The View From the Margins

June 1, 2000 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: Academia

The View From the Margins

Mini Teaser: Yet another contentious history from Norman Davies.

by Author(s): Peter Hitchens

Norman Davies, The Isles (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1200 pp., $45.

Future historians of Europe will marvel at the speed of Britain's disintegration in the sixty years that followed its finest hour in 1940. They may well conclude that this disintegration was the price paid for that brief, astonishing moment when one country, bankrupt and all but beaten, still held the pass against the combined powers of tyranny. Today, few, especially in the United States, realize that a great nation has already ceased to exist, and that its fragments are about to be rearranged in an utterly different form. However, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland the first shock of dissolution has already passed, and the writing of epitaphs, obituaries and eulogies of the departed nation has become a flourishing industry.

Norman Davies, author of a powerful account of Poland's past and of an original, energetic and encyclopedic history of Europe, has produced a timely and cunning reworking of what British people rather sentimentally used to call Our Island Story. The key to his approach is found in the title itself, which flatly refuses to use the standard term for the group of damp, green, cramped islands off the French coast. Davies accurately points out that large parts of this archipelago are not now British at all, that they were only united under one crown for a brief 120 years, and that the process of disintegration is likely to accelerate in the near future. Correct as it may be, this attitude is calculated and probably mischievously intended to annoy traditionalists and even many who did not think of themselves as traditionalists, who will say that he is quibbling and pedantic -- while wondering whether he is right.

Most of us do not learn history as we do mathematics or foreign languages, dispassionately and logically. The knowledge comes to us at a tender time of life when we are not very willing to see both sides of a question or to find fault with our own culture. It is the lore of our tribe, a series of stories that are sometimes uplifting, sometimes filled with warnings, but which combine to give us a picture of the culture from which we believe we have emerged and which we expect to serve in our own lives and continue for our children. Without some sort of grasp of national history -- which includes a certain amount of pride, a fair number of honorable victories or even more honorable defeats, the regular triumph of good and the recovery of lost domains and fortunes -- it would be difficult to accomplish Edmund Burke's idea of civilization being based on a permanent, self-renewing pact between the dead, the living and the unborn. We need to revere our ancestors. We treasure our national myths while we are children, and even as adults we do not like to see them dissected or exposed to the hard, cold light of scientific research. This is why the discoveries of researchers -- who tell us that Parson Weems made up the story of Washington and the Cherry Tree or that Joan of Arc did not save France -- are so often greeted with groans of annoyance and disbelief.

Davies willfully sets out to produce such groans. He pointedly gives supposedly English kings their French names, on the reasonable grounds that this is what they would have called themselves, since they were French and could not speak English. He undermines favorite stories about King Richard the Lionheart, Magna Carta, and Shakespeare's hugely unfair portrait of the Scottish King Macbeth.

He begins British history at an imagined point where the national territory did not even exist, and was not yet separated by water from the European continent. He delves, for many pages, in the great unknown times before the Romans and the many other invaders arrived on what many readers will still defiantly call British soil. He repeatedly challenges the conventional understanding of events, correctly pointing out that the Roman occupation left very little trace of itself, that Scotland can prove a longer and more continuous royal line than England, and suggesting, rather less convincingly, that Ireland had a historical existence as a united nation of sorts long before England came to be. This is a frustrating period for a historian because the few known facts are surrounded by a fog of myth, reinforced or further confused by sagas, interminable songs of war and loss, and picturesque legends.

When Davies reaches the edges of the known world, his history, while generally conventional, differs from its forerunners partly in suggesting that the English Parliament is not as unique as it likes to think, partly in stressing the continental links that bound England to Europe until the Reformation, but mainly by giving far greater attention and prominence to the three minor nations that occupy the British Isles. As in Davies' Europe, the different approach is productive and refreshing. Old and seemingly well-known stories, seen from his new perspective, are enriched and enlivened. It is important to understand that England's story would sound very different had it been written by the defeated factions and parties of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who were so very nearly the winners. But is his emphasis justified?

The paradox of the lesser British nations is that they owe their importance and influence in the world to their English neighbors, oppressors, sometime conquerors and overlords. To call them minor or lesser is to state a fact, rather than to belittle or denigrate them. England has always been by far the largest and richest of the British nations, a position that was emphasized and strengthened by the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the population growth that followed them. The relationship between the four nations has not, however, been a simple one of conqueror and conquered as it might have been elsewhere in Europe. Britain's island security allowed a rather different, more complicated relationship to develop.

Ireland's position is the strangest of all. Her greatest writers and poets have obtained global fame for works written in English, supposedly the language of the colonial oppressor, though in fact much enriched and strengthened by Irish influence. Ireland's vast diaspora, with its giant political impact on North America and Australasia, is a sort of dark reflection of the British Empire. Irish exiles would eventually help to bring down that Empire through their political power in the United States, and even now their influence is felt. Irish America contributed greatly to the events that led to that recent and astonishing British surrender to Irish Republican terrorism known as the "Northern Ireland Peace Process."

