by Sarah Edgcumbe

“Refugees Welcome” is a phrase commonly seen on placards at demonstrations held by the recently revitalised Cornish independence movement. Sometimes paired with other phrases such as “No More Second Homes”, “Fuck Yuppies” and “Tories Out”, the centrality of the statement “Refugees Welcome” at the forefront of the Cornish nationalism movement clearly flies in the face of conventionally liberal or left-wing wisdom, which automatically posits nationalism as right-wing and pernicious. We should instead recognise that “nationalism” doesn’t necessarily equate to ethno-nationalism, and that in parroting anti-nationalist rhetoric, we are likely regurgitating colonial propaganda. Anti-colonial movements fought for a collective nationalism defined by independence. Nationalism, then, cannot automatically be dismissed as a negative phenomenon. 

Of course, nationalism is not always a force for good. Ethno-nationalism particularly is indeed a source of division and cruelty. We only need to look to the right-wing nationalists of England, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the U.S. for evidence of this. However, we should also acknowledge that those of us who are sweepingly anti-nationalist are very likely to be expressing this opinion from a position of relative privilege, rather than from a colonised or oppressed region of the world in which the fight against exploitation, imperialism and erasure is a daily reality. For example, think of Israel and its contemporary de facto policy of a slow ethnic-cleansing of the Palestinians, or any number of Indigenous nations who have been brutalised and steam-rolled over by settler colonial states such as Canada. Think of the Kurds, who in Turkey still risk years of prison and torture for the slightest sign of Kurdish pride or national belonging. Nationalism is a sweeping and generalising concept, one that we should be more conscientious about unravelling.

To be sure, in an ideal world, there would be no artificial, imposed borders reinforcing division and hate. The construct of the nation-state would not exist, rendering labels such as “asylum seeker”, “refugee” and “migrant” obsolete. There would be no othering because we would all be, well, “we”; free to travel or remain in one place as we please. Unfortunately, the reality of contemporary global politics is such that the nation-state has been reified as the singular most important unit. Its representatives wield national and international power, collect and redistribute (or hoard, in many cases) wealth, define the terms of citizenship (within the parameters of a Borders Bill, in an increasing number of cases), and reinforce its borders. This political status-quo is unlikely to change, particularly given how nicely this system works for propping up capitalism.

Unfortunately, the reality of contemporary global politics is such that the nation-state has been reified as the singular most important unit

Within this frustrating reality then, we must apply more nuance to our understanding of nationalism. Borders are indeed often exclusionary and colonial, but they could also be a force for positive change, for resisting neoliberalism, xenophobia, environmental devastation, elitism and patriarchy. Take the independence movements of Catalan, Palestine, Kurdistan and Scotland, or even the Land Back movement of First Nations and Indigenous peoples, for example. These movements are intersectional in their understanding of how nationalism is inherently linked to collective rights, a radical interpretation of feminism and environmental protection. Built upon socialist ideals but developed in different ways, the underlying principles behind each of these movements remain similar: people before profit; everybody’s basic needs should be met; the relationship between people and land should be honoured; environmental protection is crucial; the liberation of women is the key to a fulfilled nation; and demonstration of consistent international solidarity with oppressed peoples. 

We can look to regions with devolved powers to see how progressive the bloom of their independence will be. Scotland’s relationship with natural land is what I long for – a legally recognised right to roam. Furthermore, in its Land Reform Act of 2003, Scotland introduced the right of communities to buy land as a cooperative. According to Nick Hayes, at the time of writing the Book of Trespass, nearly five hundred community bodies in Scotland collectively owned 500,000 acres. The Scottish government set a goal of 1 million acres by 2020. Compare that to England, where half of land is owned by less than 1% of the population. The structural elitism of England translates into pervasive structural violence which affects the lives of the country’s poorest in myriad harmful ways. More recently, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill of 2021 reads like something straight out of dystopian fiction, and Priti Patel is continuing to add pages to it despite parliamentary scrutiny supposedly being a legal imperative. A nationalism which stands in direct opposition to the policies of Westminster can only be a force for good.

Other independence movements are equally progressive in their outlook. Feminist action is at the forefront of the Catalan independence movement, whilst radical politics are an enduring feature of Palestinian society once you scratch below the surface of the political elites. What characterises the nationalist movements of Scotland, Cornwall, Wales, Palestine, Catalan and Kurdistan (with the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan which appears to have embraced a capitalism-fuelled tribalism) is a focus on sustainably developing communities – investing in ordinary people whilst, significantly, being able to legislate for themselves.

An independent Cornwall, for example, would be able to counter the current exploitation that it is experiencing; ceasing the sale of homes as second houses, and potentially reclaiming those sold to be made available for permanent residents. Whereas currently most of the income generated in Cornwall disappears into England or the pockets of Prince Charles, an independent Cornwall could keep wealth generated there, re-investing it in deprived communities, of which there are many. Kicking out Westminster would ensure that contextual policies could be implemented, voted for through a system of proportional representation. Radical community education could be introduced alongside increased environmentalism. Cornwall could stop big businesses dumping human waste and harmful by-products into its rivers, seas and countryside. An independent Cornwall could develop its schools and invest in its teachers. Cornwall could invite Europeans to return and welcome them with open arms as they resume their positions in the health, care, food and service industries. More importantly, upon their return, Europeans could take back their rightful positions within Cornish communities as permanent residents rather than perpetual outsiders. Cornwall could welcome refugees according to its own policies and principles; principles of humanity and solidarity, as opposed to the xenophobia and racism of the Conservative party in England. A Cornwall could be built in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than their country of origin, embracing its national motto: Onen hag Oll – One and All.

All images by Sarah Edgcumbe

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