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12 October 2022

It’s time to banish Britain’s Celtic ghosts

The Anglo-Celt divide continues to shape the political fate of the British Isles – yet it is a historical mirage.

By Simon Jenkins

There are no Celts. No such people have ever existed. There was no Celtic nation, no territory, no tribe or single language. The name derived from the Greek word for “foreigners”, keltoi, revived by a 17th-century Welsh antiquarian, Edward Llwyd. He assumed that people who spoke related languages must originally have been one race. All else is myth and conjecture, and a conviction shared by the Irish, Scots, Welsh and Cornish peoples that they are anything but English.  

Yet, despite decades of academic debunking, the Celts refuse to die. Their lumping together as the “not English” peoples of the geographical entity known as the British Isles has been a toxin in the constitution of the United Kingdom, rendering it one of the few European states whose integrity is persistently unstable. Its Union fell apart in 1922, with the independence of the Irish Free State, and its permanence has again been questioned. There was an air of desperation to Charles III’s race round the three “nations” last month.

Since Llwyd’s day it has been widely supposed that a mass invasion of “Celts” took place at some point in the second or first millennium BC, probably from across the North Sea. Nineteenth-century excavations in Austria and Switzerland were seen to provide evidence of a single European civilisation stretching from Asia Minor in the east to Portugal in the west. The theory was that its occupation of the British Isles was complete. Ancient Britons were overwhelmed and spoke versions of Celtic until well after the retreat of the Roman empire in the fifth century AD.

[See also: Why the left must abandon the myth of British decline]

The Celts were then superseded by “Anglo-Saxons”, more incomers from the European mainland, amid an invasion so devastating that, in just a few generations, those living in the area that would become England spoke a wholly non-Celtic language: Old English. This narrative of an archipelago with a dual cultural heritage, entrenched by two distinct invasions and subjugations, has remained the conventional wisdom for decades.

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Scholars have come to regard both invasions as fictitious. As far back as the 1950s, JRR Tolkien – who at Oxford was a professor of Old English – had dismissed the Celts as nonsense, “a magic bag” and a “fabulous twilight”, and turned them into adorable Hobbits. In the 1960s the archaeologist Grahame Clark deplored the idea of ancient Britons as “dimwits clad in druidical garb”. By the 1990s the anthropologist Malcolm Chapman decided the Celts had been invented “to fill a chronological void”. The word had become so confused that it should have been banned.

With the arrival of DNA archaeology in the 1990s, the debate seemed over. There was no evidence of invasions or population replacements, though there were periodic inward migrations. The inhabitants of the British Isles were recorded as mostly arriving after the last ice age, along the Atlantic littoral from Iberia. The archaeologist and historian of Celtic culture Barry Cunliffe concluded that these assorted “peoples of the sea” dispersed across the islands and adopted versions of an “Iberian Celtic” language through trade, probably in the Bronze Age. In his view, these peoples duly became not Celts but “Celtic speakers”, though he later wished he had called them “Atlantic speakers”.

This left open the question of whether the Celtic languages permeated the whole of the British Isles. DNA indicates that where the eastern shores of the islands were extensively settled from northern Europe, it was clearly plausible that they spoke some version of what they had always spoken. This would have been the proto-Germanic of the peoples who were settled round the North Sea. This did not make them “Germans” any more than their western neighbours were “Celts”.

Here the traditional narrative was confused by the second “invasion”, supposedly following the withdrawal of the Romans from around 410 AD. On virtually the sole evidence of a Welsh monk named Gildas, a Saxon incursion was said to have eradicated or expelled all “Britons” from the east side of Britain.

Debunking the Saxon incursion has required considerable scholarly effort. Professor Susan Oosthuizen, surveying evidence from genetics to patterns of land tenure, burial sites and place names, found no evidence for “Celts” having been massacred or driven west after Rome’s departure. As Jared Diamond has also pointed out, the eradication of an entire people on such a scale would have required an army of industrial proportions.

Those seeking ancient roots for modern conflicts must tread warily. The 2015 DNA survey of the “People of the British Isles” indicates a remarkable diversity in their settlement. Devonians are genetically distinct from those of Cornish descent; people of north Wales from those of south Wales, Lancashire from Yorkshire. There was no coherent Irish or Scottish “people” in genetic terms, let alone a Celtic one – just a myriad of clans or tribes. What was undeniable was a divide between the east and west sides of the British Isles, leading the lowland east to develop faster under and after the Romans. It was significant that the east’s languages swiftly merged into one, with traces of Latin but virtually nothing of Celtic. On the other hand, the languages of the rugged, isolated western shores remained distinct throughout history.

This geographical divide was soon reflected in the political evolution of the islands. England in the ninth and tenth centuries coalesced a heptarchy of seven kingdoms into the domain of Alfred and Æthelstan. It inherited the civic and military tradition of the Romans and prospered from the fertile eastern plains. The English combined and flexed their power, moving north and west, overwhelming the Celtic-speaking south-west, Cumbria and lowland Scotland. At no point in this expansion did the peoples of Wales, Scotland and Ireland combine against the English.

What became known as the “first English empire” was never formally conquered, even by the Normans, who sought to secure their western and northern borders largely through assimilation. The invaders settled these regions with Marcher lords and Norman grandees; the FitzGeralds of Ireland and the Stewarts of Scotland were both originally Norman. In Ireland, most adapted to the local culture and feuded among themselves; only when time allowed did they fight with intruding armies from England. All they shared with their supposed “Celtic” neighbours in Wales and Scotland was a hatred of the English.

[See also: The myth of England’s rural idyll]

During the Middle Ages, England’s treatment of Wales, Scotland and Ireland was a rhythm of neglect and repression, climaxing under King Edward I. Unlike in other parts of Europe, there was not a trace of federalism in the British Isles; the Dublin and Edinburgh parliaments were constantly overridden by London.

By the time of the Tudors, assimilation and union became an imperial twitch. Wales, after the rebel prince Owain Glyndŵr’s defeat in 1405, slid into subjection to the English crown, its language and culture legally obliterated. Henry VIII in 1536 decided that Wales be “incorporated, united and annexed” to England. It disappeared constitutionally for almost five centuries. Scotland retained some independence through the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1600s, but was bribed into closing its parliament and joining Wales in union with England in 1707.

Ireland remained a land apart. Cursed, in London’s eyes, by their loyalty to Catholicism, the Irish rebelled against the Protestant ascendancy in the 1640s, leading to conflicts on a par with Europe’s Thirty Years War. More revolts followed in the 1690s and 1790s. The English learned none of the lessons of the American Revolution, killing a reputed 50,000 Irish during the 1798 rebellion. They disbanded the Dublin parliament and, from 1 January 1801, enforced another union with England.

The “Celtic” nations experienced contrasting fortunes during two centuries of rule by the Union parliament, dominated by England. Wales settled into its subordination, benefiting from its wealth in agriculture and minerals. Scotland’s Lowlands prospered from the new British empire. Glasgow was dubbed Britain’s second city, while Edinburgh’s “Enlightenment” was feted by Voltaire as where “we look… for all our ideas of civilisation”.

The Celtic languages now in decline attracted antiquarian interest, leading to a surge in “Celtomania” across Europe. Napoleon declared himself a descendent of Celtic emperors. Beethoven composed Celtic songs and Mendelssohn celebrated Fingal’s Cave in his overture The Hebrides. But when Sir Walter Scott became vice-president of Scotland’s new Royal Celtic Society in 1820, it never occurred to him to invite the Welsh or Irish to join, nor did he dabble in any Celtic tongue. Such self-styled revivalists as the Welsh poet Iolo Morganwg, with his druids, and the Scottish writer of make-believe James Macpherson, stayed specific to their home countries.

Insofar as any concept of Celticism took root, it stimulated an ominous racial typecasting. Ireland in the 1840s was struck by a potato famine so severe that up to a quarter of the population died. Far from stirring English sympathy, the disaster confirmed a stereotype. Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury at the time, called the famine “the judgement of God” and claimed it had been sent “to teach the Irish a lesson”.

Even as Scotland’s Lowlanders were enjoying a new prosperity, its Highlanders – whom Trevelyan dismissed as a “mendicant community” – were being cleared from their land and offered passage to America. The poet Matthew Arnold called the newly defined Celtic race one “of sentimentality, poetry and romance… ready to react against the despotism of facts”, and unfit to govern.

