The United Kingdom is under strain as never before—but the cause is obsessive centralism, not the largely mythical ‘Celtic’ identities
The Scots are on the march. The Northern Irish are drifting south. The Welsh are roused from their slumber. A once-United Kingdom, goaded beyond endurance by Brexit, suddenly looks less united. The next election will likely usher in an era of unpredictability and hung parliaments. Could it be that the Celts, so long a disparate and inert “fringe”, driven (supposedly) to the outskirts of the British Isles by the English, are at last flexing their muscles and readying themselves to break free?
In 2016 both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the European Union, while Wales voted with England. The Scottish vote stirred an upsurge in separatist sentiment. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed the poll tax in 1989, Scotland has moved steadily down the path to independence trod by Dublin in 1922. Jeremy Corbyn has overseen the disintegration of Scottish Labour solidarity, while the Scottish Conservative party, despite a brief flowering under Ruth Davidson, struggles to keep the unionist flag flying. For two decades Scotland has voted itself a separatist national government.
In Northern Ireland, opinion polls have shown a strong desire to remain in a customs union with the south. One even showed a narrow majority of voters preferring reunion with the south. The centenary of Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom in three years’ time could be marked by a reunited island, as well as by an independent Scotland. If so, the UK and Great Britain would be no more, leaving a nation uncomfortably called England and Wales. Even in Wales, Plaid Cymru’s new leader Adam Price has brought a shot of intellectual clout to the shaky cause of independence. In the backwash of Brexit, the political foundations of the UK are clearly crumbling.
‘The Welsh, Scots and Irish, divided from each other by land and sea, have never seen themselves as one “people”’
For all that, the so-called Celtic fringe has never formed a coherent partnership, let alone a Celtic nation. In the London parliament, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs number 117 in total, notionally holding a balance of power in any modern House of Commons. Even the 46 MPs with openly nationalist sympathies could exert potent leverage. Yet not since the 80-strong Irish contingent in the late-Victorian era has territorial politics seriously disturbed the parliamentary scene. The Celts have never found common cause. The Welsh, Scots and Irish, divided from each other by land and sea, have never seen themselves as one “people”.
The incoherence goes deeper. DNA archaeology has exploded the theory of a Celtic tribe once bestriding western Europe from the Danube to the Atlantic. There is and was no identifiable Celtic DNA. The story of Celts invading and occupying the British Isles—supposedly in the 5th century BC—is unsupported by evidence. So too is the central national myth, that they were driven to the western extremities by incoming Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.
In fact, not since the Stone Age has there been a mass movement of population into Britain and Ireland. The islands’ present inhabitants—other than recent immigrants—are overwhelmingly descended from people who first moved northwards with the retreat of the ice in the Mesolithic era, some 11,000 years ago. They came when Britain was still joined to Europe, predominantly from the south and the Spanish peninsular but some from northern Europe. They are still there. Between 65 per cent and 85 per cent of the population of the British Isles in the early 20th century far predated any supposed “Celts” in mainland Europe. It was Herodotus who gave the tribes of the upper Danube the name keltoi, meaning foreigners. The name was extended by the Romans to those dubbed as cognate “gauls”. They had little to do with each other, and nothing with people inhabiting the British archipelago.
These discoveries have upheaved Celtic studies, as reflected in the works of their eminence grise, Barry Cunliffe. The 2018 edition of his classic The Ancient Celts acknowledges that traditional versions of the Celtic story are simply “no longer fit for purpose”. What had led prehistorians astray was the undoubted dispersal, possibly as early as the fourth millennium BC, of a common core language, derived from proto-Indo-European. This would have come westwards across the Mediterranean with the “people of the sea”, the sea being an easier means of movement than land. While the earliest Europeans would have spoken only their original tongues—of which Basque is a rare survivor—the growth of early trade led to the emergence of a lingua franca. Just as Germanic variants spread over northern Europe, so Celtic spread into Spain and France. Unlike Germanic, Celtic was almost completely obliterated by Latin and the languages of the Roman empire.
This suggests that surviving Celtic languages are not the remnants of tribal groups driven to the extremities of Europe by conquerors. They rather reflect local tribes sufficiently isolated from Roman influence not to have adopted its common tongue. It was geographical isolation that kept Celtic fragments alive in Galicia, Brittany, Cornwall and the western parts of the British Isles. This may explain why surviving
variants of Celtic differ so radically from each other, such that even within its two families, Goidelic and Brythonic, they are mutually incomprehensible (unlike, for instance, the Scandinavian variants of Germanic). Some scholars even believe that tribes down Britain’s eastern flank may have adopted not a Celtic but a Germanic tongue, through their contacts
across the North Sea. Their later Anglo-Saxon was the result of evolution, not
The peoples of the British Isles, east and west, have thus long enjoyed a shared occupation of the islands. But the lack of distinct “British Celts” has little bearing on subsequent history. It was how the various British islanders interacted with each other over the past millennium that brought us to where we are today. In particular it was the treatment of the more distant peoples by those of south-eastern England, initially under the belligerent Normans and Plantagenets, that caused to emerge a “fringe” of proto-nations. It conferred on them a sense of grievance and oppression, embedded in their identity to this day.
While Europe’s nation states were developing and mostly assimilating the provinces and peoples within their borders, the British were perpetually at odds with each other. The English sought nothing less than an English empire. They fought the Scots incessantly and the Irish and Welsh intermittently. They treated Ireland as a peasant colony, Scotland as an unreliable ally and Wales as if it was part of England. After the Reformation, Scotland and Ireland reacted by rejecting England’s form of Protestantism, in whole or part, and by political flirtation with France. By the 17th century, when scholars were starting to research Celtic culture, a sense of Celtic identity began to emerge.
From the Tudors onwards, the English governed this domestic empire with extraordinary incompetence. Edmund Burke chided the American revolutionaries by pointing out that the English crown allowed them a tolerance and degree of self-government unheard of in Ireland. By the 19th century, Scotland and Ireland were afflicted with famines and clearances, land appropriation and religious discrimination. Each developed a habit of rebellion. While Scotland enjoyed a degree of self-rule, the handling of Ireland by successive London governments fuelled Irish nationalism. This eventually erupted in the Irish independence movement under Parnell. Wales was fortunate in that it was relatively prosperous and thus saw no great emigration. This is a principal reason for the survival of its language. There was no talk of independence.
For all this, national identities did not cohere into a collective Celtic consciousness. A Celtic League was not formed until 1961 and remains largely cultural. The inhabitants of the fringe had no more in common with each other than the people of Yorkshire, Kent, Cumbria or East Anglia. That they nurtured languages from a common root is deceptive. Celtic unity was unlikely to emerge from five different tongues. Celtic festivals are booming, But their proceedings are conducted in English.
If Celticism began with language, language is in danger of becoming its blind alley. English is the lingua franca of Europe. Tongues such as Danish or Dutch, and even German are waning (especially in highly internationalised fields such as higher education, technology and finance). Smaller minority languages are being revived but as a cultural exotic among an educated elite. Where in some cases they have become a tool of identity politics, they are divisive and counter-productive. Language isolated the Basques from non-Basque sympathisers, as it now isolates the cause of Catalan separatism. Irish and Welsh are being taught compulsorily in local schools, driven by identity politics. In Ireland it is half-hearted, but in Wales it separates the Welsh from each other, and is a vehicle of local job discrimination and exclusion.
The difference between Welsh and Scottish nationalism is instructive. In Wales it is signified by fluency in a language spoken only by a tiny minority. At the last Welsh census, just 20 per cent claimed any knowledge of the language and 12 per cent an ability to speak it. Outside the north and west, Welsh is largely acquired as an aid to public-sector employment, neatly inverting the days when rulers spoke English and the ruled, Welsh. In contrast, Scottish nationalism flourishes not on linguistic exclusivity but on a shared pride in the country’s history and culture.
The status of the Celtic fringe has improved since devolution in 2000. But in practice it has proved a mixed blessing. Despite being treated relatively well under austerity, statistics show no advance in “Celtic” prosperity since devolution. The dire state of aspects of social care in Scotland and the health service in Wales appears rooted in the flight of talented administrators to England. The fringe suffers investment starvation, poor public services, family poverty and a reliance on the state for jobs. The draining of graduates and creativity to London and the south-east is on a par with more publicised flights from Poland, Romania and Portugal—though it applies equally to the north of England. Last May’s Kerslake commission found regional disparities in the UK in matters such as productivity and social deprivation the widest of all 30 countries of the OECD.
Britain’s Celtic fringe is thus an extreme victim of the long-standing centralisation of Britain’s political economy, caught between a dependence on London and an aversion to its magnetic avarice. This “capitalitis” is common across Europe. It can be seen from Catalonia to Brittany, South Tyrol to Kosovo, Schleswig to Ukraine, the Basque country to Padania. Even within the United Kingdom, hostility to centralism is emerging not just in Scotland and Wales, but in Cornwall, Yorkshire and Merseyside. This has nothing to do with being Celtic. You did not need to be an Irish Celt to yearn for liberation from the UK in 1922. Today, you do not have to be a Scottish Celt to want to emulate Ireland’s success. That your ancestors happened to speak a Hibernian language rather than a Germanic one may give a distinctive colouring to your culture. But retreating to a mythical past is no guide to the future. The cause now uniting the Celtic fringe is not Celticism. It is Britain’s obsessive centralism. Brexit may prove the catalyst that snaps the bonds of union. But centralism will be the cause.