By Mischa Glenny
22 March 2019
My A-level history course at school taught me about the English civil war: a feckless crypto-Catholic king denying earthy parliamentarians their natural rights as true sons of England. This interpretation is hopelessly outdated now, as I was reminded on numerous occasions when travelling across the British Isles to research a BBC radio programme on our intertwined histories, The Invention of Britain. For a start, the conflict is usually referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms these days — unless you’re English, that is.
Born and brought up in London and Oxford, I absorbed the widely held English conviction that what really matters in our island histories is what happens in England. By contrast, events on the Celtic periphery were at best a curiosity and at worst an annoyance. Such indifference was a source of irritation in Ireland, Scotland and Wales long before the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU. But the Brexit vote has undoubtedly sharpened these resentments, accentuating the conflicts between Britain’s nations and infusing their separate histories with new meaning.
The highly distinct identities that have emerged from our different experiences became clear when both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain with larger majorities (a thumping one in the former) than the margin by which the country as a whole voted to leave. This has created a dynamic tension that is unlikely to disappear once the real nature of Brexit emerges.
At the time of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, the Union appeared robust and flexible enough to meet the aspirations of its constituent nations. Devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were preparing to meet for the first time. Support for Tony Blair’s new government stood at dizzying levels across the UK. Nobody could have imagined that just two decades later the Union would be under threat. But it increasingly looks that way — and I wanted to understand why.
I also had a more personal reason for taking on this project: it enabled me to investigate my own unknown family history. This story begins for me in Davos, where in February 1987 my brother Paddy and I arrived after a treacherous eight-hour drive from Vienna. The Swiss ski resort is of course now synonymous with the World Economic Forum, the annual shindig for the Masters of the Universe.
Not for my family: we got there long before the rich and famous. In the first half of the 20th century, this Alpine wilderness was the last station for those hoping to defeat tuberculosis. One of the pilgrims was my grandfather, Arthur Willoughby Falls Glenny. But he never made it out alive, succumbing to TB in 1947, aged just 49. When Paddy and I succeeded in unearthing his grave, buried under a good two feet of Swiss snow, we learnt something else — that Glenny had been born in Newry, County Down.
I had no idea. I knew that our surname was Scottish, but both my parents were born in London and I had never felt anything other than English. I had a Slavic first name and my father, a translator, used to tell us Russian fairy tales. Even as a child I was infinitely better acquainted with Russian culture than I was with my Northern Irish heritage.If you have a Scottish name in Northern Ireland, that usually means that at some point your family joined the Presbyterian colonisers of western Scotland and the Anglican Protestants of northern England during one of the “plantations” of Ireland. But within two generations, my family had lost any sense of a Northern Irish or Unionist identity.
As I set out on my travels, the first thing I sought to understand was why England defines itself apart from its neighbours. It was a Scottish historian, Murray Pittock, who offered me the pithiest explanation as we sat in front of a roaring fire at his house in Stirling.
England emerged as a kingdom as early as the 10th century. First Mercia and Wessex merged. Then came the absorption of Kent and East Anglia before finally the Vikings were driven from Northumberland. “England dominates the best agricultural land,” said Pittock. “And the lack of devolution within England meant it was heavily centralised around London at a very early date and that centralisation was built on its agricultural heartlands.”
This economic superiority translated into military power. Once the Normans conquered England, successive campaigns enabled London to subordinate Wales and part of Ireland. What it failed to do in Ireland after the break with Rome was to convert the indigenous population. London thereafter regarded Ireland above all else as a threat — a bridgehead for continental Catholic enemies, France and Spain, and the majority of its population a potential fifth column.
My antecedents were part of the Ulster plantation, James I and VI’s first ambitious colonisation programme. Sir David Glenny, “a belted knight from Ayrshire”, was granted or appropriated land around Newry. The settlers had a dual purpose: to exploit the considerable economic potential of Ireland, and to establish a paramilitary presence to neutralise any Catholic threat.
