Petroc Trelawny: This week's decision not only recognises our glorious past but offers hope for the future
Source: The Telegraph
'Kernow a’gas dynnergh”, proclaims the sign on the down platform at Saltash station: “Welcome to Cornwall”. It’s a message that lifts my spirits every time I take the train over Brunel’s great Tamar bridge. I’m home: goodbye England, hello Cornwall.
The announcement by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that the Cornish are to be recognised as a national minority gives us parity with the Welsh, Irish and Scots. Some will interpret it as little more than window dressing – a late attempt to shore up the Liberal Democrat vote in a region that Ukip have found fertile.
The leader of Cornwall council accepts that our new status won’t bring any immediate financial or political benefits. But it is still a reason for great celebration: finally, Westminster has accepted that Cornwall is more than just another English county. Once we were a proudly independent trading nation, with our own language and royal line. Accounts of our history may have been clouded by romantic Arthurian legend, but Cornwall remains in many ways a foreign place, an untamed land projecting out into the Atlantic, with people, customs and language very different to those further north.
Abroad, when I explain where I am from, the inevitable response is: “So you are English.” “No,” I reply, “Cornish.” I’ll accept British, or European, but being described as English is something that rankles with most Cornishmen.
We are intensely proud of who we are, and where we come from. We revere the natural beauty of our land: the patchwork of fields of West Penwith; the gentle coves of The Lizard; sprawling, misty Bodmin Moor. We revel in our unique traditions: Flora Day in Helston; Mazey Day in Penzance; the ’Obby ’Oss parade in Padstow, a survivor of Celtic worship rituals. And we celebrate our distinguished antecedents: Michael An Gof, the St Keverne blacksmith and political rebel hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn; Bishop Trelawny, incarcerated in the Tower of London for sedition and immortalised in the Cornish anthem that bears his name; the great inventors Richard Trevithick, Humphrey Davy and Henry Trengrouse, whose lives reflect a rich industrial past.
But glorious though our history is, this move is more about the future. When I was a child I earned pocket money cleaning a holiday cottage that my grandparents owned. The season was short, visitors arriving for simple holidays featuring Thermos flasks, ham sandwiches and the occasional cream tea provided by the local farmer’s wife. Now, Cornwall is a world-class tourist destination, with Michelin-starred restaurants, luxury hotels and champagne flutes as standard in today’s holiday lets. In pretty villages filled with weekenders’ cottages, the shops stock fresh pesto and organic brioche. Any remaining fishermen do a swift trade in lobster and picked crab meat.
The glamming-up of the tourist market has undoubtedly brought an injection of cash, but it can’t disguise the poverty that still exists south of the Tamar. Cornwall has the weakest economy in the country – in the latest government league tables it slipped below the South Wales valleys.
Yet, gradually, signs of change are appearing. High-speed broadband means Cornwall is now one of the best connected areas in Britain, encouraging media and design companies to relocate. The former RAF base at St Mawgan near Newquay has been relaunched as Aerohub, offering financial incentives and simplified planning rules for companies who locate there. A new interest in high quality meat, seafood, cheeses and vegetables has helped the agricultural and fishing sector. Frugi, a children’s clothes maker in Helston employing 50, has just won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise; Seasalt, another fashion company with 200 staff in Falmouth, picked up the same award last year.
Giving Cornwall and its people a real sense of identity can only help this ongoing development. Offered the choice between the increasingly random concept of the “United Kingdom”, or a progressive micro-region with a motivated, enthusiastic workforce, it’s clear what most investors will plump for. And let’s not shy away from raw emotion. Ireland has secured billions of dollars by persuading Irish-Americans to invest in the “old country”. Scotland and Wales have followed them. Why not Cornwall next?
In the 19th century, Cornwall was one of Britain’s great exporting regions, sending miners and machinery around the world; today, in America alone, two million claim Cornish descent. Reinforcing a sense of pride in being Cornish can only help when it comes to banging the collecting bucket.
Danny Alexander’s announcement looks like a goodwill gesture, unlikely to fan the flames of the minuscule Cornish independence movement. We are not now on the path to Cornish passports, nor indeed any form of devolution. But it is welcome none the less, for commercial reasons, and for the sense of fresh pride that will be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Cornish, at home and abroad. Kernow bys Vyken, Cornwall for Ever. Or to use a popular Cornish phrase, “proper job”.
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