1990s >> 1999 >> no-1140-august-1999

Devolution makes no difference

The inexorable process of globalisation has increasingly made redundant the question of “national sovereignty”. Yet regional nationalists imagine they can buck the trend without even being against capitalism.

The growth of multinational corporations, some with a turnover exceeding the GDP of most states, has dramatically transformed the role of government as the locus of economic decision-making. Many of the most important decisions are now made, not by politicians, but in the boardrooms of these multinationals. Indeed, this renders increasingly problematic the very notion of a “British capitalist class”; in practice, ownership of “British” capital has become progressively dispersed across the globe, a process facilitated by transnational mergers and buy-outs.

Likewise, the proliferation of trading links between different states has effectively blurred the lines of demarcation between nominally separate national economies. It would be more realistic now to speak of there being a single global economy. Even so, many locally-based businesses are indirectly tied into this economy as subcontractors to multinationals. Not only that, the ever-deepening nexus of international linkages means they cannot escape recessionary perturbations emanating from elsewhere when these impact upon the local economy. At the same time, the limited leeway of governments to ameliorate such localised effects has been correspondingly reduced.

What applies at the national level applies even more so at the regional or subnational. While Wales and Scotland have been given a measure of devolution of power from Westminster, in other parts of the country the struggle to achieve this is still ongoing. This is particularly so in the case of Cornwall. Situated in the far south-west of Britain, Cornwall is likewise part of its “Celtic fringe” with a strong sense of its own identity.

There are a number of organisations which can be loosely described as “Cornish nationalist”. At one extreme are the hard-liners who advocate full independence, some of whom, according to a recent BBC documentary (11 February), have links with paramilitary contacts; the so-called “Cornish Liberation Army”. Evidence of paramilitary activity is scant, the most significant instance of which in recent years occurred in the St Austell areas in the early 1980s. At the other extreme are the more numerically important “soft” nationalists typified by the recently formed “Cornish Solidarity” organisation. Its goal is basically a better deal for Cornwall through greater local autonomy. Soft nationalism extends also to the main UK-based political parties, like the Liberal Democrats, who for historical reasons have long been the dominant political force in Cornwall.

There are other variations amongst the nationalists. Some focus mainly on the Cornish as a supposed ethnic group; others are more inclusive, welcoming anyone into their ranks who live in, and “care about”, Cornwall. Since probably a majority of residents in Cornwall are of non-Cornish extraction—according to one estimate, nearly 70 percent—this would appear to be the more judicious approach to adopt. Nevertheless, it does rather vitiate the notion of Cornwall as a distinct “cultural region”. But this is the lynchpin of the approach of Mebyon Kernow, the largest Cornish nationalist party. In their recent election document, Cornwall 2000—the Way Ahead, they make the following statement:

Cornwall is recognised as a cultural region yet ignored as an economic region. There is a lack of harmony between culture and economics here, but the answer to this imbalance is simple. Base the economic on the cultural region.

Last tin mine
There is little doubt that as an “economic region” Cornwall fares badly. In an article in the Guardian (20 April), the Camborne-Redruth area in particular was portrayed as a scene of post-industrial dereliction “worse than Albania” following the closure there of South Crofty, Europe’s last remaining tin mine. That was surely a gross exaggeration. Nevertheless, with a per capita GDP of only 72.2 percent of the UK average, Cornwall is the poorest county in England, notwithstanding its picture postcard image.

According to Mebyon Kernow, “social deprivation, low wages and high unemployment in Cornwall are in direct proportion to our distance from the decision-making centre in London”. This conveniently overlooks the fact that, in terms of absolute numbers, the greatest concentration of poverty in the UK is actually to be found in London itself, notably in the boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets situated within a few miles of Westminster and Whitehall and which have a combined population exceeding that of Cornwall.

Certainly, Cornwall’s remoteness from the major population centres like London has contributed to its relative poverty, but not for the reason Mebyon Kernow suggests. Rather, it has to do with the spatial economics of capitalism itself: the difficulty of gaining access to the large markets “up country” and, associated with this, the inability to capitalise on economies of scale. This is one reason why Cornish wages are so low, to compensate for the additional transportation costs of their employers.

