There is an article in the Times today (paywalled) in which Melanie Phillips proclaims that the Scots and Northern Irish have no right to secede at the expense of the “authentic”, “ancient” British nation and that Brexit “expresses the desire for independent self-government by a sovereign state based on the history, institutions and cultural ties that constitute a nation”, while the EU, which “reduces nations to the status of provinces”, is attractive to “weak nations and provinces as a way of boosting their status and income”. She provides us with a history lesson as to why Britain is an authentic nation while Scottish and Irish nationalism are “rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other”, i.e. the English or Protestants as in the case of Ireland. However, she makes a number of major errors in history, glossing over the linguistic and ethnic history of the UK in order to dismiss the rights of the Irish and Scots to call themselves nations.
I haven’t replied to a Phillips diatribe on this blog in a few years, so it’s worth reminding ourselves of Phillips’s agenda. She is a neo-conservative and an Israel-firster and her book Londonistan (reviewed here) has been described as a contribution to the “Eurabia” genre, i.e. a set of books that portray Europe as being at best weak or supine in the face of Muslim “aggression” and at worst in league with Arab dictatorships and in danger of being taken over by its Muslim minorities, while the “Anglosphere” alone defends Western civilisation. This was particularly attractive to Jewish Zionists during the 2000s when some European nations were highly critical of Israel’s policies while the USA in particular supported it with financial and military aid. Phillips’s articles and books were liberally and admiringly quoted on anti-Muslim hate sites such as Jihad Watch and her screeds on the supposedly dire state of European Jewry were lapped up by American Jewish right-wing audiences. She is sometimes referred to as “Mad Mel” and the Guardian’s profile in 2006 described her as hysterical, but I believe she was deliberately playing to an international pro-Israel, anti-Europe and anti-Muslim gallery, and this article serves the same purpose. Britain is good because, along with the USA, it serves the interests of Israel; Europe is bad, because it refuses to unconditionally support Israel; therefore, pro-European Scottish and Irish nationalism is bad.
Her claim that the EU allows “weak nations and provinces” to enhance their status and income is false. No nation within the EU, federal or not, has split up in its entire history; all the splits in federations in Europe (former Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the USSR, the former British and Irish UK) happened before any of them, or any part of them, joined or helped to form the EU or any of its predecessors. In fact, the threat of not being able to join the EU was a factor in deterring the pro-independence vote in 2014 because it was feared that Spain would veto Scotland’s joining so as to prevent the secession of Catalonia. Europe keeps large countries together by lowering the stakes, promoting human rights and allowing the free movement of people.
She then alleges:
Scottish nationalism and Irish republicanism are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other in the form of the English or the Protestants.
However, Scotland was a country unto itself until 1707; it unified with England as a way of settling debts, but retained its own legal and education system. Scottish separatism was not popular until the late 20th century, in large part because, after the suppression of the Highland uprisings and the incorporation of some of its customs (some of them really of recent invention, such as clan tartans, kilts and bagpipes) into British military and royal tradition, the union made Scotland part of the home nation of the British empire, from which it profited enormously. Solidarity between the Scottish (and Welsh) working classes and those of England also kept separatism in abeyance for decades. When the Empire broke up, the benefits for Scotland decreased accordingly, and the use of Scottish oil revenues to fund tax cuts as well as the testing of the Poll Tax on Scotland before it was rolled out south of the border led Scots to believe the English establishment saw them as a colony, not a partner in a union.
As for Irish nationalism, the facts of the Irish language, a common heritage and Roman Catholicism serve as unifiers, but opposition to English Protestant rule was quite valid as England and its barons ran the place like a colony, oppressing the native Irish and reducing them to penury and in some cases starvation. England went through numerous periods of being a Protestant fundamentalist state, penalising those who refused to renounce the Pope and hunting down and killing Catholic priests. As late as the 19th century there were anti-Catholic riots in England that used the slogan “no popery”; similar slogans are still used by Unionists in Northern Ireland. Her claim that “Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922” (echoing the taunt of many an online Zionist: “who was the leader of the Palestinians before Arafat?”) is erroneous; the Kingdom of Ireland (albeit with the English king as head of state) had been in existence before the Acts of Union in 1800, although the majority Catholic population was denied the vote and the right to sit in the Irish Parliament. It is quite valid to criticise the tactics of the IRA and the politics of the Irish state after independence, but the desire of the Irish population to self-determination against an oppressive British state was well-founded.
Having swatted away the Scots’ and Irish people’s rights to nationhood, she proclaims:
The nation is not, however, artificial or imagined. It is solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times: geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, culture.
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.
But it isn’t. The UK as we know it did begin with the union with Scotland. There just was no UK before that: the then king exchanged the crowns of England and Scotland for that of the United Kingdom. The ‘British’ state really begins with the Norman invasions, as it was this that produced one kingdom of England which conquered Wales, both of which formerly consisted of numerous small kingdoms, some of them remembered in the names of counties, particularly in the south-east of England and in Wales. There were two distinct groups of Celts, one consisting of the Cornish, Welsh, Bretons and other groups in Cumbria and the south-west of Scotland, and another in Ireland, western and northern Scotland and the Isle of Man. There were also Germanic invaders from northern Europe, who brought the language that became English, but it was outsiders that ultimately forced a political union. As the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan wrote in one of his liner notes, “Sometimes we (Scots and Irish) forget that the first colony of the British empire was in fact England”.
She also claims:
Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation. Wales was subsumed into the English legal system by Henry VIII and so lost its separate identity except for residual ties to the Welsh language.
Northern Ireland is different again. The Unionists hate this being said but they are not British. They’re the bit that got tacked on to Great Britain to make the UK.
This has proven true only in a minority of cases. The kings of the Holy Roman and later Austro-Hungarian empires did not unify their subjects into “one nation”, and the semblance of unity in Spain did not last long after absolutism ceased, so far for the last time, in 1975. Wales did not retain mere “residual ties to the Welsh language”; it remained the majority language until the 19th century everywhere except south Pembrokeshire and some of the eastern border regions. Northern Ireland is not Great Britain, but the Unionists (who are mostly Presbyterians of Scottish origin, settled from Scotland and England during the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century) are indeed British; the term means a UK citizen, as anyone who has ever applied for a British passport will know.
There really is nothing ancient about ‘Britain’ or the UK. The British Isles as a single political unit existed only from 1800 to 1922. Even the name Britain refers to the country’s Celtic past but only from the invading Norman French perspective — the greater land of the Britons (as opposed to Brittany), excluding the parts where forms of Gaelic were, and are, spoken. If any nation within the British Isles has the claim to be ancient, it is Ireland. Both England and Scotland are stronger for being one country instead of two, but the Scots have every right to resist being dragged into an isolated, inward-looking state by people influenced by the bigoted London commercial press for reasons largely irrelevant to them. The Irish do not have an obligation to tolerate the imposition of a border in their country for similar reasons. Being in the EU may well be the price the English have to pay to remain the biggest nation in a strong UK rather than a “rainy version of Dubai”, and if a strong UK is needed for a strong Israel, the likes of Melanie Phillips should accept that, rather than insult the Scots and Irish who prefer independence in Europe to isolation and dominance by England.
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