Cornish National Minority Status

The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, 24 April 2014.

Given the systemic inequality and (un)intentional bias that has been proven to exist against minorities of all kinds, including the Cornish, now is absolutely the right time for responsible institutions and individuals to better understand what Cornish National Minority Status means for them and their audiences and customers.

We are bringing our research weight to bear in helping individuals and organisations ensure they understand and are complying with the letter and spirit of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

As an independent organisation free of political agenda, but steeped in fighting injustice, we wish to support those who are making the case for greater recognition of Cornish National Minority Status in all walks of life, but in particular the arts and cultural sectors.

Anti-racism and hate

Anti-Cornish racism and hate exists. We see it most often in the trolled and manipulated comments of Cornish news stories and content on social media. To an extent it is also systemic, that means a pervading attitude within institutions that do not centre Cornishness or Cornish needs, e.g. debates about the benefits of mass tourism to the Duchy are often brushed away, priority given to the visitor more than the community.

But given Cornish identities themselves are not well understood or well communicated it is important to stay conscious of how debates around Cornish identity are being used to incite and justify hate against others. There will always be a wide spectrum of acceptance as to who and what might be considered truly Cornish but many activists are not doing enough to emphasise the huge potential for inclusiveness. We talk about Cornish diversity for a reason.

Recently, in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal and pubic killing in Minneapolis, USA, and greater awareness and action alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, public statements recognising the systemic racism that exists in our cultural institutions with commitments to re-educate ourselves are occupying much (not enough) of our bandwidth. It has also raised the subject of racism in Cornwall with many taking to the press and social media to tell their stories of victimisation while growing up and living in the Duchy. This has resulted in the unjust pillorying of all Cornish people and their allies as racists. The polarisation has resulted in two bad forces coming into play that all cultural thinkers and workers need to be aware of:

  1. A vocal section of those campaigning for greater Cornish recognition and devolution and independence from England are at best exceptionalists or supremacists and display the same characteristics as White English supremacists.
  2. Anti-Cornish hate is being manipulated to incite and then justify hate against other people, particularly Black people and non-Whites.

Current work

Leading the development of the Cornish National Collection with Cornwall Museums Partnership and the Citizen Curators Programme.

Publishing source and fact-checked information and evidence on this website and showcasing credible research from elsewhere.

About the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM)

  • Instituted in February 1995
  • UK ratified the convention 1998
  • Contains 32 articles
  • Member states have to report back periodically on request of the Committee of Ministers (UK submitted 4 to date)
  • Does not define a national minority
  • Each member state decides
  • The right to ‘self-identify’ is important
  • Must be based on objective criteria connected with their identity, such as their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Articles in the Convention relevant to the cultural sector

[My emphasis]

Article 5:

“The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.”

Article 6:

“The Parties shall encourage a spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue and take effective measures to promote mutual respect and understanding and co-operation among all persons living on their territory, irrespective of those persons’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, in particular in the fields of education, culture and the media.”

Article 12:

“The Parties shall, where appropriate, take measures in the fields of education and research to foster knowledge of the culture, history, language and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.”

Article 20:

“In the exercise of the rights and freedoms flowing from the principles enshrined in the present framework Convention, any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.”

Article 20 has be criticised by some as a kind of get-out clause i.e. there will always been a reason, if increased consideration and recognition of a National Minority is considered politically unappetising, this clause may be invoked. Decide for yourself.

How did the Cornish prove their case?

It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.

Ian Saltern, Cornish National Minority Report 2, 2011.

This milestone is the result of a long and sustained campaign with a long history in the modern era for official recognition of the distinctiveness of the Cornish, rooted in a historical past, and Cornwall as a territory with particular characteristics that distinguish it from the “English counties.” A modern political consciousness of Cornish separateness goes at least back into the 19th century and dissent and rebellion against English rules goes back even further than that.

Evidence was gathered in at least two influential reports (see sources below):

The 2011 report by Ian Saltern on behalf of the Gorsedh Kernow, was the most hard-hitting in terms of evidence gathered and the strength of the case put forward

The case was also built on a positive vision of what official recognition could bring to Cornish and British society as a whole:

“National minority status will enable the Cornish to play a full and active part in British society, contributing to the diversity of the United Kingdom.”

Led by Cornwall Council and its predecessors, with a large collaboration of others the case for National Minority Status was based on:

  • Self-identification
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Traditions
  • History and cultural heritage
  • Long-term association with a specific territory

The need was based on barriers to: “Maintaining, celebrating and asserting a distinct identity.”

