Why there needs to be a Cornish tick box in the next Census

The submission below was sent to the ONS on the 4th August. Anyone wishing to lobby them for a Cornish tick box for ethnic/national identity questions is welcome to adopt, adapt, plagiarise, support any of the arguments here as they see fit.

Before the 2011 Census, demands arose from various sections of civil society in Cornwall for the provision of an explicit tick box option for ‘Cornish’ in questions concerning ethnic or national identity. In the event these were ignored. Those wishing to express their Cornish identity could only do so by ticking the ‘other’ box provided and writing in ‘Cornish’. Around 15% of residents in Cornwall chose to take this course in 2011.

Since the 2011 Census, fundamental changes have occurred which make an explicit ‘Cornish’ tick box even more desirable, indeed essential, if the Census seriously aims to produce neutral, objective, independent and fair data which can supply common, measurable outputs to inform policy. In April 2014, the Cornish were officially recognised by the UK Government as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. For the first time, the UK Government stated it ‘formally recognises the distinct identity of Cornish people’). The Convention aims to guarantee the protection of national minorities and the signatories agree to ‘ undertake to promote full and effective equality’for the groups so recognised. In order to meet this ambition, robust and comparative data on minorities must be generated. The next Census exercise offers a unique opportunity to improve the datasets available for the proper monitoring of this Convention.

The case for a Cornish tick box rests on three elements. These are parity of treatment, consistency of data outputs and robustness of datasets. The rest of this submission treats each of these in turn.

1) Parity of treatment
As the Cornish are now officially recognised as a national minority within the UK, along with the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish, it would seem invidious for the Census to embed differential treatment of the Cornish in relation to those other minorities or indeed the majority English group. The Cornish are the only one of this group that does not have a tick box. To put this in context, it has been claimed that since the turn of the millennium if not before, a stronger regional identity has been created in Cornwall (see Husk and Williams, 2012). There is evidence for this. Even the flawed census data on Cornish identity from 2001 and 2011 imply a doubling of the proportion of those willing to go to the considerable trouble of writing in a Cornish identity. Local annual schools survey data reinforce this. They suggest a near doubling of the proportion of those identifying themselves as Cornish, to almost a half in the most recent survey.

If the presence of this distinct identity has begun to be recognised by the UK state, as in its recognition under the Framework Convention, in the interests of inclusivity this process of legitimation should now be fostered by conceding equal treatment to the Cornish on the same basis as the other indigenous nations of these islands. If differential treatment continues there is a danger that resentment will fester and disillusion with the core grow in this periphery.

2) Consistency of outputs
The tables produced by the Census office on national identity (e.g. KS202EW) are misleading and internally inconsistent. This is because, despite presenting the Cornish as a group equivalent to English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish, the data were not generated in the same way. The other nations/ethnies were provided with an explicit tick box option; the Cornish were not. It is therefore invidious to compare these identities in the same table as like is patently not being compared with like. In the Cornish case, the data measure a level of conscious identity which is qualitatively greater than British, English, Welsh etc. consciousness. Because the data are generated by different methods the dataset becomes meaningless as a way of assessing the absolute or comparative strength of Cornish identity in the context of a multi-scalar and plural society. To achieve equality, either all identities should have tick boxes or none at all should be provided.

This becomes an even more serious lacuna in view of the recognition of the Cornish under the Framework Convention. Husk (2011 and 20112) has noted that the indigenous Cornish are under-researched ‘in terms of socio-economic position relative to the non-Cornish’. Examining the 2001 Census he went on to conclude that the 6.7% of the Cornish population identifying themselves as Cornish in that census actually represented a subjective consciousness more like 25%. This conclusion was based on weighting other local datasets and the use of proxies, but it was basically an informed guess. The ONS has an opportunity in the next Census to rectify this and provide improved data which will enable the proper comparison of Cornish and other ethnic/national groups within Cornwall.

Moreover, over the past decade or so, it has become normal practice for the local state in Cornwall and other public bodies to include an explicit Cornish option in questions on ethic origin or identity. The absence of a similar option in the Census is becoming an increasingly odd anomaly. Providing this option will bring the Census in line with other state agencies.

3) Robustness of data
Providing an explicit tick box for the Cornish would not only generate more consistent data, making comparative analysis more meaningful and facilitating more credible research into social exclusion. It would also produce more robust data and provide a benchmark for the future monitoring of the Cornish minority. This becomes essential in view of some of the articles of the Framework Convention. For instance Article 16 states that ‘Parties shall refrain from measures which alter the proportions of the population in areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities …’. In the absence of objective and sound data on the numbers and proportions of the Cornish minority, it is difficult to see how this and other articles in the Framework Convention can be assessed.

The Census has hitherto provided a generally accepted, quality dataset for many areas of British life and these are rightly regarded as the gold standard for demographic and social research. It will be extremely sad if it continues to fail to do so in the Cornish case. Furthermore, a requirement for robust data becomes more critical as references to the Cornish as a national minority begin to surface in official documentation and in planning applications. In the absence of proper datasets, at present these tend to be over-simplistic and/or disingenuous. For example they might compare the numbers expressing Cornish and English identity from existing Census 2011 datasets, without acknowledging that the data are fundamentally not comparable (see for example PA14/12186 at Cornwall Council). Or they adopt the findings of the 2011 Census (a measure of subjective Cornish consciousness) as a surrogate for a more objective definition of the Cornish people as that group born or brought up in Cornwall plus those who identify themselves as Cornish (see Deacon, 2013).

Now that the Cornish are recognised by the UK state as a national minority, a Cornish tick box in Census questions on ethnic or national identity must be offered, on the grounds of

  •  parity of treatment with the other nations of these islands
  • the generation of more consistent and comparable datasets
  • the production of more robust and reliable datasets that can better inform research into social exclusion in Cornwall

Bernard Deacon (2013), ‘The unimportance of being Cornish in Cornwall’, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies Twenty-One, University of Exeter Press, pp.17-32.

Kerryn Husk (2011), ‘Ethnicity and social exclusion: research and policy implications in a Cornish case study’, Social and Public Policy Review, 5:1, pp.7-25.

Kerryn Husk (2012), ‘Ethnic group affiliation and social exclusion in Cornwall: analysis, adjustment and extension of the 2001 England and Wales Census data’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Plymouth.

Kerryn Husk and Malcolm Williams (2012), ‘The legitimation of ethnicity: the case of the Cornish’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 12:2, pp.249-267.

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