There was a predictable outburst of indignation when Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid sternly ticked off the Cornish for seeing ‘their county [sic] as distinct from the rest of the region, a special case that should be handled separately’. For him, this is a ‘problem’ and an attitude that ‘has to change’. Of course, we’ve got used to such displays of Tory arrogance. Who doesn’t fondly recall David Cameron’s irritated and patronising dismissal of opposition to the devonwall constituency: ‘It’s the Tamar not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake’.
Yet, this latest rudeness is more significant, coming as it does as part of renewed pressure for devonwall. Javid’s words need to be understood in the context of that wider project. As for Javid himself, I’ll leave the question of whether he merely served as a useful dupe for other interests or whether his party is part of the project, until the last in this series of four blogs on the devonwall connection, its origins and agents, its agenda and its implications.
Javid was a student at Exeter University from 1988 to 1991, studying economics. But he clearly didn’t learn much about the contemporary economic history of the western part of devonwall. Neither did his post-university career, as a member of the global banking elite, earning a reputed £3 million a year before joining the Commons in 2010, do much to enhance his knowledge of Cornwall. Had it done so, he might have noticed that a classic policy folly (a policy that has the opposite outcomes to those intended) was unfolding in the west back in the 1990s.
Powerful interests in Devon were quietly pushing a devonwall agenda from the mid-1980s, if not earlier. They succeeded all too easily in co-opting local government and business elites in Cornwall. Yet devonwall development institutions did nothing to cure Cornwall’s then endemic unemployment problems, or its lagging economy. In fact, the link to Devon held back the construction of Cornish institutions that could begin to tackle Cornwall’s problems. Moreover, for years it stymied the possibility of Cornwall accessing the top level of EU regional grant aid.
After years of this policy failure, the Labour Government’s adoption of the seven-‘county’ South West regional template in 1997 and the recognition of Cornwall as a level 2 region separate from Devon led to Objective One grant funding. It also left the devonwall project dead in the water. Politicians in Cornwall who had earlier been keen enthusiasts for devonwall now desperately jumped ship. Abandoned and friendless, the policy folly of devonwall seemed to have been consigned to a curious and forgotten footnote in Cornwall’s history.
Not so. The devonwall zombie has been reawakened, has risen from its grave and once more walks among us. On October 21st a South West Growth Summit was held at Exeter, this being the context for Javid’s thoughtless remarks on Cornwall. The idea of the conference was hatched up by Sarah Heald, Director of Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations at Exeter-based Pennon, and Bill Martin, editor of the Western Morning News, a Plymouth newspaper. Martin boasted to the Conference how he’d begun a ‘Back the South West’ campaign in an effort to grab the post-Brexit agenda. Just as neo-liberal ideologues use crises (as in 2008) to further their cause, the devonwallers were using the confusion of Brexit and the ending of EU grant aid to revive the idea of devonwall.
Back in the 1990s the main movers and shakers behind the devonwall project were South West Water, privatised in 1989, the Western Morning News, the CBI, academics at Plymouth University, Conservative politicians and the Duchy of Cornwall. With the exception of the Duchy and the addition of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the personnel this time around turns out be virtually identical. Speakers at the ‘Growth Summit’ included representatives from Pennon, which owns South West Water, the Western Morning News, Exeter University and the CBI, together with a gaggle of Devon’s Tory MPs. There’s nothing new here. We’re seeing the restoration of the devonwall project temporarily abandoned in 1997, but now apparently alive and kicking again.
The first task the assembled speakers had was to construct their own legitimacy and that of their region. To an extent, the banal use of ‘south west’ to describe their conference, together with the constant repetition of the phrase in the media, had done the latter job for them. Moreover, the conference was, they crowed, a ‘coming together of the leaders’ of the economies of Devon and Cornwall. Those attending could preen themselves on being part of this self-appointed regional leadership elite. Here were the masters (and a few mistresses) of the little universe of the ‘south west’, fit and proper persons to make decisions for the rest of us, even though the vast majority of those attending have never been elected by anyone. Of course, it helps a lot if you can wheel in a Cabinet Minister to give your undemocratic cabal an extra lustre.
The ‘new’ devonwall project turns out to be driven by the same old devonwallers. But what is it they want? What’s their vision? For answers to those questions see tomorrow’s blog.