Q: Your new radio series aims to bust some myths about British history. Which of these stood out for you?
A: The most important is to do with England’s relationship with the other parts of the British Isles. So for example, when I was at school, more than 40 years ago now, I was taught about the ‘English Civil War’, which was essentially presented as a dispute between royalists, who tended towards the divine right of kings, and the more earthy parliamentarians trying to assert the constitutional rights of Englishmen. Since then, most serious historians have revised the title to be the ‘Wars of the Three Kingdoms’. Charles I was king of England, Ireland and the Scots, and you cannot understand what was happening in England in the 1640s without linking it intimately with what was going on in Ireland and Scotland, which was equally violent and equally profound. For me, this was a central myth that has been busted. The anglocentric view we have of British history is unsustainable and wrong.
But it is also interesting to look at the relationship between England and the rest of Britain, and ask why it was England that emerged as the central point of Great Britain. Why was England determining the relationships with the other nations, and why is the centre of the UK not Dublin or Edinburgh but London?
The answer goes back to the relationships within England in the 8th–10th centuries, when Wessex, Mercia, Kent and then Northumbria, which had been peopled by very different groups, all eventually came together. It was the beginnings of what was, for Europe, a very early centralisation of power, and London became the centre of that power, surrounded by the incredibly fertile lands of Wessex, Mercia and Kent and the strategically vital area of Northumbria. This determined that England would likely be in an economically superior position to Scotland and Ireland (Wales was absorbed politically into England relatively early on). And that is why much of The Invention of Britain is about England trying to negotiate and determine these relationships from a position of considerable economic, and hence military, strength.
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Q: When did the idea of a British identity emerge?
A: Britannia was a concept first introduced by the Romans, when it briefly went up as far as the Antonine Wall across central Scotland. But it went out of fashion – except for a brief period when Æthelstan proclaimed himself ‘king of the whole of Britain’ – until it re-emerged in the personal mission of James VI & I, who assumed the throne of England in 1603 to add to the Scottish one. He declared himself the king of Britain, and referred to Scotland as ‘North Britain’ and England as ‘South Britain’. He introduced a common currency and attempted to push through the English parliament a fusion of the two systems, which would open up free trade and freedom of movement – very much the sort of thing the EU has stood for. But the English parliament started a commission to look into his various ideas and rejected the whole thing.
Nothing came to fruition under James but the idea of Britain was planted, and in 1707 came the union of England and Scotland. This was largely because of a problem with the succession. Queen Anne had several miscarriages and no heirs and the English needed the Scots to accept the Hanoverians as her successors. Meanwhile, the Scots were facing serious economic problems and many wanted to participate in the profits of England’s overseas empire.
There was resistance in both parliaments – after all, they would first have to vote themselves out of existence. But the union went through, and over the next two centuries the Scots benefited enormously from the growth of the British empire, while Scotsmen and women contributed hugely to its expansion. The Scots also had an increasingly significant presence in the professions in London and the Scottish enlightenment of the late 18th century fed into this tremendously.
So this union, while very difficult to achieve in 1707, led to an extraordinary fusion of intellectual, economic and military power that would define world politics over the next two centuries.
Q: How far has Britain been shaped by outside forces?
A: Outside influences have been absolutely immense. We haven’t had an English king since I can’t remember when. The Normans and Plantagenets came from France; the Tudors were part-Welsh; the Stuarts Scots with a strong dose of French; William III Dutch; and then came the Germans. That’s almost 1,000 years of European monarchs. Furthermore, the English and then British royalty didn’t give up the patently ludicrous claim to rule France until 1800.
Our continental trading relationships were critical in the growth of our influence. In the 19th century, the really key intellectual relationship in Europe was between Britain, but England in particular, and Germany. The cross-fertilisation of ideas between these two drove the industrialisation of Europe. And you can see time and again that European influences on Britain and vice versa were critical, on an intellectual level and also because of the religious question – notably, Ireland’s relationship with the Vatican and France.
