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Cornwall wants its own government

Never mind a Scottish referendum, now Cornwall wants its own government
By Allan Massie
January 12th, 2012

The arguments over a Scottish referendum have overshadowed the renewal of demands for Cornish devolution. In 2000 a Cornish Constitutional Convention drew up plans for an assembly and executive to provide self-government for Cornwall. The Convention was modelled, I suppose, on the similar body which was set up in Scotland after the 1987 General Election, and which produced the “Claim of Right for Scotland” on which the present devolution settlement was based. Like it, the Cornish Convention was a self-elected body with no official standing, but the demand for some form of Cornish devolution may be gaining ground. It is now being backed by Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party.
One of its aims is a revival of the Cornish language, Kernowek, closer to Breton than Welsh. It has never quite died out, though the last monoglot speaker of Cornish died in the late seventeenth century. Nevertheless it seems always to have been spoken by a few people in some areas and families, and A Handbook of the Cornish Language was published in 1904. Two thousand people are now said to be fluent in it. It has been recognized by the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the EU) as one of Europe’s minority and regional languages which is entitled to protection.
Cornish nationalism, or nostalgia for it, features in Compton Mackenzie’s huge sprawling novel-sequence The Four Winds of Love. Intended to be his magnum opus, the writing of it occupied him for almost 10 years from 1935, frequently interrupted by work on other books. I know of only some half-a-dozen people who have read the whole thing, and two of them, Eric Linklater and my mother-in-law, are dead. Another may have been the great American critic, Edmund Wilson, who found Mackenzie more interesting than most British novelists.
Mackenzie was born in England and educated as an English gentleman – St Paul’s and Oxford. He made his reputation first as an Edwardian novelist, identified by Henry James as the great hope of the English novel. An enthusiast for small nations – pro-Boer, pro-Sinn Fein, pro-Greek (as against Turkey), he re-invented himself as a Scot, though it was two generations since any of his family had lived in Scotland, and became one of the founders of the Scottish National Party a couple of years before he embarked on the Four Winds. Its hero, John Ogilvie, very much Mackenzie’s mouthpiece, indefatigably opinionated and garrulous – often, one has to admit, decidedly boring – follows the same course as the author.
Ogilvie is given a Cornish mother – his father, a distinguished lawyer, is an Anglo-Scot and one hundred per cent British. After the First World War, Ogilvie makes his first visit to Cornwall, to stay with a cousin who has inherited the small family estate. This cousin , Henry Pendarves, is a proud Cornishman who says “in one way I made a mistake in marrying a foreigner “ – his wife came from a Devon family. “Oh I don’t mean to suggest we don’t get on together splendidly,” he adds. “But racially it’s a mistake.”
He says that if his son was killed in the war, “I wouldn’t think he’d been killed to save any of the things I think worth fighting for. I don’t want to save Cornwall for tourists and golfers. I don’t want to save Cornwall for the trawlers owned by a lot of fat businessmen who have ruined our fishing grounds and deprived us of the pilchards which have been ours for centuries. I don’t want to save Cornwall for the Great Western Railway. We lost our language. We lost the old faith. We lost our king. But we kept our old way of life and old way of thought; we shan’t keep either long after this war…”
I don’t know who he means by “our king”. Mackenzie himself was a sentimental Scots Jacobite – though there is a very funny scene in The East Wind of Love in which the young Ogilvie is taken to an absurd meeting of the Legitimist League; but Pendarves can scarcely mean James VII & II, since Cornishmen marched in protest against the trial of the Seven Bishops, as recalled by the Cornish parson, R S Hawker, in his “Song of the Western Men”: “And have they fixed the where and when?/ And shall Trelawny die?/ Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men/ Will know the reason why.” Trelawny being the Cornish-born Bishop of Bristol, charged with sedition for having refused to read James’s Declaration of Indulgence.
Be that as it may, I daresay that adherents of today’s Cornish nationalist movement would agree with much that Mackenzie had Henry Pendarves say. Perhaps they should read The Four Winds or at least the West one.
Though Mackenzie detested the City of London and its “loan capitalism”, he was never anti-English. Ogilvie was surely speaking for him when he said: “Who would not love England and the English once one had convinced them that, however ridiculous it might seem to them, there were quite a few nations that did not want to be English?” His own Scottish nationalism was founded in his resentment of what he saw as a process of assimilation which was leading to the loss of Scotland’s singular identity. Today’s Cornish nationalists probably feel much the same.

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