The author’s cut: an expanded version of Tom Holland’s essay on British identity, published on 1st May by Policy Exchange.

‘Alba’ is – as Al Murray might put it – a beautiful British word. It is certainly much older than Scotland. For millennia now, it has been used to designate the entirety of Great Britain. This was why the earliest Greek geographers, when they wrote about the mysterious land that lay beyond the Ocean, referred to its inhabitants as Albiones; and why Roman encyclopaedists, even after much of the island had been constituted as a province called Britannia, would learnedly note that its name had originally been Albion. What was the derivation of the word? Perhaps, scholars suggest, it meant what in English would come to be known as Middle Earth: the dimension of mortals, midway between the heavens and the underworld. Or perhaps – alluding to the chalk cliffs along the island’s southern coast – it derived from a word meaning ‘white’. Either way, long before the emergence of Scotland or England or Wales as distinct realms, the name ‘Alba’ implied a sense of identity which seems to have spanned the entire island: an identity that we might properly call, if not Albionan, then British.

Quite how far back it reached is impossible to know, of course. Intriguingly, the presence at Stonehenge of animal remains from what is now Scotland suggests that as early as 2500 BC the stone circle was a place of pilgrimage for people across the entire island. The sense of living in a land separated by the seas from other realms, and distinctive for that reason, was certainly one that flourished during the centuries that followed the collapse of Roman rule. It was remembered that originally Britain had been inhabited by giants, and that their sway, commemorated by the standing stones and great banks of turf they had fashioned as markers of their rule, had spanned the whole of the island. Settled subsequently though it was by peoples “divided by language and separated by race according to their ancestors’ names,” , as the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin put it, yet the dream of establishing a pan-British order was one in which many of them shared. It was why, in Canterbury, the archbishop regarded himself as primate of the entire British Church. It was why, in Wales, poets foretold a time when the whole island would once again be theirs. It was also why, some time around AD 900, in the northernmost reaches of Britain, the peoples of what had previously been known as Pictland began to refer to themselves as fir Alban: the people of Alba. Their upstart realm, the nucleus of what in time would become the kingdom of Scotland, gained much by this appropriation of the name for the entire island. It gave to the fir Alban not just the patina of antiquity, but something even more precious: what Dauvit Broun has termed an “emblematic identification with the idea of ‘Britain’”.

Not that there was any prospect, in AD 900, of joining all the peoples within the island in a common union. The inhabitants of Pictland, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede had reported some two centuries previously, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, one of the two peoples who, with the Picts, came to define themselves as fir Alban, had originally been so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they had ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Albion in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

Inevitably, then, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, had the Vikings not descended on Britain, it would never have happened at all. Across the entire island, kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The emergence of Alba was made possible by the devastation visited by the Vikings on the traditional centres of Pictish power. Likewise, in the southern half of the island, the implosion of three ancient English kingdoms – Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia – left the field clear for the only Anglo-Saxon rulers to have stood proof against the Viking firestorm. The kings of Wessex succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united ‘Angle Land’. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be ‘rex totius Britanniae’ – ‘king of the whole of Britain’.

Nevertheless, limits soon emerged to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of ‘Angle Land’ were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So too, some sixty years later, was Lothian. The Northumbrians, whose defeat at the battle of Carham in 1018 proved terminal for their hopes of winning back their lost lands, called the men of the predatory kingdom to the north not the fir Alban but the Scots. The forging of ‘Scot Land’ was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of ‘Angle Land’. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking different languages, had come to think of themselves as ‘Scots’. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their very identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, however, were to prove more indigestible – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages – with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best. Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots themselves. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the great historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Albion, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel. Both, in the wake of 1066, had a French overlay added to their twin mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar way in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose relish for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; but it was clear, by the time Edward himself came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown had gone for good. It had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so too had the people it ruled. Tellingly, the king who had lost Normandy, Edward’s grand-father John, was the same king who had signed a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation-stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the ‘Great Charter’ in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades on, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey, and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.” A manifesto pledge which, 700 years on, patently gives Alex Salmond atavistic thrills; and yet in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Anglophobic in tone though it certainly was, its ultimate signifance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals. This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, was to prove fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what joined them.

Granted, this did not prevent the road to a united kingdom of Great Britain from proving almost as blood-stained as the forging of Scot Land and Angle Land had once been. Even though the Scottish king James VI, when he succeeded to the English throne as James I, rejoiced in describing himself as monarch of ‘Magna Britannia’, the failure of his son to respect the fault-lines that still divided the two realms would play a critical role in the descent of both into civil war. Under Charles I, the Protestantism that was the shared legacy of the Reformation in the two countries began to set them at each other’s throats. In Scotland, Charles’s attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book precipitated in 1638 a particularly startling exercise in popular democracy, as congregations across the kingdom swore to uphold a ‘National Covenant’ “against all sorts of persons whatsoever.” This, of course, was to cast the Scots themselves as a Chosen People – a conceit so invigorating to Scottish morale that entire armies of Covenanters would end up over the following decade intervening directly in England. There, however, the challenge facing them was not how alien their southern neighbours were, but how similar. The English were no less prone to thinking themselves God’s Elect than the Scots – and to such ultimately crushing effect that Cromwell, after his stunning victory at Dunbar in 1650, was able for the first time to impose a political union upon the whole of Great Britain. This particular dispensation, maintained as it was at the point of a sword, did not outlast the Lord Protector himself; and it took two Acts of Union, one passed by the English parliament in 1706, and one by the Scottish parliament in 1707, finally to meld the two Chosen Peoples, Israel and Judah, into a single nation. Unpopular as it was with many in both countries, a largely loveless marriage of convenience brokered by governing and commercial elites, the very fact that the Union had been secured at all suggests the degree to which differences between Scotland and England – although still eye-catching, to be sure – had become increasingly skin-deep.

