It was the 3rd of March 1974. Britain was in turmoil. Ted Heath, the Prime Minister, had just lost a general election, but refused to resign. His Conservative party had fewer MPs than Labour, but he thought he might be able to persuade the Liberal Party to join a coalition. The front pages of the Sunday papers were teeming with speculation.
Except one. The Sunday Independent led with a very different story.
THE WEST’S SECRET ARMY.
Underneath the headline was a photo of four masked paramilitaries charging over a hill-side. And, below that, the chilling news that the Free Cornish Army claimed to have forty fully trained units ready for action. The ballot box had failed, the FCA said. The Cornish Nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow, hadn’t won a single seat in Thursday’s election. Now was the time for more direct action. The torches of freedom had been lit throughout Kernow and we shall not see them extinguished in our lifetime.
So began one of the great hoaxes of the 1970s.
Of course you couldn’t do this today without being whisked off to Guantanamo but, back in the more innocent seventies, freedom of expression included the right of teenagers to seize the country next door — as long as it was for a good cause.
This is my story. The true account of a young man who, tasked with the job of publicising Plymouth Rag Week, took matters a little further than people expected. Some students would have arranged an interview with the local newspaper. I created the Free Cornish Army, took two battalions across the border, and convinced the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. As I told police at the time, “It was only a small country, and I did give it back.”
It all started at the National Rag Conference in late 1973. I was nineteen years old and the newly-elected Plymouth Area Rag Chairman. For those unfamiliar with the term, Rag Weeks are a British institution. A week when university students come up with all manner of stunts and activities to raise money for charity. Dressing up is obligatory. Fun is compulsory.
And every Rag committee wants to outdo all those that came before.
I was no different. I wanted to raise a shed-load of money, and come up with the charity stunt to end all charity stunts.
Which is why my ears pricked when I heard someone talking about a really cool stunt they’d organised the year before. “We set up a customs post on a bridge and charged people a toll to cross over.”
An interesting idea, but why would anyone pay money to a group of students blocking a bridge? This was when my embryonic author’s brain kicked in. They would if you prepared them for it — gave them a reason to expect a customs post to be on that bridge.
World building 101 — and how I became a teenage freedom fighter. Not only did I have the Che Guevara poster, I had the very bridge — several of them in fact. Plymouth was on the English side of the River Tamar. Cornwall was on the other side. Now if I could convince people that Cornwall had seceded from the United Kingdom…
A little research uncovered a Cornish nationalist party — Mebyon Kernow — who were fielding candidates in the upcoming general election. All it needed was someone to overhaul their policies — which were far too tame to interest the national media — and spice up the rhetoric. And we needed something visual — costumes! And so the Free Cornish Army was born.
First, we had to announce our existence. But, second, we had to have something to announce. So I formulated a six-point manifesto. Nice simple demands that everyone could understand. And, more importantly, had that stamp of authenticity. These were exactly the demands that a radical band of freedom fighting Cornish nationalists would make.
I forget the complete list, but it went something like this:
1. Cornwall to become an independent nation and part of the Commonwealth.
2. Seizure of all ‘foreign’ owned holiday homes in Cornwall. All the seized properties to be handed back to homeless Cornish folk.
3. Cornish to be reinstated as the official language of Cornwall and taught in all Cornish schools.
There was something about Cornish pasties as well. Maybe a subsidy, maybe a pasty allowance to be given to all families.
Then, as all revolutionary governing councils do, we hit a dialectical problem. Who in the British Government were we supposed to inform of our unilateral declaration of independence? The Home Office? Wouldn’t that mean we accepted that Cornwall was part of the UK in the first place? The Foreign Office? Would they even know where Cornwall was?
So we sent our demands to both. And, of course, the press. We took the train down to Truro to make sure we had a good Cornish postmark — attention to detail is everything — and posted our packages. I added an extra paragraph or two of revolutionary rhetoric, explaining how for years we had tried the ballot box, but now, reluctantly, we were turning to the gun. The torches of freedom had been lit throughout Kernow, and we would not see them extinguished in our lifetime. That was the sentence that the national media would quote extensively in the weeks to come.