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7 July 2021

The return of the Celts

Why a reawakening of national identities could spell the end of the United Kingdom.

By Simon Jenkins

The Celtic virus is back in British politics and defying all efforts at immunity. The first wave hit Ireland in 1921 and broke the island in two. The second wave was overcome with devolution in 1999 and subsided. The third is now upon us and the outcome is uncertain. When at last month’s G7 summit in Cornwall the French president Emmanuel Macron taunted Boris Johnson for trying to rule four nations not one, Johnson was furious, but he choked on his Northern Irish protocol.

Every headline now indicates that the United Kingdom is anything but united. Relations between Scotland and England are more contentious than they have been since the Tudors. The festering wound of Northern Ireland has gone septic. Even in Wales, the number of those favouring an implausible independence has quadrupled in the past decade. A ghost now hovers over the British Isles, that of a new European nation in the offing, called simply England.

When the British empire disbanded over the course of the 20th century, the fate of the ancient English empire of the British Isles was left unresolved. The English assumed they had assimilated the Welsh and Scots while the Irish Question had been “parked” with partition. That a small group of islands, liberal, rich and with a long shared history, could fail to establish a harmonious union seemed preposterous. Its neighbours, Germany, France, Italy, even Spain, had deployed devolutions and federations to merge the loyalties of their diverse tribes. All London could do was tell its troublesome Celts that they should remember how lucky they were to be ruled by England and shut up.

When the 15-volume Oxford History of England was first published in 1936, it declared it would “all-encompass” the British Isles. It described the archipelago’s western half as “irregular, scrubby, sour-soiled and incommunicable”, while the eastern was “soft, warm, alluvial and fertile”. It then ignored the western half and told only the story of soft, warm England. Every British historian before and since – except the admirable Norman Davies – has done the same. To them all, half the British Isles’ land area – and, until the 1840s, the Celtic third of its population – just did not exist.

Who these Celts were remains obscure. Theories of Celtic empires and “invasions”, like later Saxon ones, are now discredited. The doyen of Celtic scholars, Barry Cunliffe, identifies merely a scatter of migrations after the last ice age, mostly from Iberia up the Atlantic-facing coast of Europe. Probably in the trading boom of the Bronze Age, these “peoples of the sea” came to adopt varieties of an Indo-European lingua franca later named Celtic.

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[See also: Ireland’s forever wars]

The boom in DNA archaeology over the past quarter-century has largely confirmed this view. While Celtic speech probably came to dominate most of the British Isles, the eastern flank was being settled from across the North Sea by migrants from northern Europe, later to emerge as Germanic-speaking English. The 2015 genetic survey of the British Isles revealed marked differences between peoples west and east of the Pennine/Cotswold ridge. There were also differences within the west, as between Cornwall and Devon and between north and south Wales. There was no Celtic “race”. The only safe definition was of peoples settled on the fragmented western side of the islands who came to see themselves as not-English.

What was clear by the end of the Roman occupation was that its legacy of a heavily “Germanised” England had come to dominate lowland Britain, and that these so-called Saxons went on to subject the Celtic speakers to varying degrees of submission. The Normans saw Scotland as the senior neighbour, albeit owing homage to London. Wales was mostly confined to a minor kingdom, Gwynedd, surrounded by a Norman March. Ireland was invaded and exploited as a colony, and kept that way.

From Edward I to Henry VIII and on to the Hanoverians and Victorians, the ineptitude and cruelty of England’s rule over these western lands knew no bounds – and rarely appears in “British” history books. It reduced all hope of assimilation, instead fuelling an abiding group hatred. When the American colonies were lost in the 1770s, London was warned by Edmund Burke and others that Ireland risked going the same way. They were simply ignored. England’s attitude to Ireland was typified in the 1880s by the Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain declaring himself baffled as to why “five million Irishmen should have any greater right to govern themselves” than five million Londoners. Much the same attitude towards Scotland stalks the corridors of Downing Street today.

