Lesser Britain

Who says we’re not British?

There’s a fad nowadays for claiming that Great Britain isn’t a real political entity, just a collection of separate nations that were rammed together a few centuries ago. Scottish and increasingly English nationalists fall over themselves to proclaim that Britain is a recent invention. 1603? 1707? Oh… we can do better than that… 1800… late nineteenth century…

It’s apparently an unchallengeable axiom in all of this that anything recent in politics is doomed to failure. As this isn’t part of the main thrust of my argument, I pause here only briefly: how old is the United States of America? If there’s an argument for saying the United Kingdom isn’t as old as the Union, there’s a bigger argument with the United States: it seems to have occurred to very few people until the Constitution appeared that a centralised nation had a future. How old is Israel (this is perhaps controversial, but remember we’re talking about modern politics)? India, Australia, Canada?

The distinction betwen these cases and Britain is supposed to be that there have always been separate peoples in England, Scotland, Wales, and any parts of Ireland you may care to consider in an argument about Britishness (don’t feel compelled to include any). This is true as far as it goes; but there are many buts.

I shall restrict myself mostly to England and Scotland for simplicity; much of the argument generalises, and in so much as it doesn’t, it’s because Scotland is the most blatantly separatist part of the United Kingdom. Irish nationalism doesn’t count, because there’s already an Irish Republic, so this is a question of alternative parents (which is a perfectly good question in its own right), not fractious children.

Identifiable kingdoms of England and Scotland on something like the modern lines emerged towards the start of the high Middle Ages (what used to be called the end of the Dark Ages). Up till then there were shifting tribal or (depending more on scale than race) national groups: the various Germanic invaders in the south and east, the various Celts and their more shadowy predecessors the Picts in the north and west. From the eleventh century, there were still the troublesome north parts of England, the Lords of the Isles, and the ever problematic Welsh who somehow didn’t like being conquered, but certainly it’s reasonable to talk about Scotland and England as separate entities.

A passing remark: as part of the argument that ‘there is no Britain, only England and Scotland’, these separate peoples must be assumed, to a greater or lesser extent, to be nationalistic, otherwise there is no England or Scotland, either. Amuse yourself by asking a historian (or an historian, if they’re old enough) how recent they think the phenomenon of nationalism is. In particular, ask a historian of Scotland about the current attitude to the Declaration of Arbroath: an important document, certainly, that still has a considerable effect, but perhaps not quite the assertion of nationhood the popular histories have tended to make it out to be.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument there has always been at least some approximation to national feeling. How much does that say? The Celtic highlands of Scotland remained in effect a foreign country to the Saxon- and Norman-influenced southern Scotland. You can call Robert the Bruce many things, but you can’t call him a pure-blooded Celt. The regions of England had their own idiosyncracies, which continue to this day: I remember my godmother pointing out that it was all very well wringing one’s hands about peace between nations, but the inhabitants of neighbouring villages in her part of North Yorkshire hated one another, too (as I’ve mentioned before). Newcastle and Sunderland, Celtic and Rangers have so much spleen for each other that what goes on over the border is viewed with relative indulgence: how much more different can they be? (In the case of Yorkshire, probably a great deal, but that’s a special case.)

I started off by stating that the fundamental issue over Britishness was put in political terms, and I’ve drifted away from politics. This is entirely deliberate. Another tendency among modern historians—not so modern, indeed, as the idea was around immediately after the Second World War—is to emphasise the importance of other things than headline politics. You can identify an overemphasis on this idea: is it really the case that Henry VIII, as a person rather than the embodiment of social change, is irrelevant to the English Reformation? It seems thoroughly improbable. Nonetheless, the basic point is certainly well made. Many people for much of their lifes see social, cultural (whatever that is, exactly) and technological change in their own town or village while anything that can be identified as both political and important in the long term happens elsewhere.

What’s more, it’s quite clear that such changes never stopped dead in the marshes between the Esk and the Scots Dyke. Quite often the difference in everyday life between the northern and southern fringes of the Marches was considerably less than the corresponding difference in life between Carlisle and London, or even, to a lesser extent, Annan and Edinburgh across the border. This didn’t stop the Reivers plundering the other side’s sheep and taunting them, or William Wallace sacking the monasteries of Cumbria; but the exploitation of political tensions doesn’t invalidate the point. Indeed, to some extent it illustrates how much the existence of political hot air can be used to exaggerate what in terms of real lives is rather inconsiderable. The fact that the Scots quite naturally didn’t, and don’t, want to be run by other people disguises the much more complex question of who, exactly, constitute ‘other people’.

The ever-political question of language provides an excellent example of when a difference is not a difference. The Germanic settlers (invaders, if you’re not descended from them) caused a fundamental change in the languages spoken everywhere south and east of the Welsh border and the Highland line. It was by no means the same change everywhere, however, Modern world standard English, in as much as it exists, is what in the late middle ages was East Midlands English, a linguistic area that happened to extend to London, with decisive results. Language blocks existed all over the German- and later Norman-influenced area. Northern English was in many ways quite different from East Midlands. The language spoken over the border was yet another variety—but not because of any definitive change at Carter Bar. Scots (or Lallans or whatever) was as good a language as any of the others—whether you happen to refer to them as dialects of English or not is largely irrelevant—but not because it stood out from them. It was just one of a crowd.

