Browsing through A.L.Rowse’s The Little Land of Cornwall the other day, I revisited his account of Samuel Johnson’s skit of the late 1770s when Johnson was arguing the case against American independence. Dr Johnson was attempting to show up the absurdity of the American claims by supposing the rage for independence had spread to Cornwall which, he suggested, had an equally strong case for independence.
Johnson came up with a fictional address from a Cornish Congress. Like their American counterparts at Philadelphia this meeting declared the right of the Cornish to administer and tax themselves. This was something with which Rowse, increasingly resentful of the taxes he was paying to support the welfare state, wholeheartedly concurred, as long as it led to lower taxes.
Johnson’s spoof declaration of the Cornish delegates meeting at Truro continued:
‘We are the acknowledged descendants of the earliest inhabitants of Britain, of men who before the time of history took possession of the island desolate and waste. Of this descent our language is a sufficient proof, which, not quite a century ago, was different from yours.
Such are the true Cornishmen. But who are you? Who but the unauthorized and lawless children of intruders, invaders and oppressors? In claiming independence we claim but little. We might require you to depart from a land which you possess by usurpation and to restore all that you have taken from us.
Independence is the gift of nature. No man is born the master of another. Every Cornishman is a free man, for we have never resigned the rights of humanity; and he only can be thought free who is not governed but by his own consent.’
Of course, in the real world the Cornish continued to give their consent. More than two centuries later, Johnson’s ponderous satire remains as unthinkable now as it was then. The Cornish remain the forgotten fifth nation of these islands, sometimes patronised, more usually spurned and ignored, never feared, too often these days strangers in our own land.