity only arose in the early 18th century, and believes that this was invented as linguistic terminology rather than an ethnic group. Edward Lhuyd noticed the similarities between Breton, Cornish, Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh, so he grouped them together as "Celtic". However, Sykes questions whether there ever was a Celtic people at all.[7]

In 2011, an e-petition directed at Westminster was launched.

"This petition calls for signatures to raise the issue of the "Cornish Identity" in Parliament and aims to have Cornwall recognised as a National Minority.."[8] This petition has now closed, it received 851 signatures, (99,149 less than the 100,000 needed for the matter to be considered for debate in the House of Commons.)

In September 2011, English Heritage.[9]

On April 24 2014, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, announced that the Cornish people will be granted minority status under European rules for the protection of national minorities.

Constitutional status

The official position on the Duchy of Cornwall

The Duchy of Cornwall claims that it is a private estate which funds the public, charitable and private activities of The Prince of Wales and his family. The Duchy itself consists of around 54,424 hectares (134,485 acres) of land in 23 counties, mostly in the South West of England. The current Duke of Cornwall is HRH Charles, Prince of Wales.

The Duchy estate was created in 1337 by Edward III, King of England, for his son and heir, Prince Edward, and its primary function was to provide him and future Princes of Wales with an income from its assets. A charter ruled that each future Duke of Cornwall would be the eldest surviving son of the monarch and thus also the male heir to the throne.[10]

The Duke of Cornwall, Prince Charles, as eldest son of the reigning monarch is also the Prince of Wales. However, these titles are separate.

But this status as a 'private estate' is disputed.. Cornish nationalists consider that because the Duchy is also a separate legal jurisdiction and has the paraphernalia of state and therefore cannot be considered merely as a private estate.

The rights of the Duchy of Cornwall

Cornish constitutionalists argue that the Duke of Cornwall is the de jure head of state in Cornwall.

The rights of the Dukes of Cornwall have been accused of being contrary to the spirit of Magna Carta. These include the right to intestate estates, bona vacantia, treasure trove, gold and silver deposits, waste land, foreshore, rivers and estuaries, mines, mineral rights, rights of common, castles, advowsons, and so on- whether in possession or reputed or claimed to be parcel of the Duchy of Cornwall- the Duchy being the body that collects the rents and dues on behalf of the Prince. (Duchy Charters: Section 5.11, [29]). Furthermore, the entirety of the Isles of Scilly is claimed despite the Duchy's admitting that they were not included in, rather "omitted" from, the three Duchy Charters.

Despite these assertions, the summons of Exchequer was exceptionally granted to the Dukes of Cornwall in order to govern Cornwall. Since 1752, when the incumbent Duke of Cornwall was seriously challenged by the Cornish Stannary Parliament, it has no longer been convened by royal or ducal writ.

County or country?

Supporters of self-government argue that the de jure constitutional status of Cornwall is a Duchy and country and therefore not a county of England, but the Duchy of Cornwall and current UK government deny this claim. Supporters of self-government often point to a lack of co-operation shown by the Duchy of Cornwall authorities when requests are made for an investigation of constitutional issues.

On 15 May 2000 the Revived Cornish Stannary Parliament (CSP), a pressure group formed in 1974, dispatched an invoice to the chief officer of the Duchy of Cornwall, the Lord Warden of the Stannaries. This invoice demanded a refund of a calculated £20 billion overcharge in taxation on tin production from 1337-1837. This was calculated according to production figures and historic wealth calculation methods (from an unpublished thesis of a Harvard University undergraduate dating from 1908), and The Sunday Times Rich List, March 2000, respectively. Cornwall was charged at over twice the rate levied on the adjacent county of Devon. On 17 May 2000 The Guardian reported that the CSP, said that the Duchy had claimed an excess tax on tin production in Cornwall for 500 years, and requested payment within 120 days. The CSP argued that their action demonstrated how Cornwall was treated separately from England and thus should have special status today. On receipt of the moneys they claimed owed they declared it would be spent it on an agency to boost Cornwall's economy.[11] The Guardian went on to point out that the Duke of Cornwall himself, HRH Charles the Prince of Wales is in effect trustee and cannot sell off the Duchy's assets thus he would have difficulty in paying the bill. Charles does not receive any money from the state. His financial stability comes from the £5m-£6m annual net surplus generated by the Duchy.[11]