Irish Celticism served as a cover for a resurgent nationalism. The Irish language became a talisman of escape from England’s clutches, though activists such as Daniel O’Connell regarded it as merely bonding the Irish to their poverty. A Gaelic League was founded in 1893, promoting the Irish language as a “mobilising rhetoric”, but the Irish complained of a lack of support from the Welsh and the Scots, whom they regarded as appeasers of the English. Even as Irish home rule became a central debate in Westminster, it found no allied Celtic champions, Celtic rallies or even a coalition of Celtic MPs.

[See also: Michael Sheen: We are a nation in search of a story]

Ireland’s final struggle for independence between 1916 and 1922 was a war of Ireland against the English, and it was fought by the Irish alone. When its leader, Éamon de Valera, addressed Lloyd George in London in Irish, the latter retorted pointedly by speaking Welsh, a symbolic moment of Celtic non-communication and non-alliance. The height of cynicism was London in 1921 awarding the Protestant counties of Ulster precisely the autonomy it had denied Catholic Ireland, not to mention Wales and Scotland, for centuries.

Ireland’s independence when it came was greeted by the English with a shrug, as if good riddance to a nuisance. Yet it ushered in probably the UK’s most stable period of “union”. Critical to this was the rise of a Labour Party built on the voting strength of industrial Wales and the Scottish Lowlands. It was unionist to the core. Wales’s Aneurin Bevan denounced Welsh home rule as a blow to working-class unity, while Labour’s nationalisation programme left no doubt as to which “nation” it had in mind: that of a combined UK.

Welsh and Scottish nationalism was now confined to the eccentric extremes. A conference on Welsh devolution in 1922 rekindled such antagonism between north and south Wales that it had to be held in Shrewsbury. The most populous Welsh county, Glamorgan, refused to attend. When Welsh and Scottish voters were later offered their own assemblies, in 1979, they declined. 

For all that, nationalism’s revival at the turn of the 21st century must rank as a great, if neglected, phenomenon of modern British politics. Its causes lie partly in a straining for regional identity across Europe, but also in the relentless centralising of British government. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher imposed a poll tax on Scotland a year before England, and the reaction played a role in her downfall. Eight years later Tony Blair revived devolution, and this time the Scots and Welsh accepted. Tory opposition to reform meant that, after New Labour’s victory in 1997, not a single Scottish seat was Conservative in the first Westminster parliament of the 21st century.

Since then, independence movements in Scotland and Wales have scored poll support of 50 and 30 per cent respectively. Though neither seems likely to achieve independence in the immediate term, it’s favoured by younger voters, as is Irish reunification in Northern Ireland. A wind is blowing towards the demise of the first English empire, just half a century after that of the last British one.

There is nothing new in the unionist predicament. It has challenged most western-European governments in the past century. In response Spain, Italy and France have followed Germany and embraced decentralisation. In Bavaria, Sicily, Corsica, Catalonia and the Basque Country, central governments have conceded ever more autonomy to keep democracy in balance. This has mostly meant a genuine devolution of sovereignty, including over fiscal policy. The Swiss Confederation, once ridiculed, is now much copied. 

Even under devolution in 2000, London gave Scotland and Wales only trivial freedom over taxes and spending. The result was that, as in Northern Ireland, the two nations’ economies sank into ever heavier reliance on London’s subsidies. Nationalists in both countries envied Ireland’s “Celtic tiger” yet recoiled from the fiscal pain of getting there.

Lumping the Scots, Welsh and Irish together as “Celts”, in contrast to the English, is incorrect and politically demeaning. They are distinctive peoples with their own histories. Had Scotland retained its 17th-century independence, it could by now have emerged as a successful state, comparable with Ireland, Denmark or Norway. Wales may be a different matter, but, as the economist John Kay has pointed out, small-state prosperity is an acknowledged feature of political economy.

That the UK parliament has for more than a century been unable to fashion a stable union is a desperate comment on its political maturity. Even discussing such federalist concepts as “devo max” or “indie lite” is beyond the capacity of the Conservatives. The Tory party lost Ireland through such prejudice. It now seems content to lose Scotland. This would be a tragedy as sad as it is avoidable. But if the British Isles really do split three ways, the fault will lie not with “the Celts”. It will lie squarely with the English.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist. His latest book is “The Celts: A Sceptical History” (Profile)

[See also: A Dream of Britain]

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?