Federalism, national minorities and regionalism – the case of Cornwall

The cathedral city of Truro, county town of Cornwall (picture Freefoto.com

By Philip Hosking

The Cornish are a Celtic ethnic identity and historic nation of the southwest of Great Britain. We have our own lesser used Celtic language, sports, festivals, cuisine, music, dance, history all wrapped up in a perception of ourselves as being other than English.

The PLASC ethnic data from the 2007 Cornish schools survey showed that 27% of children consider themselves to be Cornish rather than British or English. The results from the 2001 UK population census show over 37,000 people hold a Cornish identity instead of English or British. On this census, to claim to be Cornish, you had to deny being British, by crossing out the British option and then write ‘Cornish’ in the “other” box. This does not represent a mere clerical error or poorly thought through wording. This represents a denial of the right of the Cornish to describe themselves in terms of their identity. It might seem trite to complain about something that happened six years ago, but the 2001 census will remain relevant until the next one (in 2011). How many more people would have described themselves as Cornish if they did not have to deny being British or if there had been a Cornish tick box? How many people knew that writing ‘Cornish’ in the “other” box was an option? (This was extremely poorly publicised). How many ticked British but feel themselves to be Cornish British?

Over the last few years various Cornish groups and individuals have been campaigning for the Cornish to be recognised for protection under the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities. Such recognition would be a powerful tool to ensure correct treatment and protection of the Cornish national minority and its culture. The Commission for Racial Equality in its shadow report on the FCPNM produced on the 30th of March this year advised the government that the treaty could be extended to protect Cornish culture and also raised concerns about the lack of legal equality for minorities in the UK. Recently the Council of Europe has also suggested that the FCPNM could be extended to include the Cornish.

Over the last 3 centuries Cornwall has gone from being on the leading edge of the industrial revolution to being one of the poorest regions of Europe receiving objective one funding from the EU as a result. In the October 2001 Business Age Magazine Kevin Cahill, an author and investigative journalist for the Sunday Times, wrote about the economy of Cornwall. In the Killing of Cornwall, he notes that the London Treasury extracts £1.95 billion in taxes out of Cornwall’s GDP of £3.6 billion. The Treasury returns less than £1.65 billion, so there is a net loss to Cornwall of 300 million pounds, where the total earnings figure is 24% below the national average, is this some form of negative Barnet Formula? Low wages, unskilled Mac Jobs, poverty, social problems, and rocketing housing prices are the often hidden face of the optimistically named “English” Rivera. Coupled with this we have seen the centralisation of services, institutions and government (followed by the skilled jobs they entail) out of the Duchy much to the benefit of various undemocratic and faceless ‘South West of England’ quangos.

Cornwall Council’s Feb 2003 MORI Poll showed 55% in favor of a democratically-elected, fully-devolved regional assembly for Cornwall, (this was an increase from 46% in favor in a 2002 poll). In 2000 The Cornish Constitutional Convention launched a campaign that resulted in a petition signed by 50,000 people calling for a fully devolved Cornish assembly. The campaign generated support from across the political spectrum in Cornwall and to date has been the largest expression of popular support for devolution in the whole of the United Kingdom.

This officially sanctioned silence on the existence of a Cornish identity must stop. Why will the government not ask the Office of National Statistics to include a Cornish tick box on the 2011 census? The ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ handbook, required reading for all who wish to immigrate to the UK, quotes the census heavily when describing the regions and ethnic diversity of the UK. Why are the Cornish not mentioned once? Why has UK government so far blocked all attempts at ensuring the Cornish are recognised under the FCPNM and ignored the advice of the CRE and COE?

Why has the government failed to give the people of Cornwall the democratic referendum on greater autonomy and a devolved assembly that they have shown a demand for?

In fact whenever Cornish campaigners have asked about the above decisions, even using the Freedom of information act, the government has dragged its feet, ignored requests and even refused to release information, why?!

Is it me or are they really being less than open and transparent in their dealings with Cornwall and its aspirations. What is their problem? Perhaps the answer lies in out constitutional subsoil.

Even if the government, current Duchy authority and history curriculum in our Cornish schools are loathed to touch the subject, Cornwall has a distinct constitutional history as a Duchy with an autonomous parliamentary and legal system known as the Stannaries. If you ask about the constitutional nature of the Duchy, if you aren’t ignored, then they will tell you that the Duchy is “a well-managed private estate which funds the public, charitable and private activities of The Prince of Wales and his family. The Duchy consists of around 54,648 hectares of land in 23 counties, mostly in the South West of England”. However this seems to fly in the face of the 19th century the legal arguments of Duchy officials, which defeated the UK Crown’s aspirations of sovereignty over the Cornish foreshore. The Duchy of Cornwall argued that the Duke has sovereignty of Cornwall and not the Crown. The Duchy authority argued that the Duke has sovereignty of Cornwall and not the Crown. On behalf of the Duchy in its successful action against the Crown, which resulted in the Cornwall Submarine Mines Act of 1858, Sir George Harrison (Attorney General for Cornwall) made this submission:

That Cornwall, like Wales, was at the time of the Conquest, and was subsequently treated in many respects as distinct from England.

That it was held by the Earls of Cornwall with the rights and prerogative of a County Palatine, as far as regarded the Seignory or territorial dominion.

