Little More than an Extension of France

Hugo Young

  • The Isles: A History by Norman Davies
    Macmillan, 1222 pp, £30.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 333 76370 X

The main island, the Great Isle, of what became known, centuries later, as the British Isles had a peculiar geography. It was ideally proportioned for the division that was eventually made of it. No inland location lay more than two days’ march from the coast, which gave a marked advantage to maritime invaders. The position of the main estuaries – the Solway, the Clyde, the Forth, the Dee, the Severn, the Thames and the Humber – made it possible for each of the more mountainous parts of the island to be isolated by invaders and guarded by them. When they lost the towns and forts commanding these estuaries, the resident Celts were pushed back into their mountain fastnesses. The inhabitants at this time mostly were Celts, of the British rather than Southern European variety – we’re speaking of the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders were Angles, or other Germanic peoples, and they created a chaotic patchwork of statelets which took half a millennium to evolve into larger political and cultural units.

This did not have to happen. It wasn’t inevitable. But about two hundred years later, after countless battles, marriages, mergers and chance occurrences, a dozen rival kingdoms emerged, followed, in another two hundred, by settlement in two distinct zones, one mainly Celtic – behind those mountains, and on the Green Isle to the west – the other exclusively Germanic. Thus, Norman Davies writes, ‘the conditions had been created where England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales could begin the initial and most tentative phase of their crystallisation.’

The Isles’ deep history, therefore, was Celtic and, before that, genetically Continental. These were lands of migration from the east, which the Celtic strain came to dominate long before the later wave of Germanics. ‘Britain’ has been Britain, in the sense of a unified island, in only two brief phases of geological time, first when, with the exception of Scotland, it was under Roman occupation (55 BC – 407 AD) and known as Britannia, and then since the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. Otherwise there has been no such place as Britain, and therefore no proper repository for the kind of British nationalism, imbued with the sanctity of ages, that now excites so much political interest. Britain is a brief artefact, not a continuous entity, and it is a profound falsehood that generation after generation should have grown up imagining the opposite. This is Davies’s ferocious contention, the error that has driven a notable scholar of the history of Central Europe – he has devoted less time to this new terrain, he grandly announces, than an undergraduate would normally spend on a history degree – to write the saga of the islands he belongs to.

Historians, Davies says, have a lot to answer for. They have misread and, more important, ideologically miswritten these islands’ past. He sets himself the task of reconstructing it, from a perspective which refuses to be merely English. The Englishing of history, Davies believes, has been a betrayal of scholarship and a serious disservice to understanding, not least about the nature of the country and civilisation that is now being asked to make an irreversible commitment to the European Union. Though the euro, he happens also to insist, is the wrong project at the wrong time, his book rises from the vastness of the centuries to a quotidian conclusion about current events which he regards as irresistible. He thinks ‘Britain’ cannot last. As an internally united entity, the Great Isle is finished, and ready to recede back into the shape it held at roughly the mid-term of its broken past. He also makes it seem incomprehensible that the divided bits of the former Britain – and England above all – should imagine they either have, or need to lust after, a future separated from the Continent, all in the name of a precious British identity that faces imminent liquidation. This is certainly a book it was surprising to see serialised in the Times.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in