© Gu y C or bi s h l e y/A l a m y S t o c k Pho t o The peoples of the British Isles, east and west, have thus long enjoyed a shared occupation of the islands. But the lack of distinct “British Celts” has little bearing on subsequent history. It was how the various British islanders interacted with each other over the past millennium that brought us to where we are today. In particular it was the treatment of the more distant peoples by those of south-eastern England, initially under the belligerent Normans and Plantagenets, that caused to emerge a “fringe” of proto-nations. It conferred on them a sense of grievance and oppression, embedded in their identity to this day. While Europe’s nation states were developing and mostly assimilating the provinces and peoples within their borders, the British were perpetually at odds with each other. The English sought nothing less than an English empire. They fought the Scots incessantly and the Irish and Welsh intermittently. They treated Ireland as a peasant colony, Scotland as an unreliable ally and Wales as if it was part of England. After the Reformation, Scotland and Ireland reacted by rejecting England’s form of Protestantism, in whole or part, and by political flirtation with France. By the 17th century, when scholars were starting to research Celtic culture, a sense of Celtic identity began to emerge. From the Tudors onwards, the English governed this domestic empire with extraordinary incompetence. Edmund Burke chided the American revolutionaries by pointing out that the English crown allowed them a tolerance and degree of self-government unheard of in Ireland. By the 19th century, Scotland and Ireland were afflicted with famines and clearances, land appropriation and religious discrimination. Each developed a habit of rebellion. While Scotland enjoyed a degree of self-rule, the handling of Ireland by successive London governments fuelled Irish nationalism. This eventually erupted in the Irish independence movement under Parnell. Wales was fortunate in that it was relatively prosperous and thus saw no great emigration. This is a principal reason for the survival of its language. There was no talk of independence.
Celtic confection: The British Druid Order welcome the equinox
For all this, national identities did not cohere into a collective Celtic consciousness. A Celtic League was not formed until 1961 and remains largely cultural. The inhabitants of the fringe had no more in common with each other than the people of Yorkshire, Kent, Cumbria or East Anglia. That they nurtured languages from a common root is deceptive. Celtic unity was unlikely to emerge from five different tongues. Celtic festivals are booming, But their proceedings are conducted in English.
f Celticism began with language, language is in danger of becoming its blind alley. English is the lingua franca of Europe. Tongues such as Danish or Dutch, and even German are waning (especially in highly internationalised fields such as higher education, technology and finance). Smaller minority languages are being revived but as a cultural exotic among an educated elite. Where in some cases they have become a tool of identity politics, they are divisive and counter-productive. Language isolated the Basques from non-Basque sympathisers, as it now isolates the cause of Catalan separatism. Irish and Welsh are being taught compulsorily in local schools, driven by identity politics. In Ireland it is half-hearted, but in Wales it separates the Welsh from each other, and is a vehicle of local job discrimination and exclusion.
The difference between Welsh and Scottish nationalism is instructive. In Wales it is signified by fluency in a language spoken only by a tiny minority. At the last Welsh census, just 20 per cent claimed any knowledge of the language and 12 per cent an ability to speak it. Outside the north and west, Welsh is largely acquired as an aid to public-sector employment, neatly inverting the days when rulers spoke English and the ruled, Welsh. In contrast, Scottish nationalism flourishes not on linguistic exclusivity but on a shared pride in the country’s history and culture. The status of the Celtic fringe has improved since devolution in 2000. But in practice it has proved a mixed blessing. Despite being treated relatively well under austerity, statistics show no advance in “Celtic” prosperity since devolution. The dire state of aspects of social care in Scotland and the health service in Wales appears rooted in the flight of talented administrators to England. The fringe suffers investment starvation, poor public services, family poverty and a reliance on the state for jobs. The draining of graduates and creativity to London and the southeast is on a par with more publicised flights from Poland, Romania and Portugal—though it applies equally to the north of England. Last May’s Kerslake commission found regional disparities in the UK in matters such as productivity and social deprivation the widest of all 30 countries of the OECD. Britain’s Celtic fringe is thus an extreme victim of the longstanding centralisation of Britain’s political economy, caught between a dependence on London and an aversion to its magnetic avarice. This “capitalitis” is common across Europe. It can be seen from Catalonia to Brittany, South Tyrol to Kosovo, Schleswig to Ukraine, the Basque country to Padania. Even within the United Kingdom, hostility to centralism is emerging not just in Scotland and Wales, but in Cornwall, Yorkshire and Merseyside. This has nothing to do with being Celtic. You did not need to be an Irish Celt to yearn for liberation from the UK in 1922. Today, you do not have to be a Scottish Celt to want to emulate Ireland’s success. That your ancestors happened to speak a Hibernian language rather than a Germanic one may give a distinctive colouring to your culture. But retreating to a mythical past is no guide to the future. The cause now uniting the Celtic fringe is not Celticism. It is Britain’s obsessive centralism. Brexit may prove the catalyst that snaps the bonds of union. But centralism will be the cause.