Scotland was never permanently defeated by English arms, and it changed English history by providing Scottish kings to sit on England's throne. Its own failed attempt to become a colonial power in Central America finally destroyed its independence from England. Davies gives an excellent account of the Scottish expedition to Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama, in 1698. This ambitious enterprise might have been the beginnings of a Scottish empire, dominating trade between Europe and Asia through its strategic position. Mishaps, disease, downpours and the objections of the armed Spanish neighbors quickly reduced the scheme to bloody farce, before extinguishing it altogether. England, already comfortably established in the Caribbean, stood by and, to put it kindly, did nothing to help the doomed colonists.

The bitter failure greatly influenced the decision of Scotland's elite to agree to union with England eight years later. Scotland thus became England's enthusiastic and successful partner in the spreading and exploitation of the Pax Britannica. Poor Wales, conquered and absorbed long before the others, has played a quieter role, but Welsh influence over the English language, culture, politics and religion has been lasting and powerful, and has gone everywhere that Britain has gone.

Yet these truths do not comfort Scottish, Welsh or Irish nationalists. In a way, they double the humiliation they feel they have suffered. It is a wicked thing to be deprived of nationhood, and a worse one when outsiders often cannot distinguish you from your oppressors. How infuriating it must be for Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to acknowledge that the English language, which he speaks much better than he speaks Irish, is one of his most powerful weapons against England. Sometimes this resentment is trivial, like the annoyance of Canadians mistaken for U.S. citizens. Sometimes it is bitter and hard, more like the impotent fury of Poles, Lithuanians or Ukrainians confused with their Russian masters in the days of the czarist or Soviet empires.

For much of the past two centuries, most British people and historians have taken such resentment as trivial, and with good reason. The modern relationship between England and its island neighbors has been remarkably civilized by European or world standards. England never tried -- perhaps mistakenly -- to abolish or absorb Scotland's separate legal system, so that it became one of the few existing bodies of law without a parliament to revise it. The United Kingdom also came to value Scotland's military skills, its culture and its advanced education system. Without much of a stretch Scotland could even be said to have made a reverse takeover of England. Scots are heavily over-represented in the armed forces, the medical profession and many other fields, and are especially dominant in politics -- most of the highest offices in the current British government, for example, are held by Scotsmen. The excesses and stupidities of English rule in Ireland, though sometimes exaggerated by propagandists, are now a matter of regret for civilized English people, and far too little credit is given to Britain for the successful, neighborly relations achieved after Irish independence. Irish citizens are free to live and vote in Britain, and can travel unhindered in and out of British territory without passports, an almost unique arrangement.

Northern Ireland, for decades a political slum in which one ethnic group was allowed to dominate another, has been transformed during thirty years of direct rule from London, so that discrimination in employment, housing and other fields has been largely abolished, though this truth seems to be almost completely unknown in the United States. It is quite bizarre that the "Peace Process" mentioned above now intends to throw this success away, quite possibly replacing it with the eventual absorption of a resentful Protestant, British-oriented minority into an all-Ireland republic, a recipe for further discontent and violence.
A few years ago, this would have been conventional wisdom, and Davies' view from the edges would have been dismissed as eccentric. However, a quite unexpected development has transformed the British peoples' views of themselves. British unity was preserved, like a mummified Pharaoh in an airless tomb, by the Cold War. The British-American alliance, Britain's position in Europe, and its standing as a great power were artificially prolonged by the struggle with the USSR. Yet while the external appearance remained unchanged, the internal realities were in turmoil. During the forty years between the Berlin airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain changed within in a thousand ways. Religion, morality, class distinction, education, geography, broadcasting, the shape of the economy and the nature of employment -- all were utterly transformed. Deference and patriotism disappeared among younger citizens. Yet the outward appearance of things remained roughly the same, as did the institutions.

Then the seals of the chamber were broken, the cold air rushed in, and the perfectly preserved, forty year-old attitudes and institutions crumbled to dust. Mikhail Gorbachev's spokesman, Gennady Gerasimov, spoke truer than he knew when he said in the early 1990s that, "We have done a terrible thing to you. We have deprived you of an enemy." This was much truer for Britain than for any other country, and the UK's almost frantic involvements in the Gulf War and the Balkans are best understood as attempts to rebuild the old NATO relationship with Washington on a new, more global footing. It hasn't really worked.
More important for Britain and for Margaret Thatcher, much of whose prestige rested on her close American links and her revival of moribund patriotism, the year 1989 completely changed the European balance of power. Germany, more rapidly than anyone could have imagined, became one nation again, not quite "from the Maas to the Memel", as the now banned verses of its national anthem claim, but still sprawling mightily across the Continent, with its economic power spreading well beyond its borders. A worried France, still hag-ridden by Sedan, Verdun and Vichy, sought to contain and control this reborn monster by binding it into a multinational system intended to remove the source of Franco-German conflict forever. Out of this came the Franco-German desire for a rapid integration of the European Union, an integration that Margaret Thatcher mistrusted on the old British grounds that no one power should dominate the Continent, but which many in her party supported because they had lost confidence in the British nation-state.

