In praise of Cornwall | Unlock Democracy. For me the campaign for devolution and decentralisation has always been about bringing power closer to the people and allowing communities to have a greater say over their own affairs. Why should decisions on transport, education or the environment be taken in Westminster, far way from the people they effect? The assumption that the policy framework should be the same in Birmingham as in Kent, stifles innovation and lets down local people. The centralised way we run England is not the norm in the democratic world; in most countries of a similar size far more power is exercised at a lower level (you can see how England compares by trying our Autonomy Project tool).
When it comes to discussing devolution within England, the debate has traditionally been dominated by the big cities, regions and counties. Under the last government what discussion there was a top down one where central government decided who, if anyone, was allowed more power.
But there has always been an alternative voice arguing that devolution doesn’t have to be a top down affair and shouldn’t be simply about size, but should be about local identity and need.
This alternative voice has been loudest and most persistent in Cornwall. In fact it is the one area of the country that managed to generate genuine enthusiasm (50,000 signatures representing 1 in 10 Cornish residents) for the last government’s proposed regional assemblies only to be told that the legislation didn’t apply to them. It still has a ongoing campaign for greater autonomy and Cornwall Council is probably the only Council that has a cabinet member responsible for devolution. Cornwall is the only English County with its own language and nationalist movement, which argues that Cornwall is a nation in its own right and should be considered a distinct part of the UK in the same way as Scotland and Wales. In a poll in 2004, 44% of those asked said they felt Cornish, rather than English or British.
However this isn’t a argument simply for Cornish exceptionalism; indeed such an argument may hinder the campaign for greater autonomy in Cornwall as it would requiring a large amount of legislative time just for Cornwall rather than linking into the wider debate about devolution and decentralisation within England. There is no reason that other parts of the country, be they Kent, Birmingham or Yorkshire should not have the same right to autonomy if they wanted it.
I have little doubt that if a mechanism was introduced to enable communities to be able to pull down powers that Cornwall would be near the front of the queue. But it would not be alone; people in other areas would doubtlessly seek greater devolution as well. For many Cornish people, the push for devolution has two objectives: recognition as a national minority and greater autonomy. They may find that by establishing themselves as the vanguard of a more decentralised England, they will ultimately be successful in achieving both.