Blaming Cornwall’s plight on the bias of Westminster politicians amounts to a kind of conspiracy theory with little foundation in fact. The government’s proposal to set up a seven-county South-West regional development agency based in Bristol is typically seen by nationalists as yet another example of it ignoring the needs of Cornwall for the sake of administrative convenience. Among the nationalists’ list of demands is the establishment of a Cornish Development Agency—as if, in Cornish hands, things would improve. Tell that to Cornish workers who are exploited just as ruthlessly by their Cornish bosses as by their up-country cousins. But even if a Development Agency were to materialise, with the best will in the world it would not significantly affect the basic economic realities the region faces.

Furthermore, as everywhere else, more and more of the vital decisions affecting the local economy have little to do with Westminster. Thus, the decision last year to close the symbolically important South Crofty mine was taken by its Canadian owners in the context of a precipitous fall in the world price of tin and cheaper production methods abroad.

The case of South Crofty highlights the importance of inward investment to the Cornish economy. By the same token, it exposes the futility of treating it as though it were a self-contained “region”. To look at the world in these terms is to succumb to the myopia of the development planner, too intent upon empire-building to see the larger picture. Capitalism simply does not operate in this way. Most of the big UK chains have outlets throughout Cornwall. Some of the largest concerns are not even based in Britain. SWEB, for example, the main supplier of electricity, is owned by an American company; English China Clays was recently taken over by a French firm.

That said, a striking feature of Cornish economy is the extent of small and medium-sized firms; over 90 percent of firms have a workforce of less than 25. This is partly attributable to the peculiar economic profile of Cornwall and its heavy reliance on tourism, fishing and farming. Even its traditional mining industry has historically tended towards fragmentation.

At its height, in the mid-19th century, the predominant mode of payment was the tribute system rather than conventional wage labour. Small gangs of labourers would contract with landowners to mine the ore, sharing out the proceeds from its sale amongst themselves. It has been argued that the tribute system, coupled with the quietistic influence of Methodism, have been largely responsible for the relative absence of class consciousness among Cornish miners. This impeded the growth of a traditional “Labour movement” in Cornwall while the weak hold of the big landowners on smallholders curbed the influence of Toryism, allowing a unique Cornish style of politics to emerge in the 19th century—a petty-bourgeois cocktail of liberalism and non-conformism.

Maverick millionaire
The economic background likewise helps to explain the marked hostility in Cornwall toward Europe. Many traditional industries have been adversely affected by EU regulations, such as the imposition of quotas on the Cornish fishing fleet, leading to its partial de-commissioning. Similarly, the proposal to join the single currency, insofar as this will deleteriously impact upon small businesses, will particularly hit Cornwall, given the predominance of small-scale enterprises.

It is not surprising under the circumstances that anti-European political parties, like the UKIP, fared so well in the recent European elections in Cornwall. For many years, anti-European sentiments have been regularly aired in the form of full-page weekly advertisement in all the main Cornish papers. The author of this frankly xenophobic rubbish, vacillating confusedly between Cornish and British nationalism, is a maverick millionaire, Mike Robertson (writing under the pseudonym, “Tripehound”) and founder of the home-grown Trago Mills chain.

Such confusion is typical of the nationalists in general: on the one hand, pushing for greater economic assistance for Cornwall from Westminster, on the other, seeking to weaken its links with Westminster. It’s a case of wanting to have your nationalist cake and eat it. This confusion is manifest too with respect to Europe. One of the main aims of the nationalist movement has been to get Objective One Status for Cornwall thereby attracting European grants of up to £500 million over several years. Only those regions with a GDP of less than 75 percent of the EU average could qualify for such funding but until recently, Cornwall was, for statistical purposes, lumped together with its wealthier neighbour, Devon, and thus denied funding. With this obstacle having recently been removed, Cornwall has now finally achieved this aim.

Whether this will make any impact on the extent of poverty in Cornwall is doubtful; more likely it will only exacerbate the degree of social polarisation and hasten the disintegration of what remains of a distinctive Cornish culture, now pitifully parodied by the ubiquitous theme park. That, after all, is the natural tendency of capitalist development.

As Cornwall inexorably succumbs to the imperatives of a McDonald’s culture, its nationalists would do well to reflect. For by striving to promote capitalist development, they have inadvertently assisted this outcome, poisoning, so to speak, the very ground in which their own cultural pretensions are rooted.


Leave a Reply