Norman Davies has written an important history of the British Isles. But his analysis of the present situation is ill-considered. The fashionable view that Britain will wither away is wrong. The English, Welsh and Scots still share common interests and a British identity, for which Europe is no substituteby Malcolm Rifkind / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
The midnight isles, the Painted Isles, the Frontier Isles are just a few of the unfamiliar names which Norman Davies uses for that part of the world I have always thought of as the British Isles. To add to the confusion, he includes in his list of kings of England the improbable names of Guillaume le B?tard, Edouard I and Henri V. Furthermore, we are reminded that Britain was ruled by the Celts longer than it was ruled by anyone else; that Roman Britain was confined to about 30 per cent of these islands; and that England under the Normans and the Plantagenets was a dependency of France, not the other way round.
At the same time, Norman Davies reminds us that the original Scots were Irish, that the Welsh were Britons and that the English were Danes. These and other examples are presented by Davies in his book The Isles, to illustrate his point, not to entertain. Davies has a deadly serious purpose-and I enthusiastically endorse it. His target is the Anglo-centric reflex which over the years has treated Scotland, Ireland and Wales as appendages of England, refused to acknowledge their histories as an integral part of a history of Britain, and used “England” and the “United Kingdom” as if they were alternative ways of describing the same country. At the same time he is at pains to emphasise that England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are themselves latter-day creations resulting from the intermingling of races and nations.
Flawed perceptions remain deeply ingrained. On the day after I finished reading The Isles, I was telephoned by a television producer who was making a programme which would compare “our” difficult foreign relations with France under Queen Elizabeth I with “our” difficult foreign relations with France now. I suspect he felt that I was behaving like a pedantic Scot when I reminded him that “our” relations in the 16th century would have included the amicable Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. I recall once successfully curing a Canadian of saying England, when he meant Britain, by calling him an American.