When I arrived in County Down, I was astonished to find documents at the Newry and Mourne Museum that made it clear that the Glennys had been a highly influential and wealthy family for over three centuries. A stroll through the graveyard of St Patrick’s Church confirmed this. Close to the entrance stands a large austere oblong stone inscribed “The Glennys of Newry”, and behind this lay four generations of my direct descendants, ending with my great-grandfather (Arthur’s father).
The family had a country mansion and the elegant Littleton House on the outskirts of town. We owned great tracts of farmland across County Down. And what land! I had no idea how beautiful the undulating, deep green fields of South Down are, lying in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne. One area of Glenny influence I visited was Warrenpoint, a charming town at the apex of Carlingford Lough, a silky sliver of water just south of Newry that marks the division between Down and County Louth in the Republic. Border country like this is especially vulnerable in a country with a history of sectarian conflict. Declan Lawn, a Belfast screenwriter, told me how fast matters can escalate.
“When we hear politicians in Westminster talking about border infrastructure and they say, ‘Oh, it’s just a camera’, well we know that within a week when someone tries to blow that camera up, then you have a manned post,” he said. “Then suddenly that’s attacked and within, say, a month you have to have the army back guarding. Now that sounds like catastrophism. But we know, having lived it, that escalation here is everything, it is what happened.”
It is not just the Nationalist community that is appalled by the insensitivity of politicians in London. Unionists are too. They both know that England looks at British history as either domestic politics in which the Celtic periphery occasionally impinges or as how the UK interacts with the outside world. Unspoken in this English worldview is something frequently articulated by foreigners — the conflation of England with Britain.
This is where those separate histories I mentioned earlier start to make themselves felt. The English are usually unaware of them, even though they often play a central role: Bannockburn, the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda or Edward I’s conquest of Wales. The English barely take note of those events, preferring to reference Agincourt, Waterloo or the two world wars. The difference? These are played out on the international stage, not the domestic. Englishness is more entwined with an imperial identity and less with the internal relations of the Union. The confrontation with the EU follows that pattern.
It was, of course, empire that underpinned the power and influence of the UK over two centuries. Scotland and Wales bought into it wholeheartedly, as did the Unionists in Ireland. At the turn of the 20th century, Ulster dominated industrial output. It wasn’t Catholicism alone that the Unionists feared. It was the deadweight of the rural southern Irish economy.
Scotland is the only part of the UK that was never conquered by the English. The Union of 1707 was entered into voluntarily, although there were serious dissenters on both sides — Catholic Jacobite resistance to the Union persisted for almost four decades before it finally collapsed.
In the subsequent years, however, Scotland was transformed beyond recognition. The Scots seized upon the economic opportunities that access to England’s colonial markets afforded and from this they built the Scottish enlightenment, one of modern history’s most remarkable intellectual and cultural ferments. Scotland continued to grow throughout the 19th century, too. “Scotland, I would argue, contributed even more to the national wealth than England during the Industrial Revolution,” said Tom Devine, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh.
Scots also played a disproportionately important role in building the empire. As long as they were benefiting from the arrangement, they were content to let political power reside in London. Edinburgh was a rich city, Glasgow an industrial leviathan and those Scots who so wanted could try their luck in London.
At any rugby match at Murrayfield, you’ll still hear the Scots sing about sending Edward home Separatism may be on the rise in Scotland, but Unionism also has deep roots. A Scottish identity is not necessarily incompatible with a British one. As a member of the photography collective Document Scotland, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert has been keeping a visual record of both the Independence and the Brexit referendums. “There are so many nuances. Flags have taken on a lot of symbolism here,” he said. “If you fly a Saltire, you’re deemed to be supporting independence. Yet I’ve been to Unionist demonstrations where they fly the Saltire and the Union Jack. The Saltire doesn’t mean you’re automatically pro-independence.”
It was only after British economic power and influence began to wane after the second world war that a political Scottish nationalism was able to revive. London’s response to that was devolution, the theory being that if you allow a modicum of self-government, Edinburgh will not seek full independence. So far that has worked. But can it work after Brexit?