Self-identification is a particularly important feature of Cornish identity, measured through the Census – and thereby addressing Cornish people outside Cornwall and also the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC) as a barometer of the growing consciousness of Cornish identity among young people: 37% in 2011 up to 48% in 2014 and 51.1% in 2017.

Identity is complex and while self-identity is critical, it also needs to be credible. The Cornish could be seen or see themselves as a stateless nation within the state of England, or as a separate Celtic nation whose natural alignments would be with Brittany, Wales, Ireland, etc., or as Anglified/English Celts. 

Celtic identity

The aspect of Cornish identity that is perhaps most compelling and contested is that based on Cornwall or Kernow’s historical territorial integrity and resistance against England and English assimilation – something museums and heritage organisations in particular need to be acutely aware of.

Cornwall was admitted into the Pan-Celtic Congress in 1904 primarily to support the Cornish cultural movement which was focused on language revival. The other members were Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales and the Isle of Man. A sense of Cornish Celticness was written about by intellectuals and antiquarians since the 18th century, from William Borlase (1754) who also recorded Cornish still in common use to Davies Gilbert’s description of the Helston Furry Dance as a “specimen of Celtic music” (1823). Key elements of distinctiveness include:

  • Kernow—suggested in use for “at least 2000 years” (unknown sources)
  • Early Anglo-Saxon references to Corn wealh – peninsula of foreigners
  • West Wales
  • River Tamar as border with West Saxon kingdom since 10th c (no source given probably referring to a later 12th reference in William of Malmesbury including expulsion from Exeter—use of medieval history is needs more rigour)
  • Norman Conquest – creation of Earldom in 1068
  • Creation of Royal Duchy in 1337
  • Stannary Parliament and Courts based on independence of tin trade
  • Laws of England intermittently applied to ‘Anglia et Cornubia’ into the 16th century
  • Foreshore Case arbitration case held between 1854 and 1858 between British Crown and Duchy of Cornwall over mineral rights.
  • Bona Vacantia – intestate property in Cornwall goes to Duke of Cornwall’s private estates, not to the Treasury via the Crown
  • Political movement: Mebyon Kernow (and others).

Duchy and nation, not (just a) county

International recognition of Cornwall in over 30 languages* as a separate entity to England is a hard-hitting fact that is difficult to refute, and formed part of the case made for national distinctiveness. This is not afforded to other English counties (those tend to be transliterations) which is why many Cornish people will rail against designations of Cornwall being in England or the ‘South West’ or the assimilative ‘West Country’. Cornwall has also been described to as England’s first colony.

Recent controversies in heritage such as English Heritage’s Romantic Arthurian interventions at Tintagel in 2016-19 highlighted a serious lack of knowledge about Cornish national minority status, privileging an English national story while sidelining Cornish perspectives in interpretation and representation—something that could be seen to contravene FCNM.

*Names for Cornwall/Kernow in other languages

Kernewek (Cornish) – Kernow

 ةيبرعلا (Arabic) – لاونروك 

հայերեն (Armenian) – Քորնոլ (K’vornol)

Asturianu (Asturian) – Cornualles 

Brezhoneg (Breton) – Kernev-Veur 

Català (Catalan) – Cornualla 

Castellano (Castilian) – Cornualles 

Cymraeg (Welsh) – Cernyw 

Euskara (Basque) – Kornualles 

Français (French) – Cornouailles 

Gàidhlig (Scots Gaelic) – A’ Chorn 

Italiano (Italian) – Cornovaglia

Kiswahili (Swahili) – Pembe 

Latīna (Latin) – Cornubia 

Lietuvis (Lithuanian) – Kornvalis

Occitan (Occitan) – Cornoalha 

Polski (Polish) – Kornwalia 

Português (Portuguese) – Cornualha 

Sicilianu (Sicilian) – Curnuvagghia 

Living culture

A few examples of distinctly Cornish cultural heritage which are still in use or revived/recreated use:

  • Plen an gwari – playing places, outdoor amphitheatres
  • Cornish mining – World Heritage Site status since 2006 
  • Cornish traditional music, song and dance aligning with Celtic music (see Lowender Peran)
  • Gorsedh Kernow – dedicated to promoting Cornwall’s “Celtic spirit” since 1928
  • Cornish wrasslin’ – unique martial art and sport
  • Use of personal and place names.
St Piran's Flag (black with white cross) bunting against a blue sky.