Reading time: 15 minutes
Before summarising, some perspective is needed. I realise that I might have made Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish Nationalist Party and other pro-Cornish organisations out to be little more than defenders of a long-dead rebel, which of course is not the case. Both are popular political parties, with very definite aims and objectives, who have done much in furthering the cause of Cornish self-determination over the years. From the 1970s, when St Piran’s flag wasn’t even permitted to be flown in Truro (West Briton, December 11, 1978, p2), to the ubiquity of Cornish pressure groups on social media (Yes Kernow!, @kernow_matters, @YesCornwall, @CornwallFriends, to name a few), shows us how far awareness of Cornish culture, traditions, and issues has come. The Cornish language is now taught in some schools, the Cornish people were formally recognised as a minority group in 2014, and the campaign for a Cornish Assembly shows no signs of abating. All this is for the good.
Returning to An Gof, the matter of the alleged attacks needs a little context, that context being Cornwall in the 1980s. An industry – mining – was on its last legs. There was economic recession, and unemployment was on the rise – the figures were “appalling”, said the West Briton of February 5, 1981 (p8). This of course bred discontent, and not just in Cornwall: think of Brixton, Toxteth, or Orgreave. The “currency at the time seemed to be violence and outrage”, Kirsty reckoned, and it’s hard to disagree. This was an era when, in Wales, a group calling themselves Meibion Glyndwr (Welsh: “Sons of Glendower”) took to burning English-owned holiday homes. Is it any surprise that Cornwall should create its own symbol of the era: An Gof? Can An Gof, then, be safely consigned to history? Surely no one needs their brand of anti-English xenophobia-masquerading-as-nationalism anymore?
Not so. An Gof emerged briefly again in 2007, when the Cornish National Liberation Army claimed some of its members were originally from An Gof. The activities of the CNLA, and its adjunct, the Cornish Republican Army, have been documented elsewhere, in the Guardian, Times, Falmouth Packet, a piece by Dr Rebecca Tidy, and are also the subject of a blog post. I’m not going to survey their activities here, other than that the rhetoric was much the same as that of An Gof. An alleged speaker for the CRA claimed that:
Democracy has failed in Kernow. Many Cornish organisations have campaigned for years to achieve home rule for Kernow and have failed. Anything like home rule is unlikely in Kernow as the Celtic population is diminishing. We believe that direct action is the only way.
Yet since then, An Gof and the activities attributable to the movement, if movement it was, have fallen into obscurity. As my contact Geoff observed, few people “supported the methods used” at the time, and nowadays they are “mostly forgotten”. (Apart from, perhaps, a Cornish drug gang who, in the late 2010s, took the name An Gof in reference to the extremist attacks.) It would seem that the An Gof of St Keverne has become the dominant myth, and many would argue the “other” An Gof never seriously challenged it. Surely things can’t get as desperate in Cornwall as they were in the early 1980s?
Or can they? Due to Covid restrictions, the summer of 2021 saw an extra 30,000 more visitors come to Cornwall than in previous years. Also due to these restrictions, people working in hospitality were either on furlough, isolating, or ill with the disease itself. (Seasonal staff were ineligible for the furlough scheme.) Allied to this, there was also a recruitment crisis. Instead of being prepared to weather this “perfect storm” as it was described on Cornwall Live, the county saw food shortages, a lack of qualified chefs, shortened opening times for pubs and eateries, and reduced restaurant covers. In August, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly had the highest rate of Covid-19 cases in England. Is it any wonder gestures like the one below are made to tourists?
Tourism is, according to Cornwall Live, the biggest employment sector in Cornwall, accounting for 24% of its GDP, with a turnover of £1.9 billion. However Malcolm Bell, head of Visit Cornwall, puts the figure at 12%, yet with a turnover of £2 billion, and accounts for a fifth of all jobs. Whichever source you believe (and both are contentious: Cornwall Council’s economic report of July 2021 puts Cornwall’s GDP at £12.3 billion – 12% of that is £1.4 billion), it’s easy to conclude that tourism in Cornwall is big business. Yet some in the county view the tourists in a negative light, which is easier to understand if you realise that St Ives, a traditional visitor hot spot, has the county’s highest number of children living in poverty – in some areas, as many as one in three, with many families reliant on foodbanks. Move away from the beaches, to, say, Camborne and Redruth, and the picture is worse: Camborne suffered more crime than any other Cornish town between October 2020 and September 2021, and Redruth fared little better. Allied to the current housing crisis, and the sense that, notes Neil Kennedy in Cornish Solidarity (Evertype, 2016), the “Cornish were being confined to less attractive areas” of their own county (p17), you have a recipe for what he terms
Anglophobia…reduced morale as a result of low status and marginalization linked to economic and social circumstances (p28, 36).
“Anglophobia” conjures the spectre, once more, of An Gof. Is the below graffiti – which graced key tourist areas in Cornwall this summer – really any different to what was around in the 1980s? All that’s missing is the name, though the use of “emmets”, that catch-all pejorative term for any person from England who strays over the Tamar, has a certain resonance:
I’m not about to wave my magic wand, and present the solution to Cornwall’s problems. Kennedy’s book makes some persuasive arguments, as does the new work by Joanie Willett, Affective Assemblages and Local Economies. Rebecca Tidy’s article on Cornish nationalism makes valid suggestions also. What must be remembered is that all the people who live in Cornwall, even the marginalized and frustrated, who believe the only way to give voice to their frustration is through vandalism and xenophobic threats, face these difficulties on a daily basis. If they cannot find another outlet, if their problems are not solved, how long before somebody like An Gof comes along again? As my contact Geoff said, back in the 1980s, “Cornish society and culture was being eroded by exploitative outside forces and influences which were increasingly exerting an unwanted influence in Cornwall and its affairs”, but that nowadays,
This erosion of Cornish autonomy has now accelerated and become entrenched beyond anything An Gof might have imagined would happen back then, sadly.
Geoff, worryingly, was not talking about Michael Joseph An Gof.
Thanks for reading