If you read Scottish newspapers today much of the domestic coverage is about the Scottish government and events at Holyrood. But what do most in England know of those ins and outs? How many people south of the border can name a minister of the Scots’ government apart from Nicola Sturgeon? Do, conversely, the Scots know about events at Westminster? Decidedly, yes.
Along with devolution has come a renewed interest in history. The Scottish government paid more than half of the £9m invested in the impressive Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre that opened five years ago. Here I was able to join a group of Scottish schoolchildren in a virtual reality game where we revelled in scything down haughty English knights on horseback. Robert the Bruce’s computerised humiliation of Edward II’s troops in 1314 is now a rite of passage for most young Scots.
“In any film you see, whether Braveheart or Outlaw King, Bannockburn wins Scotland its independence,” Fiona Watson, a biographer of Robert the Bruce, told me. “They were intensely proud of their martial identity, that they had seen off the English. At any rugby match you see at Murrayfield, you’ll still hear the Scots sing about sending Edward home. Even now, it’s the unofficial Scottish anthem.” And one that may well fuel separatist sentiment if Brexit goes badly for the Scots.
The increased identification with Scottish institutions and a distinct historical identity is accentuating the diverging priorities between the English and the Scots. To illustrate this Anthony Barnett, the writer and co-founder of the political website openDemocracy, pointed out that Wigan and Paisley have almost identical histories of industrial rise and decline. Their social make-up is similar and in the EU referendum, both had a close to 70 per cent turnout. Wigan voted 64 per cent to leave; Paisley 64 per cent to remain.
Why so different? “There must be more at work in Brexit than just the rebellion of those left behind,” Barnett concluded. “And while the slogan ‘Take back control’ appealed to the English, the Scots are already on a project to take back control within the European Union via their national parliament Holyrood.” The EU now delivers to the Scots what the empire no longer can. This is a primary threat to the Union.
British history is full of examples of how allegiances can shift with surprising rapidity Even in Wales, which was absorbed much earlier and more thoroughly into English structures, cultural competition is growing. Personally, I sensed the key date here was Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 U-turn to allow a dedicated Welsh-language channel, S4C, alongside other measures to encourage the language that devolution has boosted further.
A coherent Welsh nationalism has struggled much more than in Scotland because of domestic geography. There are no fast transport links between north and south Wales. Instead, the major routes run from west to east, ensuring that the constituent parts of Wales are economically connected not with each other but with Merseyside, the Midlands and the west of England.
Still, in the past 30 years the spread of Welsh has been remarkable. There are now 15 primary schools that use Welsh as the language of instruction in Cardiff alone. If Brexit results in major constitutional revisions in Northern Ireland and Scotland, there will at the very least be a debate about the value of union in Wales (although I suspect the union would win out).
British history is full of examples of how identities can change and allegiances shift with surprising rapidity. The most astonishing fact I discovered about the Glennys of Newry was that they switched from Presbyterianism to Episcopalianism and back. This took on particular importance for my family during the bloodiest convulsion to affect Ireland before the 20th century. In the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, the great insurgency that saw Catholics, Presbyterians and Episcopalians combine to challenge London, a young Isaac William Glenny was a sympathiser. It appears that after the rebellion’s defeat and the bloody retribution meted out on the rebels by the British, the Glennys quickly returned to the establishment fold by joining the Church of Ireland and turning their back on dissent.
Over the centuries, many in Northern Ireland have switched confessional, national and political allegiance for the sake of expedience or conviction. Today the DUP may dominate discourse about Northern Ireland and Brexit in Westminster but despite its leadership’s iron resolve, there are rumblings of unhappiness in their own community. A significant minority of Ulster Protestants, 29 per cent in one recent poll, would vote to remain over a no-deal Brexit.Just as it has opened divisions across Britain about where our future lies, Brexit will renew the battles over our history. The outcome of these will play a central role in deciding whether we remain together or go our separate ways.
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