History of the separate Cornish identity

At the time of King Canute, Cornwall fell outside his British realms.[12]

In 936 Athelstan fixed Cornwall's eastern boundary at the Tamar.[13] The Italian scholar Polydore Vergil in his famous Anglica Historia, published in 1535, wrote that: 'the whole Countrie of Britain divided into iiii partes; whereof the one is inhabited of Englishmen, the other of Scottes, the third of Wallshemen, [and] the fowerthe of Cornishe people, which all differ emonge them selves, either in tongue, manners, or ells in lawes and ordinaunces.'[14] Writing in 1616, Arthur Hopton stated:'England is ...divided into 3 great Provinces, or Countries ...every of them speaking a several and different language, as English, Welsh and Cornish.'[14]

During the Tudor period many travellers were clear that the Cornish were commonly regarded as a separate ethnic group. For example Lodovico Falier, an Italian diplomat at the Court of Henry VIII, said, "The language of the English, Welsh and Cornish men is so different that they do not understand each other." He went on to give the alleged 'national characteristics' of the three peoples, saying for example 'the Cornishman is poor, rough and boorish'[14] Another notable example is Gaspard de Coligny Châtillon – the French Ambassador in London – who wrote saying that England was not a united whole as it 'contains Wales and Cornwall, natural enemies of the rest of England, and speaking a different language.'[14] In 1603, the Venetian ambassador wrote that the late queen had ruled over five different 'peoples': 'English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish ...and Irish'.[14]

It seems however that the recognition by outsiders of the Cornish as a separate people declined with the language, which by the 19th century had essentially ceased to be used.

History of modern Cornish nationalism

Cornwall has had its own gorsedd, Gorseth Kernow, since 1928

The history of modern Cornish nationalism goes back to the end of the 19th century. The failure of Irish home rule caused Gladstone's Liberal party to revise and make more relevant its devolution policy by advocating the idea of 'home rule all round' applying to Scotland and Wales but opening the door for Cornish Liberals to use cultural themes for political purposes.[15]

Henry Jenner was an important figure in early 20th-century Cornish national awareness. He made the case for Cornwall's membership in the Celtic Congress, pioneered the movement to revive the Cornish language, and founded the Cornish Gorseth.[16]

Traditionally, much support to Cornish self-government has come from supporters of Welsh self-government, who have often seen the Cornish as their Brythonic Celtic kindred. For example, Mebyon Kernow has a twinning arrangement with the Blaenau Gwent branch of Plaid Cymru.

Some intellectual support for Cornish self-government has come from the Institute of Cornish Studies, affiliated to the University of Exeter.

In 2000, the Cornish Constitutional Convention launched a campaign for a Cornish Assembly. This was a cross-party movement representing many political voices and positions in Cornwall, from Mebyon Kernow and Cornish Solidarity to the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. It collected over 50,000 petition signatures.[17]

Cornwall County Council commissioned an opinion poll by MORI on this subject. The poll was conducted in February 2003 and showed 55% of the Cornish public in favour of a referendum on the subject of an assembly. However the same MORI poll indicated an equal number of Cornish respondents were in favour of a South West Regional Assembley, (70% in favour of a Cornish assembly, 72% in favour of a South West Regional assembly) .[18]

