Chris Dunkerley: Mebyon Kernow – 60 Years on – and still looking good!

As Mebyon Kernow – The Party for Cornwall, held its National Conference last month, and now looks to build for the future of the Duchy, it also looks back over the past 60 years that have been significant for Kernow.

The early years
The inaugural meeting of what was called just Mebyon Kernow (meaning Sons of Cornwall in Kernewek) took place almost 60 years ago, on Saturday 6th January 1951, at Oates Hotel in Redruth.

There were thirteen people present and a further seven sent their apologies. Among that score of founder members were four future Grand Bards and a future university professor, and  more.

Helena Charles was elected Chairman, with Lambert Truran as Secretary and George Pawley White as Treasurer. (Although Helena and Pawley have now passed on, Lambert lives  in Western Australia still supporting the Cornish cause).

This initial meeting also adopted the seven original aims of the new organisation:-

1. To study local conditions and attempt to remedy any that may be prejudicial to the best interests of Cornwall by the creation of public opinion or other means.
2. To foster the Cornish Language and Literature.
3. To encourage the study of Cornish history from a Cornish point of view.
4. By self knowledge to further the acceptance of the idea of the Celtic character of Cornwall, one of the six Celtic Nations.
5. To publish pamphlets, broadsheets, articles and letters in the Press whenever possible, putting forward the foregoing aims.
6. To arrange concerts and entertainments with a Cornish-Celtic flavour through which these aims can be further advanced.
7. To cooperate with all societies concerned with preserving the character of Cornwall.

From its earliest days, Mebyon Kernow was openly political and by September 1951, the organisation had officially committed itself to Cornish self-government. The fourth  aim was modified: ‘ to further the acceptance of the Celtic character of Cornwall and its right to self-government in domestic affairs in a Federated United Kingdom. ‘

Helena Charles led the party for the first four years and was also the first person to put MK policies to the electorate, winning a seat on Redruth-Camborne Urban District Council in 1953, fighting under the slogan ‘A Square Deal for the Cornish.’  A member of Gorsedh Kernow under the Bardic name of Maghteth Boudycca (‘Daughter of Boudicca’), she was succeeded as Chairman of MK by Major Cecil Beer in the late 1950s.

Cecil Beer (with walking stick) - as former Deputy Grand Bard at a Bardic Proclamation, Wallaroo Mines, Sth Australia, May 1985 (also seen here is then Grand Bard Hugh Miners)

Its first two decades saw MK grow from a small band of committed enthusiasts, into  a movement supported by thousands.

Robert Dunstone (Truro) led the party throughout much of the 1960s, before Len Truran (Redruth) took the helm later in the decade. Any list of initiatives taken by Mebyon Kernow in these early years would be very long indeed. Well known political campaigns include those for a Cornish University, a Cornish Industrial Board or Development Agency, opposition to London Overspill, support for traditional Cornish industries, opposition to railway closures and help for Heligoland Freisans who wished to return to their land which was being used as a bombing range by the British government in the mid 1950s.

Mebyon Kernow prepared numerous reports on important policy areas, including Cornish University (30 years before the Lib Dem equivalent), integrated transport system, economic development, education, fishing, mining, broadcasting and local government reform.

The party was also instrumental in promoting Cornwall’s distinctive identity, with many party members also to the forefront of the Cornish Language revival. MK members worked to promote the use of the Cornish Flag of St Piran, to support Cornish sports like wrestling and to commemorate Cornish figures of the past. In 1966 MK erected the plaque memorial to An Gof and Flamank at St Keverne Church where annual commemorations have been held ever since.

At this early stage in its development, Mebyon Kernow was essentially a pressure  group and continued as such into the 1970s. This allowed members of other political parties to also hold membership of MK. Such members included Tory MP David Mudd and Liberal Party MPs Peter Bessel and John Pardoe.

An active Political Party

Mebyon Kernow members also starting contesting elections as official party candidates in the mid 1960s – winning seats in Padstow, Penryn, Penzance, the Redruth-Camborne area and Liskeard. In 1967, Mebyon Kernow won its first ever seat on Cornwall County Council at St Day and Lanner – after running a successful campaign against London Overspill.

Mebyon Kernow became a fully-fledged political party in the 1970s, with members of other political groupings no longer able to hold dual membership. It was also in this decade that the party, under the leadership of Len Truran and Richard Jenkin (Leedstown), starting contesting seats in the Westminster Parliament. Richard Jenkin fought MKs first parliamentary campaign in Falmouth and Camborne in 1970.

