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West Briton column 27 February 2014 – Cornish inclusiveness

Last week I had the privilege of attending the start of excavations at St Piran’s Oratory, the ancient chapel that marks the spot where our patron saint landed in Cornwall. According to legend St Piran floated across from Ireland on a millstone before landing amidst the dunes at Perranporth. Seeing the dedicated volunteers of the St Piran’s Trust start work alongside our county archaeologists was a special moment, and one that I know sent a tingle down the spines of all present.

It also got me thinking about Cornish identity, and what it means fifteen centuries after the time of St Piran.

This is an issue that is becoming increasingly topical. With the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum focusing people’s minds on identity, a campaign is being mounted in Cornwall to press for the Cornish to be registered within the EU’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The Convention commits member states to protect what the EU calls ‘minority groups’ living within its borders from persecution. On signing the Convention in 1998 the Labour Government interpreted the term minority group as meaning a racial group. Some in Cornwall are therefore calling on the Coalition to designate the Cornish as a racial group, to pave the way for protection under the Convention. Whilst sympathising with their passion for Cornwall’s distinct identity, culture and history, I have to part with campaigners on this issue.

When I look around Cornwall today I see a vibrant and inclusive society, based on a distinctive Cornish culture. People from all over the UK and indeed the world, with a range of different cultural and religious backgrounds, have come to Cornwall and love it, as dearly as any of us brought up here. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, as the amount of people choosing to come to Cornwall has risen, so too has the number of St Pirans flags being flown. When you choose to live in a place it is perhaps hardly surprising that you are keen to celebrate it and to identify with its culture.

Given the welcoming and inclusive character of Cornishness today, I think that attempts to racially define it would represent a backwards step. The definition of identity as a matter of race can exclude people, and restrain cultural expression. Instead of limiting Cornwall’s identity in this way, I will be pressing for the UK’s understanding of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to be changed, so that it isn’t based on race. This may pave the way for Cornish inclusion.

Rather than squeezing Cornishness into a racial definition, let us instead celebrate the friendly dynamism of Cornish identity in the twenty first century and support the burgeoning expression of that identity, from St Pirans flags in back gardens to Cornish language teaching in our schools. It is an identity bolstered by its welcoming character, not threatened by it. St Piran, who travelled across an ocean in order to contribute the rest of his life to Cornwall, points the way.