Facts Britannica: Response from Melanie Phillips

This is a response by Melanie Phillips to Richard Blakemore’s article ‘Facts Britannica: What’s in a Nation’ (9 March 2017). It was originally posted as a comment on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters blog and has been reprinted here to allow readers to give inline comments on the content. [To add a comment, just highlight a section, click the speech bubble, type your comment, and click ‘respond’.]

I agree that British identity is highly complex and evolved over time. Indeed, far from asserting a seamless progress, as you have suggested here, I wrote: “The UK is an extraordinarily complex web of identities: civic, ethnic, cultural, national.”

There is, however, a difference between a country, a nation, a state and a nation-state. Not all states embody a nation. You fail to acknowledge this elementary fact.

Your assertion that no political nation of Britain existed before the union of England and Scotland is absurd, and your claim that ancient Britain was not a “nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas” is itself inaccurate and ridiculous.

The Romans conquered a discrete country called Britannia. Suetonius called Cunobeline King of the Britons. England was always dominant within Britain; tribes or local rulers in England vied for power but periodically fought against invaders threatening all of Britain, not just their region.

Your claim that Boudicca merely “fought for herself and the Iceni, not for the British” is a distortion: hers was one of many uprisings against the Roman invasion. Read Tacitus:

“Rousing each other by this and like language, under the leadership of Boudicea, a woman of kingly descent (for they admit no distinction of sex in their royal successions), they all rose in arms. They fell upon our troops, which were scattered on garrison duty, stormed the forts, and burst into the colony itself, the head-quarters, as they thought, of tyranny. In their rage and their triumph, they spared no variety of a barbarian’s cruelty. Had not Paullinus on hearing of the outbreak in the province rendered prompt succour, Britain would have been lost. By one successful engagement, he brought it back to its former obedience, though many, troubled by the conscious guilt of rebellion and by particular dread of the legate, still clung to their arms.”

The Romans wrote about the characteristics not of tribes but of Britons. Read Tacitus again: “Their religious belief may be traced in the strongly-marked British superstition. The language differs but little; there is the same boldness in challenging danger, and, when it is near, the same timidity in shrinking from it. The Britons, however, exhibit more spirit, as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated” and so on.

You assert that my suggestion that ancient Britain was “beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea” is ridiculous, because “you can’t secede from something to which you do not belong, especially if it does not exist in the first place.”

Ireland was conquered by England in 1169; it was ruled by England and then Britain for around 800 years and was considered part of the British Isles. During this period there were repeated uprisings and rebellions by the Irish against the English.

In 1091 Malcolm III of Scotland launched attacks on northern England to establish independence before withdrawing and acknowledging the overlordship of the King of England.

Your claim that Britain’s bonds of “language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, or culture” only developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is absurd. Englishness, as I wrote in my article, came to define Britishness; the English language, common law and Christian religion. along with the institutions and other manifestations of this common culture, obviously went back long before.

The “tortuous double think” you claim to find in my article is no more than a misreading of what I wrote, since I did not say as you suggest that Britain was an authentic nation simply because it was an island. Geography has certainly played a part in Britain’s conception of itself as a nation, but that’s a different matter.