Free Cornwall!

Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow, the political party that is fighting for Cornish identity, has devoted his life to the cause. With notes to himself scribbled on his hand, and protected against wind and rain by a shapeless blue fisherman's sweater, Cole is the picture of the Cornish politician on the stump.

He has certainly had to make sacrifices – he used, for example, to be an archaeologist with the council. "I gave up my career to work for Mebyon Kernow," he says. "As a councillor, I'm on about ?15,000. Before that, I was earning more than double that." Cole's face breaks into a smile of mild embarrassment at the price of his commitment. "I did it for MK," he says, "and for my community."

Somewhere, in the background, I hear a drum roll and a flourish of rustic horns. The flag of St Piran, a white cross on a black background, flutters on every highway. With a stirring vision of marching MK foot soldiers, I ask Cole how many members the party has. "Er…" There's a slight pause. "Six hundred," he says. "We're on an upswing, though. We used to have three, and now we have five councillors on the Cornwall Council."

What, I wonder, is the punitive membership fee that limits membership to fewer than a thousand? There's another pause – "?12," he says.

When young Dick Cole, aged 15, first read about Mebyon Kernow (which means Sons of Cornwall), he says he "was interested in what they were saying, though, to be honest, they weren't saying an awful lot. The 80s was one of our lowest points, historically." How things have changed. Since the end of 2011, the Scots' campaign for independence has jolted the Celtic fringe to life. Across the Outer Hebrides, in deepest Wales, and finally here in Cornwall, there is a new spring in the step of those who crave legislative and fiscal freedom from Westminster.

"It is a wonderful place," says Cole, "with wonderful traditions and wonderful ways, but with several economic problems that need to be addressed through politics. The only way forward is to go out and present the argument that things need to be done differently."

It's not exactly Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, but "Things Need to be Done Differently" is the essence of Mebyon Kernow. Over tea and biscuits, Cole places his party in a great tradition. "We are a democratic, inclusive party that wants change through the democratic process." Cole stresses the ballot box to separate Mebyon Kernow from former maverick groups such as the Cornish Republican Army, which briefly threatened the homes of the so-called "English colonists" in the 1970s. In the end, the CRA was all puff and no pastry. It indulged in some Cornish-language graffiti and set fire to some derelict buildings. There was also the sinister suggestion that a member of the CRA was ready "to sacrifice herself for Kernow". Precisely what this "sacrifice" involved remains a mystery.

Mebyon Kernow, under Cole's leadership, is a grown-up fringe nationalist party that resists wrapping itself in the flag to score cheap headlines. You don't have to be a Marxist to see that Cornwall's biggest political problem is economic. The county is one of the two poorest regions in the United Kingdom (the other is West Wales). The GDP per head of its 500,000 population was just 71.9% of the EU average in 2009 (the UK average was 110.7%). Compared to Scotland, Cornwall has no banking, no exports, a limited skill base, and is vulnerable to seasonal variations. Tourism accounts for 24% of Cornish GDP.

As well as a depressed economy, Cornwall's political problem is the indifference of English central government. This was nowhere better demonstrated than when a petition signed by 50,000 Cornish people (some 10% of the population) in 2000 called for a devolved Cornish Assembly and a referendum on self-government. It was comprehensively ignored. A decade on, MK is preparing to relaunch this campaign.

And where better to start than Cornwall Council? This has become a bastion of MK activism. Inside and outside the Council, Mebyon Kernow sees the Lib Dems as highly vulnerable. Cole says that in 2012 in Cornwall, "the Coalition is struggling. Don't forget that the Lib Dems campaigned here on a platform that was basically Vote For Us, We're Not Tories." Cole sees the general election of 2015 as a golden opportunity for Mebyon Kernow to cement its claim to be the voice of Cornwall, even though MK rarely breaks out of single percentage figures in parliamentary elections.

Ethnic nationalism among the Cornish people is at high tide. Last year, a survey of 70,000 schoolchildren found that 41% saw themselves as Cornish, not English. Andrew Long, Cole's deputy on the Cornwall Council, reports with pride that, "We have never perceived ourselves as part of England."

It's an easy step to the revival of ancient loyalties. Kernow, in the distant past, was a separate kingdom. The Romans never settled here. The local Celtic tribes fiercely resisted outsiders, and the myth of Arthur finds a windy home in Tintagel, the world HQ of Celtic kitsch. Cut off from central government, and later isolated from the Union, the Cornish traded in tin, ochre and copper throughout Europe, and acquired a reputation as solitary, phlegmatic men and women of independent spirit. The Cornish diaspora took its people far and wide across the British Empire.

Loveday Jenkin is the latest MK recruit to the Cornwall Council, holding the party's fifth seat there. I caught up with her at the Sandy Lodge Hotel, Newquay, where she was instructing a weekend course in the Cornish language.

Jenkin has been attending these weekends since 1975. She is a child of the Cornish?language movement in all its strange complexity. Her late father was a key member of the Cornish Language Board; her mother is an MK champion. Dr Jenkin's Wikipedia entry (she's a research chemist) is written in Cornish and she believes that the growth of the language will yield a political dividend, too. "A lot of people who support Cornwall's culture support our political aims," she says. She is quick to offer an inclusive definition of Cornish culture that includes oyster fishing.