European integration was seen in France as a profoundly anti-American project, whose aims included the reduction of U.S. power and influence in Europe, and a challenge to the pre-eminence of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. The effects on Britain were an unintentional by-product of something much larger, but no less earthshaking for that. England's weakness or danger has always been Ireland's opportunity, and the shift in relations with both Europe and the United States has led to the largely unacknowledged defeat of English power in Ireland after eight hundred years, not by military force but by the ingenious diplomacy of Dublin and of Sinn Fein, the political mouthpiece of the "Irish Republican Army."

The disappearance of an external enemy has, especially in Scotland, obliterated Britishness and the belief in a united Britain, already threatened by a sweeping cultural revolution in all areas of life. Nationalists in Scotland, and even in Wales, have recognized the opportunity that European federalism gives them, to break the bonds with London and pay allegiance directly to the new Euro-capitals of Brussels and Frankfurt. Tony Blair's creation of devolved assemblies, which he claimed was meant to strengthen the United Kingdom, has actually hurried the departure of Scotland and Wales from the UK. They already exist as administrative "regions" of the new Europe -- while England, far too large to be fed into the Euro-blender in one piece, has been divided into several such regions, whose inhabitants mostly do not yet know that they exist or what they are called.

Davies seemed a little shy when British supporters of the European Union adopted his book as one of their texts, which several of them hurried to do. It is certainly nothing like as hostile to the current British state as Linda Colley's deconstruction of Britain in her 1992 volume, Britons, nor is Davies much of an enthusiast for the wobbly euro, which many otherwise keen federalists see as far less urgent than the eastward expansion and reform of the EU. Yet this book does give powerful support to the idea that Britain was a temporary country, formed by empire and fatally undermined by the end of that empire. It also hints at a belief that Britain ought not to continue to exist. It is, for instance, harshly dismissive of the embattled Protestants of Northern Ireland, the most self-consciously British people in the Isles. It is disappointingly modish on the subject of the British House of Lords, speaking of the "running sore of continuing hereditary privilege", as if there were no respectable arguments in favor of a revising chamber that was independent of the executive, and which embodied the principle of inheritance that is central to private property and therefore to liberty. It predicts, with a certain amount of Jacobin relish, the approaching abolition and humiliation of the monarchy -- again without any consideration for the dangers involved in such a step for a finely balanced constitution.

But it is in its attitude toward the relationship with Federal Europe that The Isles justifies its long and unsettling rearrangement of the national past. Davies, in an open statement of his own views, writes, "Perhaps the main source of optimism lies in the existence of the European Union. . . . Under the umbrella of the European Union, a 'Scotland-in-Europe', a 'Wales-in-Europe' and an 'England-in-Europe' have every chance of doing as well as an 'Ireland-in-Europe.'" This is doubtful, not least because the huge EU subsidies given to Ireland are unlikely to be extended to anyone else, and also because the EU's plans for a "Europe of the Regions" do not acknowledge the continued existence of England as an entity.

Davies also insists that there is some sort of balancing act, in which Britain has to choose between fealty to the EU or to the United States. But why? As the fourth-largest economy in the world, a significant military and diplomatic power with a tried and successful system of government, and astonishing global economic connections, Britain could maintain good relations with other powers and blocs without having to make some sort of ideological choice -- though it would certainly be wise to reject the EU's centralized, overtaxed and over-regulated economic model if it wishes to maintain its prosperity. But the supposed "choice" is a false equivalence of opposites. The United States does not demand political sovereignty as the price of trade, nor does it dream of merging the pound sterling with the dollar, or of "harmonizing" British and American taxes, or of imposing its legal system on the UK. The EU requires all these things as the price of continued membership, and makes no secret of its desire to develop political and legal institutions that would obliterate the serious sovereign differences between nations for good. Two successful European nations -- Switzerland and Norway -- remain happily outside the EU, while trading and maintaining good diplomatic relations with it. Britain could easily do the same, if it so chose.

Yet under the Blair government, anxious for its own obscure reasons to intensify engagement with the EU, the break-up and gradual obliteration of Britain are well advanced. So much so that a European Atlas of the not-too-distant future may well fulfill Mr. Davies' predictions, and show these once famous islands, balkanized into provinces and regions, as nothing more than nameless offshore possessions of a new and dreary empire.

Essay Types: Book Review