Cornish Identity Politics vs the EU


The British Isles are host to a multitude of different cultures and identities, representative of old local traditions and newer cultures which represent the diversity and modernity of Britain today. Cornwall is a county with Celtic links to Brittany, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. It is rich in culture and fiercely proud of it. It has its own language, foods, incredibly picturesque towns, villages and coastlines. The EU has given Cornwall a lot over the years, largely in terms of funding and infrastructure. Yet, 56.5% of Cornwall voted for Brexit in June 2016. This contradictory relationship can be understood through issues surrounding Cornish culture.

Cornwall is currently under Objective One status of the EU, making it one of the 4 regions in the UK which qualify for a poverty related grant. Since 1999, it has received £765 million of EU funds, which have gone into projects such as building the Eden Project, Newquay Airport, expanding the A30, train stations, and Further Education. As Brexit approaches, Cornwall Council has petitioned the British government for £700 million over the next 10 years to plug the shortfall, a sum it is unlikely to receive.

Furthermore, its signature food, Cornish pasties, were awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the EU protected food name scheme in 2007. This means that only a pasty made in Cornwall with a traditional pasty may be named and sold as a ‘Cornish pasty’. There are concerns that leaving the EU will remove the protection status on pasties and other foods such as Cornish clotted cream.

It seems that Cornwall has a lot to lose by leaving the EU, so why did they vote for Brexit?

A lot of this is about independence and sovereignty, much like the rest of the country. It has a strong identity of independence (although not from England, but this has not always been the case). This has naturally brought it into conflict with the EU.

Yes, Cornwall has received a lot of EU money, which has done wonders for the tourism industry and for improving education prospects. However, Cornwall is still incredibly poor. It has one General Hospital at Truro which is underfunded and expected to service Cornwall’s entire 560,000 population. Compare that to Southampton’s two high performing and well-funded hospitals for 250,000 people. It isn’t getting that from the British government either, but that isn’t the point made by Cornish Brexiteers.

There is a sense that EU investment just isn’t being seen by the average Cornish person, as most of it goes into tourism or education. In Falmouth and Penryn, there is active resentment by locals for the EU which built Falmouth University, which has overrun the town with students. There was much greater enthusiasm for remaining in the EU amongst younger people who had directly benefitted from investment in further education campuses.

Another big Cornish concern regarding the EU was fishing rights. Fishermen throughout the country largely favoured Brexit, and there are a lot of fishing communities in Cornwall. According to the Common Fisheries Policy, in seas surrounding the UK, EU boats are entitled to more than 60% of landings by weight, with an even greater proportion for some species. For example, the UK is only allocated 9% of Cod caught in the Channel, while the French get 84%. If English fisherman collect more than their quota, they have to put it back in the sea.

None of this means that either side are more right than the other, but this article has attempted to demonstrate the rationale. We’ve left the EU, but it is interesting to see how culture and identity in this little county fit into wider political discourse, and made its voice heard.


History student and Sub-Editor for Politics and Features

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