Melanie Phillips’ article in the The Times on Tuesday caused quite a stir among historians and the general public alike. Twitter responded with indignation:
Check twitter just now – who’s Melanie Phillips & why’s everyone angry. 5 mins later – I’M SO ANNOYED.
— Bronach Kane (@bkbronach) March 7, 2017
Oh. My. God. https://t.co/cv6URyo6ej
— James Chetwood (@chegchenko) March 7, 2017
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.
Ireland, you’re not a proper country. Melanie Phillips says so pic.twitter.com/2GgVqmObHJ
— Ian Prior (@ianprior) March 7, 2017
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 @ and read more from him on his own blog.
Image: Britannia Sits Begging, courtesy of the Wellcome Trust [via Wikicommons].