V0050367 Britannia sits begging

Melanie Phillips’ article in the The Times on Tuesday caused quite a stir among historians and the general public alike. Twitter responded with indignation:

Phillips’ main point is that Britain is more of an ‘authentic unitary nation’ than any of those ‘troublesome bits of the United Kingdom’ currently indulging in pesky ponderings about independence. It is quite a simple idea. It is also entirely wrong.

Firstly, Phillips misinterprets the arguments of historians like Benedict Anderson and Linda Colley, who have written that a nation is an ‘imagined community’. Phillips favours Jonathan Clark’s interpretation that ‘Britain was not invented; it developed’, but such a contrast between invention and development is a false one.

Nations do indeed develop – but they do not develop spontaneously or naturally. While they may be ‘solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times’, as Phillips states, such unity has itself often been the result of direct efforts at nation-building. Britain’s development as a nation has been a continuous, if not always deliberate, process of (re-)invention.

Part of this process is the telling of histories. Anderson and other historians of nationalism, like Ernest Renan in the nineteenth century and Eric Hobsbawm in the twentieth, generally agree that imagining a national past plays a vital role in building a nation. As these scholars have pointed out, in order to imagine such a past, keen nationalists often get their history wrong. Melanie Phillips seems intent on proving their point.

Her main prop for Britain’s authenticity is its longevity. Great Britain is, she says, ‘a confederation of three ancient nations’. Ireland, meanwhile, has only ‘a tenuous claim to nationhood’, being to Phillips a decidedly nouveau nation formed in 1922.

Yet all nation-states are relatively recent institutions. For centuries most people lived in other kinds of political community, either small and local or large and composite. By comparison, nation-states are a short-term experiment, albeit one which gained considerable purchase very quickly. This is true for Britain, as Phillips herself implies with the term ‘confederation’, and by mentioning ‘the union of two distinct kingdoms’ in 1707. Before that time there was no political nation of Britain, and there is very little evidence of a ‘unitary’ national identity or culture either.

The idea that ancient Britain was a ‘nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas’ is therefore not just inaccurate but ridiculous. The peoples of these islands were divided. Boudicca fought for herself and for the Iceni, not for the British. Phillips’ further suggestion that ancient Britain was ‘beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea’ is even more ridiculous. You can’t secede from something to which you do not belong, especially if it does not exist in the first place.

Once the confederating began, it was a difficult and usually bloody affair. Several violent centuries separate the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in these islands from their uniting under a single king of England. Later still, Henry VIII’s annexation of Wales into the English crown was part of his efforts to build an ‘English empire’ (the first time that term appeared). He sought to subordinate all of the British Isles and Ireland to his own rule in exactly the kind of power-concentration of which Phillips accuses the EU.

In the next century, James VI of Scotland became king of England too, by dynastic accident, but his subsequent attempts to unite his two kingdoms met with resistance on both sides of the border. Scotland and England remained politically separate for another hundred years, with the brief exception of Cromwell’s brutal conquest of Ireland and Scotland. This period also witnessed Scottish and English plantations in Ireland, sowing the seeds of a conflict that remains with us. Even when the 1707 union produced a single political nation, these divergent identities and interests persisted.

None of these actions emerged from, or managed to create, a British nation united by ‘language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, [or] culture’, the criteria set out by Philips. Those characteristics developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To pursue the idea of longevity, she is forced to fall back on her one remaining factor: ‘geography’. Britain, she says, ‘didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation’.

This premise involves some pretty tortuous doublethink. If Britain is an authentic nation because it is an island, why doesn’t Ireland possess the same authenticity? Or if Ireland requires more than geography to be a nation, why doesn’t Britain? It’s worth noting at this point that Phillips’ description of Scottish and Irish nationalism as ‘cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other’ captures pretty well the British nationalism that emerged from the eighteenth century onwards.

Part of this romanticism and myth has been the spurious assertion of ancient nationhood now recycled by Phillips. Part of it has been the exaggeration of island insularity (for which Shakespeare bears at least some of the blame). Maritime history in recent decades has shown that islands are the opposite of isolated: they are points of contact, connection, and exchange. Indeed, this very openness to newcomers – whether invaders or more peaceful immigrants – has been definitive for Britain’s history, though this is often forgotten or ignored.

Melanie Phillips, like other nationalists, takes a crude and careless approach to the past. Most of Britain’s history is not the stately progress of a united nation combining all parts of these islands. It is, rather, the history of troublesome bits. That is one reason why it is so fascinating.

[Editor’s note: Melanie Phillips kindly provided a response to this blog in the form of a comment (below). By popular demand, this has been made available here, in order to allow readers to submit line-by-line comment.]

Richard Blakemore is a Lecturer in the History of the Atlantic World at the University of Reading. His research focuses upon the social history of seafarers and their role in imperial and commercial networks in the early modern period. You can find him on twitter @historywomble and read more from him on his own blog.

Image: Britannia Sits Begging, courtesy of the Wellcome Trust [via Wikicommons].

Tags : Brexitbritish historyhistory of the UKIrish historyIrish independenceMelanie Phillipsnationalism
Richard Blakemore

The author Richard Blakemore


  1. I agree that British identity is highly complex and evolved over time. Indeed, far from asserting a seamless progress, as you have suggested here, I wrote: “The UK is an extraordinarily complex web of identities: civic, ethnic, cultural, national.”

    There is, however, a difference between a country, a nation, a state and a nation-state. Not all states embody a nation. You fail to acknowledge this elementary fact.

    Your assertion that no political nation of Britain existed before the union of England and Scotland is absurd, and your claim that ancient Britain was not a “nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas” is itself inaccurate and ridiculous.