Over the centuries politics had its influence. ‘Standard’ English was what was spoken by the those at court and in the church and their immediate circles (what a historian would nowadays probably call ‘the Elite’ as if that somehow said more rather than less than the way I put it, but I digress). Thus it came to gain a higher status, although only very gradually did the local dialects soften or recede into the background as, for example, Northumbrians discovered some of their words sounded like the way the Scots talked and stopped using them. Only with the ponderous and plonking weight of late twentieth centry politics did the final step take place: Scots was ‘our language’, English was ‘their language’.

Such pseudodistinctions are everywhere. They have been exacerbated by the absurdities of the way Scotland was incorporated into the wider body politic: it retained a separate legal framework, which led to the development of other distinct features such as the educational system, yet until devolution Scots law was written in Westminster. (So much is not true of Wales, which lost its separate legal identity in Tudor times, but interestingly the lack of a distinctly Welsh law doesn’t seem to be a particular nationalist sore point, given that many other arguments are made with considerable passion.) It’s not surprising this led to nationalist feeling; the surprise is that this nonsensensical way of proceeding was fairly uncontroversial until quite recently.

So there is quite a lot in common and a certain amount that isn’t. So what?

So, to follow on from the remark about Yorkshire villages and football teams above, one should be careful in identifying the source of that which is not in common and apportioning it accordingly. I am not trying to argue that a separate Scottish nation makes no sense; on the contrary, in purely historical terms it is perfectly reasonable. I do, however, insist that trying to deny the notion of Britishness is as irrational as trying to deny the notion of Londonness, Cornishness, Highlandness, or whateverness.

Perhaps most importantly, it is quite ridiculous to claim there is no such thing as Britain and yet that, in the ill-defined phrase, ‘Scotland’s future lies in Europe’. Scotland’s future lies where Scotland has lain for many thousands of years, as part of an island off the northwest coast of Europe. Notwithstanding political considerations and the Auld Alliance, which was always a matter of power politics rather than a meeting of minds, Scotland has and always will have more in common with its immediate neighbours than with the rest of Europe. Even in the event of Scottish independence it will be vital to Scottish interest to pool certain resources with the rest of Britain. (Ardour has cooled now Scots realise it’s much harder to blame things on the English, and if that sounds cynical they said it before I did.)

The residual common British functions will probably include many of the most obvious trappings of nationhood such as the armed forces and maybe even diplomatic missions, which are expensive for a small nation; and whereas Scots have had considerable influence within Britain, they would be just another small nation in Europe. The Republic of Ireland, of course, is successful as an entirely separate state, but there were long years of poverty before it became the success it has, and an increasingly eastward-looking Europe is unlikely to be offering handouts to its northwest fringe. Hence the argument is a question of trade-offs: how much are you prepared to pay for your own prime minister riding round in a shiny black car? Are you prepared to pay a bit more and become a fully paid up nation, with its own fighters escorting away foreign aircraft and ambassadors in Canberra and Santiago? The case of the arts in Scotland tends to suggest that Scottish politicians aren’t all that keen on paying for anything.

The more intelligent Scottish Nationalist politicians appear to realise much of this. Alex Salmond, the long time leader, has made it clear that Scottish independence only has meaning if it consists of a good deal more than bashing the English, and that remaining on good terms with the neighbours is crucial. There is apparently no significant animus against the English Crown, either, an interesting fact in the light of the history of the Stuarts. It’s curious that while the Union has come to be regarded as a great betrayal—describing it as a ‘sell-out’ is however close to historical fact given the financial background—the Glorious Revolution, on the other hand, has stirred no great controversy in recent years. There may be a religious aspect to this, although a strongly secular politics is one aspect common to England and (Lowland) Scotland. Whatever the cause, it strikes me as another bizarre feature that the supposedly non-existent Britain has a single unchallenged head of state.

In short, I have no reason to doubt that the Scots are not the same as the English. Likewise, the English have their own oddities, and it’s another thoroughly negative part of British politics that English nationalism is traditionally regarded as extremist (although so was Scottish nationalism in earlier days). However, none of this in any way stops the English and Scots from being British any more than it stops the British from being European. C.S. Lewis once remarked that people insist on extremes, so that if you say of patriotism that it’s better than selfishness, but it’s not as good as the universal brotherhood of mankind, they will think you are hedging your bets rather than stating the truth as you see it. If being European is better than being British then being British is better than being English or Scottish; and while I don’t require you to accept the antecedent, I do insist on the force of the logic.

Peter Stephenson <p.w.stephenson@ntlworld.com>
Last modified: Mon May 1 17:12:21 BST 2006