On 14 July 2009, Dan Rogerson MP, of the Liberal Democrats, presented a Cornish 'breakaway' bill to the Parliament in Westminster – 'The Government of Cornwall Bill'. The bill proposes a devolved Assembly for Cornwall, similar to the Welsh and Scottish set up. The bill states that Cornwall should re-assert its rightful place within the United Kingdom. Rogerson argued that, "Cornwall should re-assert its rightful place within the United Kingdom. Cornwall is a unique part of the country, and this should be reflected in the way that it is governed. We should have the right to determine areas of policy that affect the people of Cornwall the hardest, such as rules on housing ... Cornwall has the right to a level of self-Government. If the Government is going to recognise the right of Scotland and Wales to greater self-determination because of their unique cultural and political positions, then they should recognise ours."[19][20][21][22]

The Cornish independence movement received unexpected publicity in 2004, when Channel 4's Alternative Christmas message, featuring the Simpsons, showed Lisa Simpson chanting Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn ! ("Freedom for Cornwall now!") and holding a placard saying "UK OUT OF CORNWALL".[23][24]


The Cornish flag, the banner of Cornwall's patron saint Saint Piran, has become a symbol of Cornwall and is flown throughout the county.

Cornwall County Council's Feb 2003 MORI poll showed 55% in favour of a referendum on an elected, fully devolved regional assembly for Cornwall and 13% against. (Previous result: 46% in favour in 2002) However the same MORI poll indicated an equal number of Cornish respondents were in favour of a South West Regional Assembly, (70% in favour of a Cornish assembly, 72% in favour of a S.West Regional assembly) .[18] The campaign for a Cornish Assembly has the support of all three Cornish Lib Dem MPs, Mebyon Kernow, and Cornwall Council.

Lord Whitty, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, in the House of Lords, recognised that Cornwall has a "special case" for devolution.[25] and on a visit to Cornwall Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said "Cornwall has the strongest regional identity in the UK."

In October 2007 Lib Dem MP [26]

On Tuesday 17 July 2007, Local Government Minister John Healey MP announced Government plans to abolish regional assemblies. Functions of regional assemblies are planned to pass to Regional Development Agencies in 2010.[27] The South West Regional Assembly was replaced by the South West Regional Development Agency in 2010. The South West Regional Development Agency was closed in 2012.

On 19 July 2007 MP quangos in Bristol and elsewhere." Government minister John Healey conceded that "Cornwall still faces some significant economic challenges" and said he would consider the need for a Cornish Development Agency alongside his decision on local government restructuring.

In December 2007 Cornwall Council Leader David Whalley stated "There is something inevitable about the journey to a Cornish Assembly. We are also moving forward in creating a Cornish Development Agency – we are confident that strategic planning powers will come back to us after the SW regional assembly goes.". In 2008 Cornish Liberal Democrat councillors agreed plans to create a Unitary authority for the region, abolishing the six district councils. This meant that where there was once one democratically elected member for every 3,000 residents, there is now be one councillor for every 7,000 people.

The unitary authority "One Cornwall" Council does however not have the same powers as the proposed Cornish Assembly. Westminster has ruled out any extra powers for Cornwall and the unelected quango of the South West Regional Development Agency will remain in place. This means that Cornish Objective One money will still be managed from outside of Cornwall. There have in fact been suggestions that powers could be taken from the new Cornish unitary authority as it may struggle to cope with the extra workload inherited from the district councils. A premise for a single governing body for Cornwall was that the new Cornwall Council would have greater powers, being granted more responsibilities from Westminster.[28]