So, how many of the more than 100 people attending this course are fully at home in the Cornish language? Jenkin concedes that "about 20 or 30 are fluent" – elderly people in cardigans enjoying afternoon tea in a deserted dining hall. The inconvenient truth about the Cornish language is that it is about as lively as Monty Python's parrot. Compared to the Scottish Gaelic or Welsh languages, which are the living manifestation of a committed minority, Cornish is on life support. The last truly native speaker of Cornish – no one knows for sure – was perhaps Dolly Pentreath, who died in Mousehole (pronounced "Mow-zle") in 1777, uttering the Cornish for: "I don't want to speak English."

By the mid-19th century, depleted by emigration, Cornish had fizzled out completely. Since then historians, linguists and amateur enthusiasts have struggled to revive it. It's an uphill struggle. Fewer than 500 Cornish men and women speak it well enough to hold a grown-up conversation. Compared to Wales, with S4C television, Cornwall is, for practical purposes, an English-language society.

To complicate matters, those who promote the language are divided – at times bitterly – between four different versions: Kernewek, Kernowek, Kernuak and Curnoack. And if that sounds like Monty Python all over again, it's considered a serious issue. In 2005, the installation of a Cornish language welcome mat at county hall ignited a row about the correct spelling of "Welcome". "Look," says Jenkin, "the spoken language is essentially unified."

It's the magic of Cornwall that, among its mists and tamarisk trees, time itself begins to warp. Just above the surfing beach at Perranporth, there's a monument to the slightly untethered reality you find in Kernow: a massive stone sundial celebrating a 12-minute deviation from Greenwich Mean Time. Perranporth is symbolic in another way, too, as the home of Cornwall's founding father and author of the national standard, St Piran. St Piran's official history, In the Shadow of St Piran by Eileen Carter, describes a clash of Roman, English and Cornish traditions that renders the holy man in many forms, from Perran and Piran to Peryan and possibly Kieran (though that's disputed). If the saint's story can be simply told, even Carter is forced to admit that "no one can state with certainty anything about him".

You have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to take him seriously: St Piran's legend says that he was an Irish monk, hurled from the cliffs of Erin by pagan chiefs. Miraculously, he not only survived this ruthless ejection but somehow floated across the Celtic sea on a millstone, landing on the beach at Perranporth in either the 4th or 5th century. Here, he built an oratory and discovered Cornish tin by lighting a fire – from its burning black stones magically came forth a stream of hot, white liquid. White on black became the inspiration for his famous flag.

St Piran is said to have lived for 200 years and met his end by falling down a well, drunk. St Piran's Day – 5 March – has become an anniversary of national pride, celebrated with a procession across the Perranporth dunes to the famous oratory, the oldest Christian shrine in mainland Britain. But this, too, is not quite the stirring Cornish monument it might be. For a start, it's buried in sand. In 1980, the Department of the Environment, in collaboration with the holiday camp that owns the Perranporth dunes, decided to bury the ruins of the oratory "for its own protection". This symbolic desecration of the national shrine marked a low point in Cornish pride.

Since then, however, with the renewed appreciation of Cornwall's heritage, the St Piran Project has successfully campaigned for funds to disinter and restore the sacred site, which is now recognised by central government as an "at risk" Scheduled Monument. This proud undertaking is expected to begin in 2013.

St Piran's Oratory symbolises the Cornish paradox: the sharper Cornish identity becomes, the stronger the county's appeal as a tourist destination and the fiercer the longing for some kind of autonomy ("Things Need to be Done Differently"). Tourism and its consequences lie at the heart of Cornwall's struggle to win recognition for its special identity.

Barely half an hour north of Perranporth, the Camel estuary – the golden triangle of Padstow, Rock and Polzeath, sometimes referred to as Kensington-on-Sea – provides a showcase of an alternative future for Cornwall. It's a future linked to the global economy, powered by superfast broadband, part of the growth of English domestic tourism. Emotionally and politically, this sector of North Cornwall is a million miles from the grittier strongholds of Mebyon Kernow around Truro and Penzance in the far west.

The Rock Oyster FESTIVAL, a bucolic weekend in June, is essentially Cornish, but it has no MK element. Perish the thought. Its founder, a breezy entrepreneur named Charlie Anderson, who came here from London about 15 years ago for the surfing and put down roots, describes his festival as "Glastonbury for foodies". Anderson takes a field in the parish of St Minver, overlooking the Camel Estuary, and invites local chefs to demonstrate their skills or sell their wares. Local produce and local crafts are backed up by a slate of cutting-edge bands: the Dub Pistols, the Bees, Funky Acoustica, This Is The Kit, the Damp Rats and Spot the Dog. They will be joined – this is Cornwall – by the bestselling sea shanty singers, Fisherman's Friends.

Anderson is a man of the new Cornwall. If he subscribes to "Things Need To Be Done Differently", a future separation has no place on his agenda. He sees the festival as an essential part of the local infrastructure. He relies on the unpaid enthusiasm of some dedicated volunteers, and will plough any profits back into the local economy. "Cornwall can no longer rely on the bucket-and-spade holiday," he says.

"Events like this are what make the difference. Food is strong round here," Anderson continues, pointing to the way in which Rick Stein's Padstow empire has attracted several award-winning chefs, notably Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw, to the area, while Jamie Oliver has opened Fifteen in nearby Newquay. This part of north Cornwall is an integral part of the UK food revolution of the last decade or so. The Rock Bakery, renowned for its Cornish pasties, has been joined by Porthilly Oysters, a local business celebrated for its "speciales", which turns over some 1.5m oysters per annum. Porthilly's proprietor, Tim Marshall, thinks that Cornwall should cherish its identity, but seems indifferent to Mebyon Kernow, a fairly typical reaction among the locals.

"I'm trying to build a business," says Anderson. Like many local entrepreneurs, he refers with approval to the transformations of the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the two most popular and well-known Cornish developments of the past decade. To him, the agitation for Cornish separation is irrelevant to everyday life. He notes, wryly, that it was actually the Cornwall Council that tried to close down Rock Oyster, threatening legal action over its alleged noise pollution. To businessmen such as Anderson, the fragile state of Cornwall's economy is the real brake on progress. For him, tourism is the only way forward. Where else will the money come from, he asks, unless they strike gold?

Anderson and I have met in Trebetherick, at the St Moritz, a state-of-the-art, year-round hotel catering for families and romantic weekenders. Its director is Hugh Ridgway, a Falklands veteran who hails from Devon; he has a global vision and represents the polar opposite of Mebyon Kernow. He is just as passionate about Cornwall, but in a different way.

For Ridgway, who rebuilt St Moritz on the site of a famous 30s hotel at a cost of about ?15m, the idea of an independent Cornwall is "absolute nonsense". For him, "the key to Cornwall's future is to break down barriers, not put them up. I'm a one-world man," he continues. "It's crazy to have borders. Cornwall has so much to offer in terms of lifestyle. We should be selling the idea that, down here, you can do a day's work and still have an hour's surfing before it gets dark. The quality of life we have to offer is extraordinary."

Further down the coast, overlooking the beach at Porthtowan, Bill Raine, a former derivatives trader, paints a picture of Cornwall in the age of Amazon and Google. His 4x4 sports the flag of St Piran, but that's to advertise "I'm a local" not "I'm a Cornish nationalist". Raine's circle includes teachers, builders, doctors and civil servants. "The public sector here is huge," he says. "There's plenty of low-level work around. I reckon we all do pretty well. I'm happy that Cornwall's on an upswing, but Mebyon Kernow is irrelevant to the lives of most people."

Raine adds that the reality of everyday life for the average Cornish person is the high price of fuel and the cost of accommodation. Satirically, he suggests that there are just three perennial "Cornish" newspaper stories: the reopening of the South Crofty mine, the sighting of a Great White (on closer inspection a basking shark) and the construction of a new marina in Hayle Bay.

To these can be added, perhaps, the revival of Cornwall's pride. Cole concedes that Mebyon Kernow's future depends on the wider state of the Union. "We are confident in terms of our own identity," he says. "Now we need to have a proper grown-up debate about the future of the union. This needs to happen now. That's the message from Cornwall."

In Newquay, the late-afternoon sun burns on the water, and Loveday Jenkin's Cornish classes are winding up for the day. In a reflective moment, she celebrates a vision of the future that's inspired by the past but somehow – this is the conundrum for Cornwall/Kernow – unrestricted by the present. "The old measures of economic activity," she says, "are not what we need for the future. What we should be looking at is economic resilience. In difficult economic times, Cornwall has a lot to teach about resilience. Make-do, mend, recycle and reuse – that's what the Cornish have always done. We can't afford to squander resources."

The conversation drifts to King Athelstan and the settlement of Cornwall's Tamar boundary, and the ancient Duchy of Cornwall. Dr Jenkin snaps out of the reverie. "That's all history," she says, briskly. "The question is: how do we have a modern, functioning entity that is Cornwall?"


"The summer season is what makes Cornwall. I used to get frustrated at the traffic, but now I appreciate the crowds – it's great for the economy"
Melanie Golding, 22

"You have to be savvy to get into the limited jobs around, and salaries are low. I can't afford to buy my own place. There's a feeling of being isolated"
Kimberly Middleton, 25

"We go into recession every September, so need all the help from England we can get. I work hard for six months and spend the winter chilling. Who wouldn't love that?"
Tyson Greenaway, 37

"It's a safe place, and qualifications don't matter so much - you don't choose a job so much as you take what's there. That means we have more entrepreneurs"
Tassy Swallow, 18

"People are proud to be Cornish, but the idea of independence is ridiculous. We wouldn't survive. And if you don't want to work in tourism, you need to leave"
James Watson, 22

• This article were amended on 28 June 2012 to better reflect the stated aim of Mebyon Kernow to campaign for a devolved Cornwall, rather than an independent Cornwall.

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