That the Dukes of Cornwall have from the creation of the Duchy enjoyed the rights and prerogatives of a County Palatine, as far as regarded seignory or territorial dominion, and that to a great extent by Earls.

That when the Earldom was augmented into a Duchy, the circumstances attending to it’s creation, as well as the language of the Duchy Charter, not only support and confirm natural presumption, that the new and higher title was to be accompanied with at least as great dignity, power, and prerogative as the Earls enjoyed, but also afforded evidence that the Duchy was to be invested with still more extensive rights and privileges.

The Duchy Charters have always been construed and treated, not merely by the Courts of Judicature, but also by the Legislature of the Country, as having vested in the Dukes of Cornwall the whole territorial interest and dominion of the Crown in and over the entire County of Cornwall.

It seems no coherent description of the Duchy is available. In the book “The Cornish Question” by Mark Sandford that was published by the Constitutional Unit, School of Public Policy, University College London in 2002 it states that – “The existence of the Duchy of Cornwall was once of constitutional significance, but is now essentially a commercial organization”. Considering that this commercial organization is the largest landowner in Cornwall and claims to be nothing but a private estate and company, you would think it reasonable to expect there to be an official date of change-over from an official body of constitutional significance into a purely private commercial organization.

The Cornish Stannaries are claimed as the property of the Duke of Cornwall by the Duchy charters. The first of 1337 was published in 1978 as Statutes in Force, Constitutional law. The second and third Duchy of Cornwall charters of 1337 and 1338 give the Duke the powers of: “The King’s Writ and Summons of Exchequer” throughout Cornwall. These powers of the Duke of Cornwall represent the powers of government and they are certainly not what you would expect from a simple private landed estate something the Duchy often claims to be. By the Cornwall Submarine Mines Act 1858, the foreshore of Cornwall was awarded to the Duke as “part of the soil and territorial possessions of the Duchy of Cornwall”. Please note that territorial possessions can not be private possessions as again the Duchy often likes to claim. Research reveals that the public spirited Crown Estate provides cultural support and housing for the public everywhere in the U.K. except Cornwall. The Duchy of Cornwall is the analogous body in Cornwall but, in a departure from its historical role, it now claims to be a private estate with exemption from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, unlike the Crown Estate. A stratagem designed to deter investigation into Duchy history and Cornish history?

In the Cornwall Submarine Mines Act 1858 it states that the Duchy of Cornwall is a ‘territorial possession’ of Britain. So, sometime between 1858 and the present day, a territory of Britain transformed into a private commercial organisation, when, if at all, did this happen? A court case in 1828, A trial at Bar (Rowe v. Brenton) it was affirmed that everything connected with the Duchy is “of public interest”, and “all the Kingdom should take notice”. Quite rightly so considering the Duchy of Cornwall is a territory of Britain. Yet when Cornish MP Andrew George raised questions on the 16th June 1997 about the affairs of the Duchy he was told that there is an injunction in the House of Commons that prevents such questions being raised, how can this be? In The Annual Accounts of the Duchy of Cornwall 1998, it states that `- “Accounts are prepared in accordance with instructions issued by H.M. Treasury. The Duchy’s primary function is to provide an income for present and future Dukes of Cornwall. The Duke is only entitled to the net income” This means the Treasury deals with the Duchy as if it were a government department. So how can the Duke of Cornwall be the owner of a private estate?

In my opinion these are questions that should be deemed important enough to be answered by someone in authority, whether that authority is a Government office or the Duchy of Cornwall, after all, claiming a national territory and making it your own private business is no small affair – on a par with opening the newspaper this morning to find out that Richard Branson suddenly owns Gibraltar as a private business concern – and then reading that it was once a UK protectorate but now it belongs to Virgin – as the only official explanation for the change over. An attempt has been made to separate the Duchy of Cornwall, which is not subject to English tax legislation, from the territory of Cornwall, the argument being that the Duchy has a separate existence to the geographical area of Cornwall and holds property outside the area. The argument is spurious and flies in the face of the Duchy case of 1856.

Well before the West Lothian was the Cornish question. Why has our sovereignty and constitutional status been gerrymandered and our mineral assets used just so that the English tax payer did not have to pay for the upkeep of the heir to the throne? In present day Cornwall it is easier to self-deceive than absorb the fact that the authorities have systematically lied and cheated in order to articulate circumstances which create the impression that the Cornish nation has only ever been an insignificant sub-division of some awe-inspiring, all-powerful, fully homogenous, fixed and eternal England. With the English education system encouraging English nationalism in Cornwall at the expense of the indigenous Cornish identity, the exploitation of Cornwall has been acceptable to the state while the absence from English law of the international right to an enforceable equality before the law has protected the Duchy authority from an effective legal challenge. The result is that the Duke of Cornwall’s fortune from Cornish assets continues to relieve England from paying, through taxation, for having an heir to the throne. Surely it is time the Duke and Duchy of Cornwall be made subject to equality before the law and the UK begin, after over six centuries, to pay for the maintenance of the heir to the throne. When the UK government and Duchy authority finally decide to be honest about the autonomous position of the Duchy of Cornwall within the UK legal system then an open debate about Cornish devolution and our future governance can begin.

This article was written by Philip Hosking, who may be contacted at cornubian88@yahoo.co.uk. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Federal Union. March 2008.

About the Author