In the 1980’s under the leadership of Richard Jenkin, Julyan Drew, and Loveday Carlyon, Mebyon Kernow became renowned as a grass-roots campaigning force. As well as continuing campaigns launched in earlier years, the party organised numerous rallies. As the impact of Thatcherism was felt in Cornwall, the party regularly picketed government representatives at Tory offices in Cornwall and 10 Downing Street.  It contested and won District Council seats as well as continuing to contest Westminster elections. Colin Lawry (Newlyn) winning seats on Penwith District Council in 1982 at the age of 22 and Cornwall County Council in 1985.

Many of these campaigns were for simple social justice for the people of Cornwall – against the unacceptable unemployment levels, against low wages in Cornwall, support for a minimum wage and for local needs housing, opposition to second homes, support for better service provision, etc.

In the 1980s and 1990s, MK was particularly to the forefront, campaigning to protect the territorial integrity of Cornwall. This has included leading opposition to both the ‘south-west region’ and the institutional merger of Cornwall and Devon – ‘devonwall.’  (It never goes way does it?)

The ‘Declaration for a Cornish Assembly’ was launched on St Piran’s Day 2000. This was backed by over fifty thousand people – more than 10% of the Cornish electorate – and this massive expression of support for the greater self-government of Cornwall continues to underpin MK campaigns to the present day. Alas many battles still have to be won in the 21st Century.

MK also developed a comprehensive set of policies for Cornwall and the wider world. The 1996 publication of ‘Cornwall 2000 – The Way Ahead,’ MK’s was most detailed manifesto statement to date. Based on Cornish, Green, left-of-Centre and decentralist principles, it convincingly made the case for Cornish self-government and also emphasised the internationalist nature of Mebyon Kernow, detailing positions on global issues.

Under the leadership of Dick Cole, Mebyon Kernow has been fighting more election campaigns than in any similar period in its history. MK continues to battle for a Cornish Assembly and opposed the abolition of the  District Councils and the imposition by the Liberal Democrats administration and the Labour British Government of a Unitary Authority.  Nevertheless it won 3 seats in the ‘Cornwall Coucil’ election, just missing out on others.

The very much London focussed Westminster general election of 2009 was of course a dissapointment in results for MK, with blanket media for the London parties, and big spend as well  as  tactical voting (much of which turned out to be misplaced) but the fight goes on!

To mark this important 60th anniversary, a commemorative publication is to be produced and a celebratory event will be held in January 2011.  The commemorative publication is presently being written and will include numerous photographs, press clippings and other images from the 1950s through to the present day.

On Saturday 22nd January 2011, MK will be hosting an evening Anniversary event at the Lowenac Hotel in Camborne to celebrate the Party’s 60th anniversary. It will include music and other entertainment, reminiscences of the Party’s campaigns and achievements.

Happy Birthday 60th birthday MK – just keep on looking good!

Now styled ‘Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall’ – it is a modern and progressive political party, leading the fight for the self-government of Cornwall through the establishment of a legislative Assembly (still in a federal UK and federal Europe).

MK exists to fight for ALL the people of Cornwall with a political programme that offers an alternative to the London-centred parties that looks to the benefit for Cornish born residents but also those in-comers who have made Cornwall their home and acknowledge  the unique heritage and identity of the Duchy.

MK are campaigning for a better deal for Cornwall and a fairer, more equitable Cornwall, with policies founded on the core values of a fair and prosperous future for all, for social justice, and for environmental protection (including the built and natural environment).

MK wants a Commission to investigate the under-funding of public services in Cornwall.

The recent 2010 Conference in Bodmin decided on an ambitious five-year plan to better promote MK and the values it espouses. Development of policy will continue with input from members and local Cornish communities.

In the matter of compaigning it was agreed that MK should set itself the target of fighting at least 50 seats (40%) at the 2013 Cornwall Council Elections, put up a full slate of candidates at the European Parliamentary Election in 2014, and then contest all Cornish seats at the 2015 General Election.
This ambitious target will require members and support. It will require a change in  how  the diverse people of Cornwall view their capacity and right to control and determine   their own destiny;  free of London, Bristol, Exeter, or Plymouth based agendas.

A lot of effort will obviously first focus on Parish and Town councils, and  Consel Kernow (Cornwall Council).

There was also significant debate at the Conference focussed on the cuts being imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government and their impact on Cornish communities and the wider economy.

There was passionate support for MK councillors and activists to stand up and fight to protect public services in Cornwall.

More information on Mebyon Kernow today may be gained through the web site:
Mebyon Kernow

This is not an official MK article – it has been compiled from MK and public domain sources and my own views.
Compiled by Chris Dunkerley on 3 December, 2010 – as an ordinary MK member for 20 years, living in Australia. It has been my privilege to personally know Cecil Beer, Pawley White,  Len Truran, Lambert Truran, Richard Jenkin, and of course many of the later and current stalwarts of the party.