The fact you’re never further than 75 miles from the sea when you’re in Britain must influence the way you relate to the outside world
The fact that Ireland remained Catholic meant that England always saw it as an Achilles heel – a treacherous territory through which a Catholic invasion could come. This led England in 1800 to pool sovereignty with Ireland but to exclude Catholics for a further 30 years, which reasserted confessional divisions that had ironically been overcome in the late 18th century with the formation of the United Irishmen [who sought to unite the country’s Catholics and Protestants].
Trying to reconcile the Protestants and the Catholics since then proved almost impossible until the Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s. This was one of the key strategic errors of British policy, which led all the way to the Troubles and now Brexit. You can draw a line from the failure of the British to include the Catholics in a British polity right up to the backstop.
Q: How important has Britain’s island status been for its history?
A: Our history has been very much shaped by that, because it has meant we’ve had to be a seafaring nation from an early stage – and it has given us a certain amount of protection. When war was fought primarily at sea, it also gave us a tremendous advantage, from the era of the Armada onwards.
In terms of identity, our island status does mean we are slightly culturally removed from the European mainland, but the idea that the Dutch feel less Dutch or the French less French because they’re not surrounded solely by sea doesn’t necessarily hold. Of course, the Dutch do always have to be looking over their shoulders at France and Germany and not just outwards to the sea – but then Ireland has played a similar role in terms of England’s consciousness, particularly if you take the 1605 gunpowder plot, when fear of Catholics in England reached fever pitch. The existence of Ireland as a strongly Catholic territory conf erred on England a sense it was never safe.
My guess is that we’ll be talking about Britain as a historical entity, not an active one, 100 years from now
But there is no question: the fact you are never further than 75 miles from the sea in Britain must influence the way you relate to the outside world.
Q: How far have the people of Britain adopted a British identity?
A: The concept of Britishness changes depending on where you are. It is incredibly strong in Northern Ireland among the loyalist community – much more so than for people in Bristol or Lincoln, for example, who, if asked, would probably say they were English.
I think the mistake made habitually by people outside the country, of conflating ‘British’ with ‘English’, is at the very core of the crisis we are suffering now. Even after 300 years of union, the British identity is fairly brittle and not as well entrenched in people’s cultural sensibilities as a Scottish, English or Welsh identity.
Q: Why, after 300 years, is that British identity under threat now?
A: There are a variety of reasons. There is the reckoning of Britain finally coming to terms with the fact that it is no longer a colonial power that defines global politics, although the process is unpredictable. Meanwhile there are parts of the community – particularly the Scots, but also the nationalists in Northern Ireland – who identify much more strongly with Europe than the English do, partly for historical reasons, partly for pragmatic reasons.
There is a thesis, which I think has a lot going for it, that says what is going on at the moment is a crisis of English identity, not Irish or Scottish – although there is considerable interplay between them, and also with regard to the European Union. I believe much of this was accentuated by the financial crash of 2008, when a relatively small faction in British society that was implacably opposed to the European Union was able to capitalise on the catastrophe and channel a whole variety of discontent into branding Brussels as the centre of all evil. And this does play on certain tropes of British identity that have been present for centuries.
This is really only just getting going. Brexit, whichever way it falls, will supercharge the issue, and whether we leave the European Union or not, I find it difficult to see how we can avoid a major constitutional crisis in the UK. And on that issue of the constitution, there is endless mythologising and nostalgia about the ‘mother of parliaments’, but in this day and age it seems to me to be a pretty ludicrous anachronism not to have a written constitution. One of the reasons why the identity crisis is so profound is because we don’t know how the relationships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are regulated. You get different solutions for different parts of each country, and that leads to resentment, anger and political action, some of it intemperate.
Q: In light of these issues, do you think that we will still be talking about Britain in 100 years’ time?
A: My best guess is that, all other things being equal, we will probably be talking about Britain as a historical entity not an active one 100 years from now.
Misha Glenny is a journalist who has presented several series of The Invention of…, covering a range of countries, for BBC Radio 4. His books include McMafia, which has inspired a BBC One drama.
The four-part series The Invention of Britain begins on Radio 4 on Sunday 24 February.
This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine