The news that Cornwall will be hosting this year’s G7 Summit (pesky viruses permitting) opens up all sorts of opportunities to ‘showcase the Cornwall brand’. Swarms of journalists will descend from across the globe eager for copy. But will all they devour be the same stale old imagery of Cornwall as just a tourist destination? Can Cornwall be presented as more than just a picturesque backdrop?
We’re already seeing some ominous signs in the media coverage from London and the pronouncements of local MPs. According to one, the main reason the summit is in Cornwall was apparently the ‘beautiful setting’ of St Ives Bay. Not first and foremost its potential as a place leading the research and innovation required for the green new deal then?
Moreover, on the day the Summit was announced Tim Smit pops up on the radio informing us that Cornwall is ‘probably the wildest county in Britain’. Sir Tim, who appears to have been selected by the BBC as the spokesperson for Cornwall, another election I must have missed, really needs to do some homework before blurting out arrant nonsense.
We could be charitable and assume he was referring merely to the weather, although one might have thought that the Outer Hebrides would have some claim to more wildness in that respect. No matter, not content with that, poor old Tim blundered on to assert there were more shipwrecks (ooh- pirates and smugglers!) around the Cornish coast than anywhere else – wrong again, Tim – before mumbling something about nature in Cornwall being everywhere around us.
Nonetheless, the message being imparted to the radio listeners was plain enough. Cornwall was somehow closer to ‘nature’, unspoilt, untamed, primitive, remote. The next (unstated) assumption is that it’s less busy, quieter, empty, a place of space and freedom. All this is familiar enough territory, a stereotype dating back to the nineteenth century. Questionable even then, it’s completely inaccurate now. Let’s instead note some of those uncomfortable things we used to call facts.
Fact: Cornwall has the highest housebuilding rate per capita in the UK.
Fact: Cornwall is NOT the least densely populated region or ‘county’ in Britain. Almost half the land area of England and Wales is less densely populated than Cornwall.
Fact: Current plans include large suburbs tacked onto almost all the Cornish towns, a new dual carriageway explicitly designed to ‘open up’ west Cornwall for more building projects, a continuing high rate of population growth, ongoing gentrification and cultural transformation.
Some might say peddling hoary old myths doesn’t matter. After all, they’re just hoary old myths. But in reality, these are dangerously counter-productive hoary old myths. Those who put themselves forward as spokespersons for Cornwall really need to think a bit more carefully about the consequences before reinforcing them. Because such representations lock us into a future confined to tourism, a convenient service location for other people, a place of relaxation and hedonism not industry, a second home haven, a honeypot eagerly eyed up by property speculators and the like. They blind us to other pathways, other possibilities. They imprison us in a vicious circle of never-ending and unsustainable growth, they effectively emasculate any possibility of democratic control over our own land. They matter.
As a postscript, it was interesting to see that last weekend’s media coverage made little or no reference to the place of the Cornish as a proud fifth nation of these islands. Why not use the G7 Summit not to showcase an unambitious and outdated ‘Cornwall brand’ but to showcase the continuing presence and identity of the Cornish people?