To those resentful of the nation that came officially into being on May Day 1707, it was, of course, a terrible false turn. That the contours of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom still remain, three hundred years on, so clearly distinct and defined has encouraged some, particularly in Scotland, to cast British identity as a kind of knotweed: alien, invasive, positively demanding to be uprooted. It is this, no doubt, that gives to so much nationalist rhetoric, both north and south of the border, its decidedly 17th century flavour. Lurking behind many of the arguments in favour of Scottish secessionism lurks a presumption – sometimes left unspoken, sometimes not – that the Scots are a blessedly egalitarian and caring people, denied the chance to establish a socialist paradise only by evil neo-liberals south of the border. That Scotland, in reality, has become ever less keen on redistributive measures the longer its government has been devolved, and that the SNP have signally failed to take advantage of the powers that are theirs under the devolution settlement, unsettles the true believers not a jot. The hold of the Kirk may have weakened; but as in the 17th century, so in the 21st, faith rarely derives from statistics. If English Tories stalk the nationalist imagination as equivalents of Charles I, then the SNP, with its fulminations against the iniquities of ‘Westminster’, has more than an echo of the Covenanter movement. There is mileage still to be had in appealing to the Scots as a Chosen People.

Yet for 300 years now, they – and the English and Welsh too – have had the chance to direct their gaze beyond the medieval limits of their respective kingdoms, and to work for the common good, not just of their own countrymen, but of all the peoples of Great Britain. So habituated have we become to our domestic stability that we forget just what an achievement it was, after all the rack and ruin of the 17th century, to fashion an enduring peace across this island. Certainly, there exists no better model for the EU, founded as it was upon the dream of joining old rivals in a perpetual union, than the union of England and Scotland. In 1751, a mere six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites had reached Derby, and five after the slaughter of Culloden, the War Secretary could stand up in the Westminster parliament and praise Highland soldiers as the best in the British Army. A decade later, the most celebrated of all Anglo-Scottish friendships began when Boswell met Dr Johnson in a Covent Garden coffee shop. There is surely no more moving or joyous expression of what the Union has meant in practise than Rowlandson’s marvellous cartoon of the two men ‘Walking Up The High Street’. The emergent Britishness that enabled the gruffly English Johnson and the twitchily Scottish Boswell to end up sharing a sense of commonality would be fundamental as well in enabling their countrymen, so long divided, to change the world. Enlightenment and industrialisation; empire and the spread of the English language; the defeat of fascism and the establishment of a welfare state: the achievements of the United Kingdom, for good and ill, have been on a vastly more titanic scale than anything achieved by England or Scotland on their own.

Not, of course, that this is necessarily an argument for maintaining the Union; indeed, for those ashamed of what Britain got up to in her swaggering heyday it can easily seem an argument for breaking it up. ‘Ukania’, Tom Nairn memorably termed the British state: a Ruritanian ghoul unable to escape the taint of its early-modern origins. Linda Colley, at much the same time, argued that because many of the raisons d’être that had initially contributed to the forging of a British identity – Protestantism, empire, and detestation of the French – are no longer what they were, “Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure.” Perhaps – except that the circumstances which brought about the united kingdoms of England and Scotland are no longer what they were either, and both are still going strong. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once independent West Saxons and Northumbrians, Picts and Scots, have long since become the common heritage of all of us in this island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the various corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. The fluttering of Union Jacks over foreign battlefields was never the essence of British identity – although, as commemorations of the two world wars repeatedly demonstrate, even that has not entirely lost its power to tug on heart-strings. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British.

That culture, though, is hardly something static. Even to articulate the phrase ‘British values’ is to be reminded that the native traditions of Great Britain are no longer the only ingredients in our mongrel identity. The Picts may never, as they liked to claim, have originated in Scythia; but today East Europeans in their hundreds of thousands have settled in Britain. English identity is already proving inadequate to cope with the sheer scale of recent immigration; nor is there any reason to think that Scottish identity, should similar numbers start to settle north of the border, will prove any more absorbent. British identity, though, is a different matter: more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness, it is baggier, more capacious, less ethnically centred than either. “Not at all, mate,” Mo Farah famously said when asked whether he would rather have won his Olympic gold in the 10,000 metres for Somalia rather than Britain. “This is my country.” By a profoundly ironic fluke, the invented Britishness that back in the 18th century sent English and Scots out from their native island to conquer much of the world now, in the 21st century, provides the United Kingdom with a national identity well-suited to the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic island that Albion has become. This, of course, is a project that still has far to go; but it is one in which all of us – English and Welsh and Scottish, left and right, white and BAME – should properly feel a stake. Britishness may have lost an empire; but it has already found a role.

The author wishes to thank the New Statesman for permission to reproduce passages from an essay written for the magazine in 2014.



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