I don’t normally blog about newspaper articles that are locked away behind a paywall, but sometimes you need to make an exception. And Tuesday’s article by Melanie Phillips in the Times is such an exception. A copy of the piece liberated from the paywall is here http://archive.is/Tq8lH so that everyone can scoff at it for free. It’s possibly the most ludicrous attempt at rewriting history since Rory (I’m Scottish You Know) the Tory sooked up a chunk of BBC licence fees to present a documentary claiming that there was some mythical Middle Land between Scotland and England which proved that Scottish nationhood is artificial and less ancient than its British counterpart. He called it Middle Land, but it had as much bearing on reality as Tolkein’s Middle Earth, only without the dragons or the special effects.
Melanie’s attempt is another excursion into the British nationalist middle earth. Britain, she boldly claims, is the only authentic nation in the battle between the UK and vile Scottish and Irish separatists. The only good thing you can say about it is that at least your licence fee wasn’t wasted in producing it. Of course the real reason that modern Unionists and British nationalists like Melanie are forced to make spurious appeals to ancient history is because there’s precious little shared experience left in the modern UK. Unless it’s a shared experience of the poor and low paid being ripped off while the rich and well connected enrich themselves.
That however, is a shared experience that we’re better off without. It’s a shared experience that we can best challenge with an independent Scotland that provides a better example than the British state. We’ve learned enough by now to know that attempting to reform the British state from within is an exercise in futility, disappointment, and broken dreams. Britain is now hell bent on a xenophobic inward looking narrow nationalism, rejecting the world and basing itself in nostalgia for a lost empire. Scottish independence looks to a future in the 21st century. The British state looks to an empire that it lost in the 20th.
The reality that the likes of Melanie don’t want to face up to is that the many ties of Britishness, all the institutions and organisations which once fostered that sense of Britishness which remains strongest in the oldest generations, have been destroyed by the British state itself and most often by the Tories. Just 50 years ago there were dozens of large state owned organisations, British Coal, British Steel, the Royal Mail, British Leyland and many more, all were owned by the state and helped to create and promote a sense of a shared British experience and identity. They’ve all gone now, sold off and broken up, and as they disappeared they took that fragile sense of a British identity with them. And the reason it was fragile was because it was never strongly rooted in history, no matter how much Melanie tries to rewrite the past.
The core of Melanie’s claim is that before the emergence of Scotland and England as nation states in the early middle ages, there was a British nation which encompassed the whole of the British Isles. It’s a nonsensical claim. She writes
Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas. Throughout its history, it was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea.
This is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to rewrite history by a historical illiterate. There was no “island nation”, before the Roman invasion all there was was a collection of Celtic tribes which were politically independent of one another and which allied with one another or went to war with one another as their tribal interests dictated. These tribes did share a broadly similar Celtic culture, and spoke dialects belonging to the same Celtic dialect complex, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they had any sense of themselves as being a single nation.
What Melanie doesn’t tell you is that this Celtic culture and language which was spread across Britain and Ireland was not confined to the British Isles, it was also found across Gaul, across large parts of Iberia, Central Europe, and in tribal groups all the way to Galatia in modern central Turkey. Many of the British tribes possessed territories in Gaul as well as in Britain, and they were closely linked to Gaul by ties of culture, family and language. If the tribes of Britain and Ireland did belong to a single over-arching nation, it was a Celtic nation that encompassed much of Europe. Rather like the EU, come to think of it.
Saying that Britain was beset by “attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea” is utter guff from a historical point of view. These tribes were always independent of those to the south which were conquered by Rome and incorporated into the Roman Empire. The reason the Romans built the wall was not because of secessionist activities from the northern tribes, but because they never successfully conquered the northern tribes in the first place. The Romans never extended their power to Ireland. These tribes remained proudly independent, and by the end of the Roman period a single Gaelic language and culture had spread across Ireland.
Scottish and English nationhood both post-date the Roman period. Both nations were formed by the gradual amalgamation, conquest, and merger of different tribes. Scotland and England were nation states by the early middle ages and for hundreds of years both nations were independent states. It’s Britishness which is relatively recent historically. Britishness as a political concept arose from attempts of the English monarchy to exert its control over the entire British Isles, attempts which were bitterly resisted by the non-English parts of the islands.
The modern concept of Britishness dates from no earlier than the Union of Crowns of the 17th century. It was a concept which Ireland and Scotland rejected for generations. Modern Britishness only came into being with the Union of Parliaments of 1707 and the extinguishing of Scottish independence. In theory, English independence was also extinguished by this event, but in reality as the larger and more powerful part of the new British state, the new Britishness became a proxy for English nationalism. That’s how it remains to this day. All Melanie Phillips is doing is attempting a spurious rewriting of history in an attempt to justify the right of English nationalism to rule over the rest of these islands.
But the truth is it doesn’t really matter whose national identity is older. Scottish independence is not about Scotland’s past. It’s about Scotland’s future. It’s about who gets to choose the path that Scotland takes, is it the people of Scotland, both born Scots and those who choose to embrace Scotland, or is it British nationalists like Melanie. She’s on the wrong side of history.
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