Cornish nationalism has regularly been dismissed, with one commentator calling it a:

‘region whose historical identity was less a natural or imagined community than a carefully constructed, manufactured entity: and one that was so “imagined” only latterly and by a few romantic Victorians’[1]

However, it is clear that Cornwall’s nationalist movement has grown extensively throughout the last one hundred years. This identity has been stressed by numerous publications and commentators in Cornish society: James Whetter wrote on the physical and characteristically differences with the English, stating: ‘He knows he is not quite English, feels a bit embarrassed about it, feels as though he is a second-class citizen’.[2] Whilst Bernard Deacon cites the case of Ernest Nute who was charged in 1992 for failing to complete his census return. ‘Our people are not descended from the Angles and Saxons’, he told the court, ‘so therefore, identically with the Welsh, we are most certainly not English’.[3]

Such feeling was aided by the Cornish Celtic Revival (the Cornish Celtic Society – Cowethas Kelto-Kernuak – formed in 1901); they revived and created symbols, such as the St Piran’s flag, kilts of “Cornish” tartan, and most interestingly, resurrecting a dead language.[4] Such a collection of symbols may seem eclectic, yet as Deacon points out, towards the end of the twentieth century they blended together – as shown in the tens of thousands who travelled to London to support Cornwall in the rugby county finals – forging a ‘co-mingling of cultural symbols… Popular culture, Celticity and history were merging’.[5] All of which confirms Whetter’s prophecy: ‘After centuries of submergence, the Cornish are at last rediscovering their Celtic identity. They would say they have only been sleeping and are now awaking’.[6]

In all of these efforts, the Cornish – despite antagonism with central influence in London – have not put British identity in danger. Rather its continuing aim has been to reaffirm Cornish culture and its territorial boundary with constitutional guarantees within the British Union. Writing in the early 1970s, Whetter spoke of Cornwall’s ‘loyalty’ to the British union, continuing:

What we seek to establish is our Celtic identity; we seek to become a member nation of a British federation – which is what in fact we are, though our position is not recognised in the constitution.[7]

The almost complete irrelevance of Cornish national parties show one facet of this lack of wanting to break with England. The primary political party – Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) began life in 1951 initially as a pressure group; its aims from the start were those of power in the devolved sense of the word: ‘To maintain the Celtic character of Cornwall’, they declared, ‘and its right to self-government in domestic affairs’.[8] By 1970 it had grown to include 21 branches throughout Cornwall, boasting a membership of 3,000; the 1979 European election was its biggest electoral success, achieving 6 per cent of the vote in the Cornwall and Plymouth constituency.[9] Which, as Payton further points out, of all Cornish votes, it would have made a more handsome figure of 10 per cent.[10]


However, locally the party have been unable to achieve their goals, the success that the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymryu of Wales achieved alluded Mebyon Kernow. It was unable to achieve a score of 1,000 in elections, with other candidates from the Westminster parties – David Mudd (Conservatives) and David Penhaligon (Liberals) – being seen as better protecting Cornish interests. Whilst their late 1970s rivals – the Cornish National Party (which broke away from MK in 1975) – polled a paltry 227 votes in one constituency in the 1979 general election.[11] From this point in, both parties declined: between 1987-1992 – in the midst of Tory rule – neither Mebyon Kernow or the Cornish National Party put up candidates for Parliament.

Politically, rather than demand outright independence, Cornwall has used its energy in fighting a defending action against outside intrusion – into what its defenders believe to be the erosion of Cornish culture – and more importantly in such skirmishes – Cornish territory and its perceived boundary along the Tamar river. The amalgamation of authorities since the 1960s between Cornwall and Devon has led to Cornish services and amenities being moved eastwards beyond the Tamar, whilst the expansion of Plymouth – described as the ‘the Moloch across the Tamar’[12] – has looked to snap up land in south eastern Cornwall.

devonwall pic

The blurring of Cornwall and Devon has been fiercely attacked (notably by MK), the services of which include: police, water, courts, ambulance service and lack of maternity facilities (meaning that ‘Cornish babies having to be born across the border at Plymouth’[13]). Also drawing ‘Cornish ire’ was the introduction of Plymouth based Post-Codes (PL) and a European MP for Cornwall and its “nemesis” Plymouth, thus shaking Cornish identity further, submerging it with the city. Whilst bodies set up to oversee the west-country as a whole have been targeted – Payton drawing attention to the South West Economic Planning Council (SWEPC), set up in the late 1960s to co-ordinate the south-west; in which response came the Cornwall Conservation Forum (1972).[14] Such plans for fuller integration ‘came to a head in 1992/93’[15] with the Devonwall project; yet each time Cornwall has had success in raising its voice, with 50,000 signing a petition in favour of creating a Cornish Assembly.[16] But amongst all of these events, Cornwall continues to try to get his voice heard by the larger partners in the British Union, without ever threatening to leave.

Where does this leave Cornish nationalism in the present day? It is clear that nationalist belief continues to grow, however, it is far from obtaining the strength and vocal power of the movements in Scotland and Wales. Politically, Scotland is far ahead, having obtained its own Parliament and with the Scottish National Party dominating the share of MPs allotted to the country. By comparison, dreams of a Cornish Assembly are unrealised, whilst Mebyon Kernow have generally polled less than 2% in parliamentary elections in the 21st Century (although they have obtained a handful of seats on the county council).

However, Cornish nationalism is so much more than its political strength. Its nationalist pride is based on its culture and its heritage, which are not as easy to quantify in terms of election statistics. The evidence shows that Cornwall speaks up for its interests, and whenever it is threatened by the so-called Moloch from across the Tamar it is able to defend itself. Perhaps the next hundred years will see this voice continue to grow into other spheres, resulting in greater political freedoms and autonomy.


[1] Michael O’Neill, Devolution and British Politics, 2004, p.336

[2] Dr James Whetter, A Celtic Tomorrow, 1973, p.9

[3] Bernard Deacon, ‘And Shall Trelawny Die? The Cornish Identity’ in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornwall Since the War, 1993, p.200

[4] The resurrection of the Cornish language remains a subject of interest and debate. Growing from Jenner’s A Handbook for the Cornish Language in 1904, it grew in influence and respect throughout the twentieth century to point in the 1970s where compromised 30 societies, was taught as a subject in 5 state schools and filled three Cornish language specific magazines: An Gannas, An Lef Kernewek and ‘a short lived satirical magazine’ called Eythen (Payton, 1993, p.227). The reivival has had its detractors, notably in 1984 when Prof Glanville called it ‘pseudo-Cornish’ (Payton, 1993, p.280); whilst the 1980s would bring schism in the movement with different language variants (Unifed Cornish, Phonemic or Common Cornish, and Modern Cornish). Yet as a symbol of Cornish difference, it retains importance.

[5] Deacon in Payton, 1993, p.207

[6] Whetter, 1973, p.1

[7] Ibid. p.19

[8] Philip Payton, Cornwall: A History, 2004, p.286

[9] Deacon, in Payton, 1993, p.210

[10] Payton, 2004, p.287

[11] Ibid.

[12] Whetter in Payton, 1993, p.239

[13] Philip Payton (ed.), Cornwall Since the War, 1993, p.238

[14] Ibid. p.238

[15] Ibid. p.234

[16] Payton, 2004, p.270

[17] Payton, 2004, p.266

[18] Ibid. p.272