We don’t know a lot of the British isles, prior to the Romans arriving. Archaeological and genetic evidence gives some broad outlines, but the details of daily life and the history of rulers and tribes is largely unknown to us. The best we can do is piece together some general ideas based on what has been dug from the earth and what the Romans recorded about what they found when they landed in Britain. There’s also genetics which can be used to trace the movement of peoples over time. This helps build a general picture, but it is filled with assumptions.
What we do know is that for most of her history, various tribes controlled areas of land and those tribes eventually formed kingdoms. The Picts, the Celts, the Welsh, the Angles and later, the Saxons, are familiar names to people fond of history. Similarly, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia probably ring some bells for most people. These were some of the kingdoms of the Heptarchy, a period in British history that lasted from the end of Roman rule until most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came under the overlordship of Egbert of Wessex in 829.
It’s useful to keep this in mind when looking at the changes that are coming to the UK if they follow through on the Brexit vote. The Scots are talking about independence again. The Welsh have been talking about independence for a while and may get serious about it again. Then you have the always difficult problem of the Irish. Membership in the EU was a disaster for the Irish in many ways, but they instinctively wish to go the opposite of whatever way the English are going so it is hard to know what happens with them. Then you have the Unionist issue, which is complicated in the best of times.
Whether any of this will come to pass is unknown at this point, but there’s no doubt that the UK is about to go through a period where it redefines itself to meet the world of the future. Those two great forces discussed in yesterday’s post are at work in the UK now. On the one hand, we have movements toward greater local control, even independence, and on the other hand we have a movement to fold the whole country into Europe as an administrative zone of Germany. For now, the smaller is better side is winning the argument, but how far it goes is up in the air.
The issue that lies beneath all of this is whether or not the United Kingdom as a concept is of much use in the modern world. A unified island made a lot of sense in an age when invasion was a reasonable concern. A divided squabbling people would not stand a chance against Norse raiders. The Continent has produced many threats that required a strong and unified Britain. Today, invasion is not a concern and the greatest threat from the Continent is a fresh batch of regulations that make flush toilets less efficient. It’s entirely plausible that the costs of being united outweigh the benefits.
Scotland voting themselves out of the UK is an obvious first step, but that may not be a great move on their part. The Scots remind me of the French-Canadians. They like waving flags around more than they like self-sufficiency. Similarly, the Welsh voted Brexit and seem to like being in partnership with the English. Preservation of local customs and language don’t require independence. The Scots and the Welsh would probably be happy with the symbolic parts of nationhood, but let the English run foreign policy, trade and the central bank, as long as they have a voice in Parliament.
The other side of this is the fact that the English may be tiring of the Scots. In the last two national elections a clear line exist between the Scots and the English. SNP is basically Labour with more Brave Heart references. The Scots vote for a populist left-wing party while the English are voting for what passes for a nationalist right-wing party now. UKIP in Scotland is a collection of fringe nuts, while in England it is a real party gently tugging the Tories back to where they belong on the Right. I bet more than a few English would like to vote the Scots out of the UK and be done with them.
Then we have the Irish. Currently, there is free movement between England, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Britain leaving the EU means a return of border controls to the UK and that means borders come back between Ireland and England. There’s also the fact that Norther Ireland voted heavily against leaving the EU and is making noises about gaining special EU status. That’s only possible if they are an independent country. How likely is it that Northern Ireland will follow the same path as the Scots and begin badgering for independence? How long before the English tire of them?
All of this is idle speculation, but the ground is shifting in the UK.