Political parties and pressure groups

  • Mebyon Kernow is the key political party advocating greater Cornish home rule. Since 2004 Mebyon Kernow has been a member of the Europe-wide political group, the European Free Alliance (alongside the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru – Party of Wales), which has five Members of the European Parliament (two from the SNP, one from Plaid Cymru, one from the Republican Left of Catalonia and one Latvian MEP), and is part of the Greens/EFA group. Mebyon Kernow contested its first European Parliamentary elections in 2009, where they entered candidates for the UK southwest region which comprises Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gibraltar, Gloucestershire and Bristol, as well as Cornwall, although they failed to win any seats.[29] Mebyon Kernow has held a consistent 4% of the vote total in Cornwall Council elections, and currently has 4 councillors out of the total of 123 elected.
  • Cornish Constitutional Convention is a cross-party advisory group that has been instrumental in moulding opinion in both Cornwall and London towards a new accommodation for Cornwall within the United Kingdom. It was formed in November 2000 with the objective of establishing a devolved Assembly for Cornwall (Senedh Kernow).[30] It states that "The aim of the Convention is to establish a form of modern governance which strengthens Cornwall, her role in the affairs of the country, and positively addresses the problems that have arisen from more than a century of growing isolation and loss of confidence." Its principal lobbying document is DEVOLUTION for ONE and ALL: Governance for Cornwall in the 21st Century [1] The convention has not published any new work since 2009.
The Celtic League and Celtic Congress consider Cornwall to be one of six Celtic nations.
  • The Celtic League and Celtic Congress have a Cornish branch and recognise Cornwall as a Celtic Nation alongside Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales and Brittany. The league is a political pressure group that campaigns for independence and Celtic cooperation.[31]
  • Cornish Solidarity are a non-partisan political pressure group that calls for the recognition of the ethnic Cornish as a national minority.
  • self-publishing has produced three books to date, "Breaking the Chains", "Our Future is History" and "Scat t’Larrups?" released on 15 May 2008. They detail many of the core issues of the Cornish national movement as well as a re-examination of Cornish history and the Cornish constitution.[33] The "Cornish Fighting Fund" was launched by Cornwall 2000 in August 2008. However the fund failed to meet the required target of £100,000 by the end of December 2008, having received just over £33,000 in pledges, and the plan is now abandoned.[34] The instigator of the campaign, John Angarrack, on launching the fund stated; "If by that date (8 Dec), the strategy outlined here has not gathered the required level of support, we shall assume that the Cornish community does not cherish its identity nor care that it survives."
  • Tyr Gwyr Gweryn (Cornish for land, truth, people) was originally a focus group formed out of members of 'Cowethas Flamank', a Cornish affairs group, and participants in Kescusulyans Kernow (Conference of Cornwall) having a special interest in the constitution of Cornwall. TGG has recently posted to its website, the transcript of the dispute between the Crown & Duchy of Cornwall (1855–1857) over ownership the Cornish Foreshore. This has been done in order to place the previously hidden legal argument and evidence, submitted for arbitration, into the public domain.[35]
  • The Cornish branch of the Green Party of England and Wales also campaigns on a manifesto of devolution to Cornwall and Cornish minority issues. In the 2005 general election the Green party struck a partnership deal with Mebyon Kernow [2].
  • Cornish National Liberation Army. A message was sent claiming to be from this organisation, threatening celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver, blaming them for the increase in house prices caused by the trend towards English people owning second homes in Cornwall. It is far from clear whether this is a real organisation.

Political representation

In Cornwall

In the 2009 local elections Mebyon Kernow won three of the 123 seats on the then newly created Cornwall Council. An independent councillor joined Mebyon Kernow in 2010. Mebyon Kernow also has 18 parish councillors elected.[36] A number of nationalist independents were also elected to the Cornwall Council.

In the United Kingdom

Mebyon Kernow does not have any members elected to the UK Cornish.[37] All five Cornish Liberal Democrat MPs put their names to the Government of Cornwall Bill 2009 which proposed setting up a legislative Cornish Assembly.[38]

In Europe

Mebyon Kernow is a member of the European Free Alliance party in the European Parliament. In the 2009 European elections it got 14,922 votes.[39]


A group called [40] An English flag in Tresillian earlier that year was destroyed and the words "English Out" daubed on a garden wall.[42]

In 2007, a group called the Cornish National Liberation Army made headlines when it threatened to burn down two restaurants in Padstow and Newquay belonging to Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver respectively, whom the group called "English newcomers".[42][43][44] The group claimed it had funding from "other Celtic Nations" and the United States, and appeared to be an amalgamation of the Cornish Liberation Army and An Gof.[40] It also reportedly sprayed "burn second homes" onto walls in the county.[42] The group's actions were linked to local concerns about lack of affordable housing and an increasing number of second homes.[45]