    The Romans conquered a discrete country called Britannia. Suetonius called Cunobeline King of the Britons. England was always dominant within Britain; tribes or local rulers in England vied for power but periodically fought against invaders threatening all of Britain, not just their region.

    Your claim that Boudicca merely “fought for herself and the Iceni, not for the British” is a distortion: hers was one of many uprisings against the Roman invasion. Read Tacitus:

    “Rousing each other by this and like language, under the leadership of Boudicea, a woman of kingly descent (for they admit no distinction of sex in their royal successions), they all rose in arms. They fell upon our troops, which were scattered on garrison duty, stormed the forts, and burst into the colony itself, the head-quarters, as they thought, of tyranny. In their rage and their triumph, they spared no variety of a barbarian’s cruelty. Had not Paullinus on hearing of the outbreak in the province rendered prompt succour, Britain would have been lost. By one successful engagement, he brought it back to its former obedience, though many, troubled by the conscious guilt of rebellion and by particular dread of the legate, still clung to their arms.”

    The Romans wrote about the characteristics not of tribes but of Britons. Read Tacitus again: “Their religious belief may be traced in the strongly-marked British superstition. The language differs but little; there is the same boldness in challenging danger, and, when it is near, the same timidity in shrinking from it. The Britons, however, exhibit more spirit, as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated” and so on.

    You assert that my suggestion that ancient Britain was “beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea” is ridiculous, because “you can’t secede from something to which you do not belong, especially if it does not exist in the first place.”

    Ireland was conquered by England in 1169; it was ruled by England and then Britain for around 800 years and was considered part of the British Isles. During this period there were repeated uprisings and rebellions by the Irish against the English.

    In 1091 Malcolm III of Scotland launched attacks on northern England to establish independence before withdrawing and acknowledging the overlordship of the King of England.

    Your claim that Britain’s bonds of “language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, or culture” only developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is absurd. Englishness, as I wrote in my article, came to define Britishness; the English language, common law and Christian religion. along with the institutions and other manifestations of this common culture, obviously went back long before.

    The “tortuous double think” you claim to find in my article is no more than a misreading of what I wrote, since I did not say as you suggest that Britain was an authentic nation simply because it was an island. Geography has certainly played a part in Britain’s conception of itself as a nation, but that’s a different matter.

  2. Thank you for replying to my reply. You have not, I am afraid, persuaded me.

    I completely agree that a nation and a nation-state are different things (and though I used both these terms in my post, I did not use them interchangeably). Where we disagree is in the timing and the sequence. You argue that Britain was an ‘authentic unitary nation’ long before it was a state; I would suggest that national unity occurred only as a direct, and delayed, response to becoming a state. I also believe that, despite your acknowledgement of ‘an extraordinarily complex web of identities’, your emphasis upon a supposed Britishness still flattens out the vigorous diversity of the peoples of these islands.

    To begin with, I am sceptical of Suetonius and Tacitus. Imperial commentators have a marked tendency to homogenise the people they have conquered. The fact that these writers use the terms ‘Britannia’ and ‘Britons’ does not (in my view) prove the existence of an ‘authentic unitary nation’, political or otherwise. If a Roman name, a shared language, and occasional alliances against foreign invaders are enough to make a nation, then Ireland (or Hibernia, for Tacitus) can claim a similar authenticity – which your article denied. That inconsistency is the ‘doublethink’ to which I referred. Also, I wonder about your assertion that ‘England was always dominant within Britain’ when England did not itself exist until at least the tenth century.

    You then point to England’s conquest of Ireland and claims of overlordship in Scotland during the medieval period. However, as we have agreed, being a state is not the same as being a nation, and medieval suzerainty was also not the same as modern sovereignty. From 1213 until 1365 the English king was technically a vassal of the pope: does this make medieval England any less of an independent nation? England’s control of Ireland was weak, and its title over Scotland largely nominal, until much later: I do not accept this as evidence of an ‘authentic unitary nation’. Indeed, the persistent rebellions suggest that Ireland was not ‘considered part of the British Isles’ by everybody. I maintain, therefore, that your original phrasing of ‘attempts at secession by tribes’ was poorly chosen, not least because that phrasing was chronologically vague and because the word ‘tribe’ (with its nineteenth-century connotations of a primitive society, in comparison to modern nations) is at best accidentally pejorative.

    You write that Englishness ‘came to define Britishness’. My contention is that this was a much more recent and much more contested development than your original article allowed. Different languages (and some remarkably divergent dialects) have characterised these islands for most of their history, and so too have different legal traditions. Universal acceptance of the common law and the Queen’s English were hardly features of the era before the Anglo-Saxons arrived – or of medieval or early modern England, let alone its neighbours. Christianity became, if anything, more divisive when the Reformation resulted in greater differences between the churches of Scotland, England, and Ireland. Religious controversies, within and between the three Stuart kingdoms, were among the major causes of some of the bloodiest civil wars these islands ever knew, and still define identities in Britain. Once again, this evidence does not suggest an ‘authentic unitary nation’, and it is your insistence upon this concept which I query.

    In your article you spoke of how the EU ‘falsely claims for itself the hollow appurtenances of a nation’. I continue to doubt that Britain’s existence as a nation was any more solid until after it became a state in the eighteenth century.

  3. In the position of a High King, Ireland has defined itself as a political unit from 1500 or 2000 BC onwards. Mael Sechnaill become de facto ruler of all of Ireland in 846, 79 years before Athelstan took control over Northumbria to become King of the English.

Leave a Response

eleven + 7 =