Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (part 2)

So – following on from my last post – how is the heritage of boundaries underscored and celebrated, particularly in ways that, at first sight, seem to be totally innocuous? How can a joyful and even positive-sounding sense of distinct cultural heritage get bound up and entangled within the politics of exclusion?

Sometimes these things can emerge as a by-product of an un-thought-through celebration of all things local. This is not a new idea, but I still find it startling how easy it is for unexamined ‘cherished local heritage’ to gloss over some really nasty implications. I have published on how a seemingly jolly piece of local heritage community performance activity can, even inadvertently, become a magnet and focus of racism (see Harvey 2015 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13527258.2014.955812). On a national scale, one can often find traces of boundary-marking sentiment in most national museums, as (often singular) narratives of national struggle and achievement are displayed. My blog post from May 2016, outlined the competition between Denmark and Norway to claim ‘Viking Heritage’ as an inalienable part of the story that cements Danish and Norwegian nationhood, residing in defined boundaries. But I think that it is often the more banal, every-day, and popularly generated (as opposed to State-led and institutional) initiatives that often get ignored, but which can often be more influential.

A couple of weeks ago, the Boundary Commission in the UK published a report that recommended a radical overhaul of Parliamentary Constituencies across the UK. In order to reduce the number of MPs and meet strict guidelines about the demographics of each constituency in the South West of Britain, the Commission has proposed a new constituency that stretches across the county boundary of Devon and Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, this has yielded a lot of criticism, especially from people in Cornwall who feel that the distinctive cultural heritage of the county would be underlined by such official disregard of the (supposedly) ancient boundary of a Cornish nation.

“The people of Cornwall have fought long and hard to preserve their sense of identity”, a resident of Launceston has been quoted as saying – implying that the ‘The People of Cornwall’ neatly correspond to a singular identity, which is stable and unchanging, separate and most definitely bounded. I am not totally convinced that the boundary of a Parliamentary constituency is a make or break ingredient of there being an expressed sense of ‘Cornishness’. After all, the St Loyes suburb of Exeter was recently re-located out of the Parliamentary constituency of Exeter and placed in East Devon, but I expect most residents of St Loyes will still say they live in (and identify with) Exeter. But maybe this is a thin end of a wedge – and one that seems to run roughshod over recently acknowledged status of ethnic distinction that Cornwall now has within European legislation.

The idea of there being a distinct Cornish identity is certainly widely accepted, but where should a boundary to this identity lie – and should there be a boundary anyway? Looking at the historical evidence, there is a strong case for saying that the boundary between something called Cornwall, and something called England, should perhaps be much further to the east, with what-is-now Devon being included within a greater Dumnonia. On the other hand, if you take the place-name evidence seriously, then much of this north-eastern part of Cornwall, around Stratton and Kilkhampton, should perhaps really be in Devon! And in terms of the roll that Parliamentary constituencies are supposed to fulfill, then there is a strong case for saying that the small (Devon) towns of Holsworthy, Bideford and Hatherleigh together with their fairly isolated rural hinterlands have a good deal in common with the (Cornish) towns of Launceston and Bude.

But that is not the point: following the work of the Finnish geographer Anssi Paasi, we have to recognise and acknowledge the tremendous symbolic power of territorial shape. Supposed factual detail doesn’t matter – the idea that the border between Devon and Cornwall lies along the River Tamar has popular currency of near essential proportions. It is difficult to challenge this. Furthermore, there is a very real concern over the so-called ‘Devonwall’ syndrome – that the people of Cornwall are marginalised by always being attached to Devon as a secondary partner. Whether the issue is of Higher Education, of landscape or heritage management, or of policing, it seems that Cornwall doesn’t warrant any separate status, but must always be attached to a larger authority, which inevitably has its headquarters outside the county – often in Exeter in Devon. Sometimes – as with the maintenance (so far) of the Cornwall Fire Brigade – attempts to foster ‘Devonwall’ can be staved off, but there is a very real danger of a fairly marginalised region such as Cornwall becoming even more marginalised, and cast outside of decision-making processes as a result of always being linked to Devon.

This active process of marginalisation points strongly towards some important political-economic issues of inequality and governmentality. Cornwall’s popularity as a tourist destination and holiday-home location has led to it having a relatively high cost of living (especially housing), but with low wages and poor quality job opportunities alongside what are often poor services (whether it be broadband connectivity or social and educational services). People in Cornwall are relatively poorer, less healthy and more disadvantaged than further up country. ‘Devonwall’ exacerbates this cycle of inequality and marginalisation, and so partly explains the efficacy of supporting a call for Cornwall to be treated as different, and requiring some special measures in order to overcome the difficulties. But does the proclamation of a distinct Cornwall, founded upon an essentially separate, historically deep and bounded cultural heritage actually help the cause? I would argue that it often does not help; it gets in the way and – potentially worse – it seems to answer questions or even suggest a panacea, rather than actually address issues of inequality and disadvantage.

Issues of peripherality can be glossed over because a separate and bounded heritage provides the stable and essential answers. Indeed, potential commonality between the small towns of east Cornwall and the peripheral areas of NW Devon are ignored, while the very real economic differences and prospects between different towns in Cornwall – between (say) St Ives and Redruth; or Fowey and St Austell – are glossed over as they are all lumped together as being The People of Cornwall, distinct from the People over there.

parking-for-locals

“Cornwall is passionate about its own identity … the Cornish are very aware of their separateness. It’s in the blood”, proclaims another commentator of the Parliamentary boundary commission recommendation. Cornwall is cast as a sentient and singular entity; no room for hybridity, for fluidity, for difference. Indeed, no room even for a heritage of migration and diaspora. The proclamation that Cornish identity is ‘in the blood’, buys in to some troubling Victorian views on race theory and suggests a natural exclusion of people with the wrong blood. What is worse, is that it sidesteps all of the crucial issues of economic marginalisation and political dependency. Peripherality almost becomes a virtue, to be enjoyed by weekend holiday home owners – and the very real problems of health and social inequality can be safely ignored.

To return more directly to the theme of the celebration of boundaries through heritage, leading figures within the Cornish nationalist movement are rightly proud of Cornwall being officially recognised by the European Union as a distinct national minority. But I am frightened by a Europe that celebrates cultural diversity if cultural distinction is always couched in terms of being made up of a mosaic (or patchwork quilt) of unique (and essentially unchanging/unchangeable) units. On the one hand, we should seek to get beyond some of the cosy narratives of essentialised heritage distinction and challenge differences, where there seem to be unjustifiable distinctions in wealth, health and opportunity. On the other hand, where appropriate we should be celebrating difference, recognising that we live in a hybrid and dynamically changing world – certainly recognising that there are differences between groups of people, but that all these differences are made up of blends. We have a responsibility to protect the rights of people to be different, even – or especially – when they are on the inside of bounded territorial containers.

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