From the moment Ireland won its independence in 1921 – defeating a British army that grew to 57,000 troops – most English people thought they had lanced the Celtic boil, and good riddance. The new kingdom of Great Britain “and Northern Ireland” could be united and quiescent. The Tories asserted it, as did an emergent and strongly unionist Labour Party. For half a century that expectation proved sound.

How England allowed a militant Celtic identity to re-emerge in the past two decades is a mystery of modern British politics. Twentieth-century Europe saw three great nationalist reawakenings, in 1918, 1945 and after the Soviet collapse in 1991. All were driven by Woodrow Wilson’s call at Versailles “to show respect for the autonomy of small nations”. But how small should be small? To English unionists, Celtic politics had become insignificant.

No politics is insignificant. In British-ruled Northern Ireland Churchill’s “grim steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” emerged from the ooze of the Protestant plantation to generate a fierce sectarianism. The steady suppression of regional and local democracy throughout Great Britain had maverick nationalists crying for “Scottish oil” and “Welsh water”. Occasional by-election victories sufficiently unsettled London party managers for them to order the Kilbrandon commission on devolution, which proved abortive in 1972. But when Margaret Thatcher casually imposed a “pilot” poll tax on the Scots in 1989, she wiped her party off the face of Scottish politics, apparently for good.

Devolution refused to go away. In 1997 Tony Blair duly committed himself to modestly devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland was graciously accorded the status of being called a parliament. John Major was ridiculed for predicting devolution would “spell the end of the Union”, but he was probably more right than he knew.

The most dangerous time for a bad policy is, famously, when it starts to reform. At first devolution seemed harmless. Labour’s electoral strength in industrial Scotland and Wales took swift control of the new administrations. But new platforms were being created and occupied by proportional representation. Celtic politics was given what it most craved, the oxygen of publicity. With the turn of the 21st century, nationalism took fire.


The concept of a Celtic independence was debated more vigorously in the 2000s than it had been since the 1880s. Scottish nationalists won control of the Edinburgh executive in 2007 under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, and have held it ever since. In 2015 the party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Although the first Scottish independence referendum and recent opinion polls have shown that Scots are still ambivalent about leaving the Union, demography is heavily biased towards it. More than 70 per cent of Scotland’s under-25s are in favour. Although the nationalist Plaid Cymru did less well in Welsh Assembly elections in May, its leader Adam Price can point to poll support for Welsh independence rising by between a quarter and a third over the past ten years.

A sure sign of independence taking root is when a nation’s politics are no longer rooted in ideology – left versus right, rich versus poor – but rather in strategies for separatism. The Celtic revival came during a surge across Europe in territorial antagonisms to central governments. It could be seen from the Greenlanders and Faroese to the Walloons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans and in the Balkans. While formal partitions – as in the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia – were rare, pressure for federalism and “independence-lite” was ubiquitous. Sometimes, as in Spain and Ukraine, it was also violent.

The underlying tensions were everywhere the same: those of group identity versus economic security. In the case of the Celtic nations they concerned degrees of “Britishness”, and how confident people were in their leaders’ capacity to guard their interests. In the 2011 census, 83 per cent of Scots felt a strong Scottish identity, while in Wales 66 per cent identified strongly as Welsh. Forty per cent of Northern Irish had a “British only” identity, the rest dividing equally between Irish and Northern Irish. It is only through such questions that we can define the “self” in self-determination.

The SNP’s demand to “take back control” of Scotland’s sovereignty has been countered by London playing the security card. A recasting of Project Fear states that Scotland cannot possibly afford independence. On economic policy, SNP strategists have long been vague. For some time they placed their faith in Scottish oil to guide them to a Scandinavian-style social democracy. That money has all but evaporated, and the manifesto now offers little beyond “a broad account of resources, natural, human and intellectual that only an independent Scotland can release”. Sceptics have dubbed this “a chameleon on a tartan rug”.