See also


  1. ^ Mebyon Kernow support the Cornish Assembly
  2. ^ a b The Duchy of Cornwall – history supported by references to primary source material
  3. ^ Guernsey government may be model for Cornwall – BBC News
  4. ^ Cornish ethnicity data from the 2001 Census
  5. ^ [3]
  6. ^ Philip Payton (1996) Cornwall. Fowey: Alexander Associates
  7. ^ Bryan Sykes, The Blood of the Isles, Bantam Press, London, 2006. p.46-47
  8. ^ Recognition of Cornwall as a National Minority on Epetitionsd dot direct gov dot uk
  9. ^ This is Cornwall – Heritage is not English; it's ours – 29 September 2011
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b "The Duchy of Cornwall". The Guardian (London). 17 May 2000. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  12. ^ John, H. (1995) The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. London: Penguin Books
  13. ^ Philip Payton. (1996). Cornwall. Fowey: Alexander Associates
  14. ^ a b c d e Stoyle, Mark (1 January 2001). "A separate people". The Cornish: A Neglected Nation?.  
  15. ^  
  16. ^  
  17. ^ BBC News – December 2001 – 50,000 petition calls for a Cornish Assembly
  18. ^ a b [4]
  19. ^ "MP calls for more power to Cornwall". Dan Rogerson's official site. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ BBC news – July 2009 – MP wants more powers for Cornwall
  22. ^ Government of Cornwall Bill – Cornish Assembly – Dan Rogerson MP – July 2009
  23. ^ BBC News – July 2004 – Simpsons Lisa puts cool into Cornish cause
  24. ^ "Cornwall Uncovered – The Simpsons go Cornish for Christmas".  
  25. ^ House of Lords debates, Wednesday, 21 March 2001, "Devolution: England" transcript of speech
  26. ^ Andrew George MP – Press Release 29 October 2007
  27. ^ BBC news July 2007 – Regional assemblies will be axed
  28. ^ BBC news 26 February 2008 – Cornwall 'super-council' approved
  29. ^ – BBC European elections Southwest seat final vote counts
  30. ^ Cornish assembly
  31. ^ Celtic League
  32. ^ CNP – An Baner Kernewek
  33. ^ Scat t’Larrups?
  34. ^
  35. ^ Tyr Gwyr Gweryn
  36. ^ "Mebyon Kernow Town and Parish councillors". Mebyon Kernow. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  37. ^ , BBC News, 12 May 2005Local MP swears oath in Cornish
  38. ^ "Government of Cornwall Bill". Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  39. ^ "European Election 2009: UK Results". BBC News. 8 June 2009. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  40. ^ a b c John Harris (15 June 2007). "Fighting them on the beaches". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  41. ^ "English Courthouse Bombed". New York Times. 9 December 1980. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  42. ^ a b c Steven Morris (14 June 2007). "Cornish militants rise again – and this time they're targeting celebrity chefs". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  43. ^ "Cornish extremists' chefs threat". The Sun. 13 July 2007. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  44. ^ "Cornish 'Army' Threaten Celebrity Chefs". Sky News. 13 June 2007. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  45. ^ "Man held in chef-threat inquiry". BBC News. 10 July 2007. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 

Further reading

  • Angarrack, J. Our Future Is History. Independent Academic Press. 2002. ISBN 0-9529313-4-6.
  • Deacon, B., Cole, D. & Tregidga, G. Mebyon Kernow and Cornish Nationalism. Welsh Academic Press. 2003. ISBN 1-86057-075-5.

External links

  • Mebyon Kernow
  • The Cornish Stannary Parliament
  • The Celtic League
  • The Celtic Congress
  • The Federal Union of European Nationalities
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