Old ideas of what it means to be ‘Cornish’ are dead, and cannot be revived. Moving forward, Cornish identity must be redefined to suit the modern age, unless enough people want to start going back down mines for work, and speaking only in Cornish.
To talk of the good old days is to languish in sentimentality. To cling to a proud past instead of thinking about a new future is to wallow in weakness. Both are understandable; neither are excusable. At some point we have to shut the history books and start living.
Cornwall must no longer be powerless and directionless. Do we like being an easy target, the butt of celebrities’ and millionaires’ jokes? Do we like the fact that many more will probably jump on the bandwagon because it’s clear none of us can fight back?
What does ‘Cornish’ even mean anymore? There are ethnically Cornish people without a trace of a Cornish accent, while others with English parents sound more Cornish than they do. Farmers send their children to posh schools to speak the Queen’s English and then off to big cities like Lun’un, as if Cornish heritage is something to be ashamed of. There are people who would be described as ‘emmets’ who know more about Cornish history and culture than those who were born here – whose whole family were born here.
Since the start of the 20th century, waves of migration south – to the boundary of ‘civilisation’ – have irreversibly changed the demographics of Cornwall: most of the population is now English. There was no ‘assimilation’; they brought their standards here with them. Finally, England’s first colony rolled over and admitted defeat. Or did it?
I was born here; my parents were not. I have no Cornish blood, nor much allegiance to England. Somehow, I have stumbled into a Cornish identity, through a twang in my accent that I didn’t even realise I had until I went to university, and even more in the last two years, when I’ve discovered so much Cornish history that has been ignored.
The fact that someone like me with no Cornish heritage can enter this realm shows there is no longer any firm ethnic or genetic basis to Cornish identity, but there is still passion and energy which could be used to Cornwall’s advantage– only now it takes on a less nationalistic outlook.
The odds are stacked against a Cornish future. We have little to unite us in Cornwall, except a vague and impotent distaste for the foolishness of a few tourists who seem to leave their brains at home. I think we can all agree that holiday lets and second homes are eroding communities, especially near the coast, but we are entirely powerless to stop it. The problem, however, is that both of these are rather negative things to agree on; they are not the basis of a sustainable movement going forward – we need something positive to unite us.
The closest thing to a Cornish cultural institution right now is a meme page, Jam and Meme, which has 14,000 followers on Instagram – but it really only appeals to people under 30. I won’t delve into how absurd this is but the bloke who runs the page is essentially a Cornish icon, inadvertently creating a place where young Cornish pards (friends) can unite virtually. If this could expand into real life, there might yet be hope for Cornwall after all.
Nationalist symbols like the flag of St. Piran might be our only hope for widespread unity, but is this politicised journey one we wish to embark upon? Cornwall has all the historical precedents required to become a modern nation state – a flag, a founding myth, a natural border, a language – but there aren’t enough people interested in this project for it to even take off, let alone stay in the air.
If one thing is clear, it is that we cannot continue to look to England for inspiration. Cornwall is right at the edge of Britain, which encourages peripheral thinking. But we can no longer view ourselves as being on the periphery, like a jealous neighbour peering over the fence into next door’s posh garden, complete with patio and swimming pool. Sure, our garden is full of scrap metal and dogshit, but we can repurpose the space in a way that isn’t a mere imitation of next door.
It’s not about rebuilding a nation that never was – at least, not now – but about keeping distinct regional identities alive in the face of homogenisation. This doesn’t just apply to Cornwall. The so-called ‘United’ Kingdom is finished, so it applies to anywhere with a strong and recognisable cultural divide; anywhere that wants to stand out and not be known solely as ‘English’ any longer.