Now we are hearing new demands for another referendum on Scottish independence and discontent in Ulster at the result of the EU vote. It opens up old wounds and we are finding our different identities coming to the fore. This may go back a long way. It may also be the result of certain misunderstandings about our past.
How can the past ever change? Of course it can not. But our understanding of it can. When I was at school I was made to specialise fairly early, so I never learnt very much science. I always knew anyway that a lot of what I had learnt would probably be superseded by progress. I am not thinking of the invention of the wheel, by the way, but you get the point.
Moving Goalposts. I went on to study economics. It was a well-worn joke in those days, and doubtless even more worn by now, that every year they set the same exam questions: to keep us on our toes, they just changed the answers. I have to say that there is some truth in that. It is obvious that George Osborne learnt a different set of answers from those I was taught!
Where are our certainties? I did think I was fairly safe with history. All right, there have always been lots of new theories. I remember having to learn the Old View and the New View about almost everything, so I could show the examiners I had really studied the subject. But facts are facts. Are they not? So I was really amazed recently to discover that some of the most well-known facts about ourselves – the British – are being challenged.
What did I think I knew? I was taught that prehistoric Britain was subject to a series of invasions, coming in waves from the near continent. The Old Stone Age people were wiped out, or driven out to the extremities of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, by the New Stone Age people, who were in turn replaced by the Bronze Age People, also called the Iberians, who were of course replaced by the Celts, who brought in the Iron Age. Then the pattern was broken by the Romans who came, saw, conquered, and finally departed, leaving us with a lot of roads, buildings, laws and Latin words, without really colonising Britain. Then back to the previous model, as the Angles and Saxons invaded and wiped out the Celts who survived in the extreme North and West, like the remnants of their predecessors. Thus the Angles and Saxons merged into the English, explaining why there are different languages and cultures in these islands.
Is that the basis of your identity? This understanding is probably beneath a lot of the feelings of separation and even hostility between the different peoples of these islands. It may partly explain Scottish and Welsh Nationalism. I will not open up the Irish Question, but I am sure you will see it is connected.
So what has changed? I could hardly express my shock and horror when I read “The Origins of the British” by Stephen Oppenheimer. It is heavy going in parts, but fascinating. He uses DNA studies as well as linguistics and archaeology. He also re-examines some ancient documents, including the works of Julius Caesar and Bede, and finds things others seem to have overlooked. His amazing but well argued and well supported conclusion s are, to simplify somewhat, as follows:
- After the Ice Age Britain was colonised by people coming from Spain and Portugal along the Atlantic Coast, settling on the West Coast of what is now Britain and that of Ireland.
- Later waves came by a similar route, including the Celts at the start of the Neolithic period.
- Meanwhile, there were several waves of migrations from the Continent arriving up the East Coast and some along the South Coast. These were Germanic and especially Scandinavian.
- So the Angles and Saxons only added to an existing Germanic population that had been in what is now England from the Iron Age.
- There is no reason to believe in a series of genocides or acts of ethnic cleansing.
- There has been a lot of mixing of genes ever since so that most Britons today have a lot of Celtic genes even if they think they are totally English.
- And vice versa.
All my supposed certainties are in tatters. But it is good to know that the Welsh are not the survivors of an act of genocide committed by the English.
What about the last thousand years? It is obvious that there has been interaction between the different peoples of these islands all down the ages, in war and peace, in trade in culture, through marriage, by accident and by design. So I believe our separate identities have been greatly exaggerated and our common Britishness undervalued.
So what? I am certainly not saying that we should forget our separate regional cultures and heritages. They are certainly important and are to be celebrated. I do, however, think we need to remember what we have in common, including what is often painful to remember, and believe in ourselves as one British nation.
Read all about it! You will be likely to find characters in my books from all over these islands, each playing his or her part in my fictional stories just as their real-life counterparts did in our true island story.
I could be biased, because I am conscious of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry as well as having lived in Wales for much of my life. I never said I was impartial.