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Pasty Politics

Original illustration by Qingyang (Tiffany) Zhu '25, an Illustration major at RISD

In 1998 and 1999, respectively, the United Kingdom established the Northern Irish Assembly and the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, delegating certain powers to these newly formed regional governments in a process known as devolution. This system was designed to localize politics in regions with strong nationalist sentiment in order to produce legislation better suited to local needs and appease citizens who felt culturally and geographically disconnected from the Westminster Parliament. But if the purpose of devolution was to address a unique, historically cultivated identity concentrated in a specific region, why establish a Welsh Parliament but not a parliament in Cornwall? Both are deeply shaped by their Celtic histories, and both have languages protected by a European Charter. Indeed, the question of how to address culturally distinct regions like Cornwall has troubled British politics for the past 25 years.

When, in February 2022, the UK government published a white paper entitled “Levelling Up the United Kingdom,” it seemingly answered this question with the open-ended promise of devolution for “every part of England that wants” it. For Cornish nationalists, who have agitated for devolution for decades, this promise was long overdue. But the paper’s faults lie in what remains unaddressed. Its proposals labor under the presumption that the United Kingdom’s democratic deficit will now be corrected without a constitutional crisis and that regional assemblies will combat growing political malaise without any resultant tensions between devolved and Westminster members of Parliament. Even more essentially, there is no mention of the possibility of devolution within the nations of Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. So while the history of Cornwall’s devolution movement exemplifies the persistence of fragmented regional identities within the Union, perhaps it is now time for action beyond the sporadic creation of new assemblies. It is time to rethink the structure of the United Kingdom’s Parliament in Westminster itself.

Cornwall’s current devolutionist party, Mebyon Kernow (translating to “The Party for Cornwall” in English), was founded in 1951. In 2014, the UK government recognized the Cornish as a national minority under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. But the precedent for Cornwall’s autonomy existed as early as the 11th century. In the centuries following its 1066 absorption into England, Cornwall retained a significant degree of self-rule. Because of the growth of the Cornish tin industry, the region was granted a Stannary Charter in 1305, which established a separate parliament and courts to legislate and settle legal disputes in the Cornish Stannaries—areas of Cornwall where tin was mined. These structures remained in place for hundreds of years: The Cornish Stannary Parliament met until 1753, and the Stannary Court lasted until 1896. As a result, modern-day Cornwall cannot be seen simply as another English region—it has its own language, people, and history.

Westminster is often out of touch with Cornwall’s cultural identity. In 2012, legislation implementing a “Cornish pasty tax” (an increase of the value-added tax on hot pastries) was met with such public outcry that the government was forced to U-turn on the policy. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, remarked during the controversy that he could not remember the last time he had a pasty, a reflection of a cultural and class disconnect between the UK government and Cornwall. Osborne was the heir to a familial baronet title, whereas the pasty was an inexpensive meal option popularized as a staple for Cornish miners and their families.

Giving Cornwall the “proper devolution enjoyed by [their] fellow Celtic nations in Wales and Scotland,” as Mebyon Kernow leader Dick Cole advocates, would undoubtedly undermine Westminster’s sovereignty and further fragment the country’s national identity. But the movement for Cornish devolution is a symptom of these issues with Britain’s political structure, not their cause. To locate sovereignty in Westminster at all—when only 14 percent of the United Kingdom’s population lives in London, and polls indicate a general disillusionment with the national government—perpetuates the centuries of exploitation inflicted upon regional minorities in the Union. And the UK government still retains the dominant hand in matters of devolution, watering down devolution deals with local governments and preventing the cracks in the UK political system from becoming too wide. It conditioned further Cornish devolution on a locally unpopular structural change of the Cornwall Council to a mayoral system, for instance, forcing Cornwall to accept fewer devolved powers than initially assumed as a result. Indeed, Cornwall’s newest deal, finalized in November 2023 after over a year of debate, is littered with vague pledges of cooperation between the government and the Cornwall Council, but Westminster has yet to confer virtually any tangible powers to Cornwall. 

The devolution movement initiated by Prime Minister Tony Blair at the end of the 20th century formally acknowledged the existence of regional divisions in the United Kingdom. It is time to consider stronger policy changes: Appointments to the House of Lords, for instance, which occur on the advice of the prime minister and have historically been used for political reasons, could become a means of giving underrepresented regions a voice instead of just acting as an extension of Britain’s culture of cronyism. We cannot now ignore further divisions just to protect an outdated conception of British cohesion.