[See also: Dante in the dock: Why Florence wants to clear the poet’s name]

Pragmatists prefer to cite the experience of Ireland, Celticism’s signal success. Here there is little argument. Over the course of a century, the freedoms and disciplines of independence have turned what was a destitute British colony into a nation that has claimed to be one of the richest small countries in Europe. Though the 2008 recession ended the “Celtic tiger” 1990s, the traditional Anglo-Saxon caricature of Ireland as inherently feckless has vanished. In 1900, the entire south generated less wealth than Belfast in the north; by 2020, Dublin’s manufacturing base was six times Belfast’s. The south has about two-thirds of the island of Ireland’s population and seven times the north’s domestic product. The Irish have long stopped emigrating and started immigrating. Danny Boy has come home.

Escaping the legacy of British rule took Ireland time and help from the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But independence has worked. It has brought political maturity and stability, in glaring contrast to the British-ruled north. There, the once unthinkable is now on the horizon. As religious differences remain intractable, polls predict a clear swing over the coming decade towards a referendum favouring reunion with the south. This would be a sensational comment on a century of British partition, and a triumph of Celtic politics.

The bankers and economists who now crowd Edinburgh’s seminar rooms understand what was needed for Ireland to escape the British yoke. Interwar Irish finance ministers would prefix their austerity budgets with warnings of “the price of independence”. If Scotland ever wants admission to the EU, it must drastically shrink a budget deficit of 8.6 per cent of its GDP, one of the highest in the developed world. By all reasonable criteria, Scotland should be as rich as Denmark. Instead, like Wales, it is among the poorest regions of Europe. Recovering from decades of institutional dependency on the British Treasury – the glue of England’s empire – will take a long time.

Much now turns on the legacy of the pandemic and the political prominence it has given to Sturgeon’s SNP. Scotland’s polling guru, John Curtice, points out that every Scot “has been affected by the devolved government in a way not seen in 21 years of devolution”. Lockdown delegation has not weakened Celtic identity but strengthened it. Despite a party split, Sturgeon’s leadership was confirmed in the May 2021 elections. Wales’s uncharismatic leader, Mark Drakeford, was given a similar boost. As a Merthyr footballer said to the BBC, “I don’t mind being told how I must live, provided I am told it by someone Welsh.”

In Scotland, outside the ranks of extreme separatists, most commentators see a necessity for London to conceive new steps towards ever greater home rule. The constitutional historian Linda Colley envisages a network of devolved parliaments beneath an umbrella assembly. Colin Kidd of St Andrews University likewise sees rigorous UK federalism as the only way forward. Even Gordon Brown, a devotee of the Union, accepts the need for a senate of regions and nations. To this Johnson’s implacable response is a “muscular negative”. It is Ireland’s story re-enacted.


The final challenge – and possible opportunity – has been Brexit. Had Britain gone for Theresa May’s soft “backstop” and stayed in Europe’s single market, Johnson could have avoided his Northern Ireland crisis and regulatory shambles along the EU border. Norway survives outside the European Union and inside the market. British exports to Ireland have fallen by half in a year, hastening full economic merger across Ireland even in advance of political union.

Since there is no alternative to the Northern Ireland protocol and thus to an all-Ireland economy within the single market, Scotland could investigate the possibility of joining it. Scotland’s voters opposed Brexit and want to regain EU membership. It could demand of England that the Northern Ireland protocol’s Irish Sea border be extended along Hadrian’s Wall, bringing Scotland within the single market. It requires no referendum and would splendidly enrage Downing Street.

An economist to whom I put this proposal added that it would keep open Scotland’s eastern ports to the North Sea and avoid the regulatory barriers on Scottish trade with the EU – albeit raising those with England. In such a war of sovereignties, Scotland would have made its point without raising the ogre of full independence. Scotland would merely be “doing a Norway” and joining Europe’s wider economic area. The prospect would be not of a Celtic tiger but a Celtic octopus, wrapping the single market around the western and northern shores of England and Wales.

Brexit has clearly upset the chemistry of Anglo-Celt relations. When Celts were merely not-English, Englishness was submerged in Britishness. But Brexit has led to a heightened sense of Englishness, beyond any right-wing nationalism. The House of Commons protocol of “English votes for English laws” has already raised the spectre of an all-England parliament. Who knows, but a future London government might swallow its pride, see sense in the Celtic octopus and decide to join it.

Simon Jenkins is currently writing a history of Anglo-Celtic relations

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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust