‘Capitalitis’ makes Celts cringe
The United Kingdom is under strain as never before—but the cause is obsessive centralism, not the largely mythical ‘Celtic’ identities by Simon Jenkins
The Scots are on the march. The Northern Irish are drifting south. The Welsh are roused from their slumber. A once-United Kingdom, goaded beyond endurance by Brexit, suddenly looks less united. The next election will likely usher in an era of unpredictability and hung parliaments. Could it be that the Celts, so long a disparate and inert “fringe”, driven (supposedly) to the outskirts of the British Isles by the English, are at last flexing their muscles and readying themselves to break free?
In 2016 both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the European Union, while Wales voted with England. The Scottish vote stirred an upsurge in separatist sentiment. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed the poll tax in 1989, Scotland has moved steadily down the path to independence trod by Dublin in 1922. Jeremy Corbyn has overseen the disintegration of Scottish Labour solidarity, while the Scottish Conservative party, despite a brief flowering under Ruth Davidson, struggles to keep the unionist flag flying. For two decades Scotland has voted itself a separatist national government.
In Northern Ireland, opinion polls have shown a strong desire to remain in a customs union with the south. One even showed a narrow majority of voters preferring reunion with the south. The centenary of Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom in three years’ time could be marked by a reunited island, as well as by an independent Scotland. If so, the UK and Great Britain would be no more, leaving a nation uncomfortably called England and Wales. Even in Wales, Plaid Cymru’s new leader Adam Price has brought a shot of intellectual clout to the shaky cause of independence. In the backwash of Brexit, the political foundations of the UK are clearly crumbling.
For all that, the so-called Celtic fringe has never formed a coherent partnership, let alone a Celtic nation. In the London parliament, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs number 117 in total, notionally holding a balance of power in any modern House of Commons. Even the 46 MPs with openly nationalist sympathies could exert potent leverage. Yet not since the 80-strong Irish contingent in the late-Victorian era has territorial politics seriously disturbed the parliamentary scene. The Celts have never found common cause. The Welsh, Scots and Irish, divided from each other by land and sea, have never seen themselves as one “people”.
national myth, that they were driven to the western extremities by incoming Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.
In fact, not since the Stone Age has there been a mass movement of population into Britain and Ireland. The islands’ present inhabitants—other than recent immigrants—are overwhelmingly descended from people who first moved northwards with the retreat of the ice in the Mesolithic era, some 11,000 years ago. They came when Britain was still joined to Europe, predominantly from the south and the Spanish peninsular but some from northern Europe. They are still there. Between 65 per cent and 85 per cent of the population of the British Isles in the early 20th century far predated any supposed “Celts” in mainland Europe. It was Herodotus who gave the tribes of the upper Danube the name keltoi, meaning foreigners. The name was extended by the Romans to those dubbed as cognate “gauls”. They had little to do with each other, and nothing with people inhabiting the British archipelago.
These discoveries have upheaved Celtic studies, as reflected in the works of their eminence grise, Barry Cunliffe. The 2018 edition of his classic The Ancient Celts acknowledges that traditional versions of the Celtic story are simply “no longer fit for purpose”. What had led prehistorians astray was the undoubted dispersal, possibly as early as the fourth millennium BC, of a common core language, derived from proto-Indo-European. This would have come westwards across the Mediterranean with the “people of the sea”, the sea being an easier means of movement than land. While the earliest Europeans would have spoken only their original tongues—of which Basque is a rare survivor—the growth of early trade led to the emergence of a lingua franca. Just as Germanic variants spread over northern Europe, so Celtic spread into Spain and France. Unlike Germanic, Celtic was almost completely obliterated by Latin and the languages of the Roman empire.
This suggests that surviving Celtic languages are not the remnants of tribal groups driven to the extremities of Europe by conquerors. They rather reflect local tribes sufficiently isolated from Roman influence not to have adopted its common tongue. It was geographical isolation that kept Celtic fragments alive in Galicia, Brittany, Cornwall and the western parts of the British Isles. This may explain why surviving variants of Celtic differ so radically from each other, such that even within its two families, Goidelic and Brythonic, they are mutually incomprehensible (unlike, for instance, the Scandinavian
The incoherence goes deeper. DNA archaeology has exploded the theory of a Celtic tribe once bestriding western Europe from the Danube to the Atlantic. There is and was no identifiable Celtic DNA. The story of Celts invading and occupying the British Isles—supposedly in the 5th century BC—is unsupported by evidence. So too is the central
‘The Welsh, Scots and Irish, divided from each other by land and sea, have never seen themselves as one “people”’
variants of Germanic). Some scholars even believe that tribes down Britain’s eastern flank may have adopted not a Celtic but a Germanic tongue, through their contacts across the North Sea. Their later AngloSaxon was the result of evolution, not invasion.