Introducing Melanie Phillips, the new Gustaf Kossinna: New Alt-History from The Times of London, and British Exceptionalism from the Lessons of History

There’s been a very historical feel to the news in these last weeks – even more so than one has come to expect with the standard issue ‘Empire 2.0’ nonsense of BrExit. As Paul Kavanagh noted, with the invocation of Henry VIII powers in conjunction with the Great Repeal Bill, so that legislative alteration avoids scrutiny, and some mainstream newspapers analysing whether war with Spain was viable over Gibraltar, it has all gone a bit 16th century within 4 days of Theresa May sending her Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk in Brussels. This could be interpreted as a positive sign for Scotland – which was of course independent way back then, and free of the worst excesses of England’s trade blockade (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/tales-from-brexitland-brexit-and-the-new-darien-an-equivalent-for-the-navigation-act ) – but the campaign to oppose Scotland’s return to independent statehood has recently been remarkably unafraid to revisit and revise history. Just over a week before Nicola Sturgeon stood in Bute House and announced to the world that she would be requesting that the Scottish Parliament support her request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, a remarkable piece of historical revisionism appeared in The Times on the 7th March, penned by one Melanie Phillips.

Its timing seems to have been dictated by an article two days earlier, with Professor (also Sir) Tom Devine, described as the “preeminent historian of [the British] Isles” in The National on 5th March (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/15133372.Interview__Tom_Devine_on_the_end_of_Scotland_s_long_love_affair_with_Europe/?ref=mrb&lp=14 ). Within this interview, Devine made the point that Scots were European long before they were British: “If you take mainland Britain, then Scotland has long been the less insular part…If you look from the 12th century until today and divide it up into centuries, Scotland’s linkage with Europe has been longer than its link with the Commonwealth, the Empire or with England.” So far, so unsurprising – as a Kingdom Scotland existed from 843 A.D., with England arising a century or so later (possibly taking longer to unite, as they had been overrun by the Roman Empire). Devine explained – using perhaps less than flattering evidence – the reasons why Scotland was less introspective: “The historical theory is that [it] was because of Scotland’s relative poverty. People had to go abroad. A French proverb of the 12th century sates: ‘Rats, lice and Scotchmen, you find them everywhere’. The Scots were nomadic from an early age.” He pointed out that between the 12th and the 18th centuries the Scottish link with Europe was extraordinarily powerful, and believes that this experience prior to the 18th century allowed Scotland to become one of the most efficient trading countries with the New World. “What happened in the mercantile sense is that the lessons Scottish traders had learned in trading with Europe were simply transferred en bloc to the transatlantic area,” he says. Devine then went on to express sadness and regret that this longstanding relationship with the rest of Europe was about to come to an end with BrExit.

Clearly, emphasising that Scotland’s oldest link was not with England but with Europe is not the sort of thing that Westminster wishes promulgated much at a time when Scotland will soon have to choose between these two Unions – and one suspects that the idea that Scotland is a hundred years older as a country than England would not have been terribly welcome either. But hold: two days later, undaunted by such trivialities as academic knowledge and a lifetime of study, there came journalist Melanie Phillips, riding to the rescue of the beleaguered Union.

In a bizarre Alt-Right ‘history’ piece for the second-longest running national newspaper in the world, The Times (The Glasgow Herald being the longest-running), Phillips puts forward an audacious proposal – that there is, and indeed has only ever been, no nation other than Britain on the British Isles (you can find the full article here: http://archive.is/Tq8lH ). Her primary objective lies in one line: “Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct” – but then she attempts to justify this with some remarkably convoluted – verging on contortionistic – argumentation.  Firstly, she puts forward the interpretation that “Throughout its history, [Britain] was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea”, glossing over the possibility that the presence of such movements might just be because it was an artificial political construct. She then asserts that “Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation”, overlooking the fact that that would give Scotland priority through precedent, as noted above. She then grudgingly acknowledges that Scotland developed “the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on” but apparently that is not a ‘real’ nation, so that adds nothing to its right to exist.  All of these differences, history, trade, psychology, philosophy…all dismissed and trumped by the geographical unity of a landmass.

Phillips (fide Wikipedia) writes pro-Israel articles for The Jerusalem Post – so a cynic might say that it is perhaps no surprise that she finds it easy to rip up old established identities and  cultures and resettle them with a constructed fiction of her choosing, but I would be fascinated to see her apply her geographically-driven approach to African nationhood.

But Phillips seems to have a bigger beef with Ireland than Scotland: “Britain, by contrast” with Ireland, which apparently only came into being in 1922, according to her, “is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas.” The oldest bond, she wrote, was the bond between “Britons”, as being all residents on the same island. Priority means nothing – historical fact, even less.  Never mind kingdoms, identity, or wars of invasion to try and remove that distinctive separate political identity (see writer, poet and lecturer Stuart McHardy’s new book ‘Scotland’s Future History’, in which he points out that these conflicts really are misrepresented by the normally-applied phrase ‘Wars of Independence’, given that Scotland was established as a kingdom a long time before the founding of England); never mind alliances forged with European nations against England because of those invading armies from the south: clearly, the greatest connection is amongst those living on that single landmass.

JK Rowling – no fan, it should be noted, of Scottish self-determination – attacked Phillips’ piece, by quoting it and substituting ‘UK’ for ‘EU’ (as you can see for the graphic above), which she believed demonstrated how ridiculous Melanie’s argument was…although it has to be said that Rowling’s version reads a lot more reasonably as an argument for Scottish independence than Phillips’ original does for Britain. It may be something of an understatement to say that Phillips’ was a ‘bold’ claim, unhindered as it was by facts or reason – but she has now been regarded as such a legitimate commentator on the subject, that she appeared as a recent guest on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ panel show.

In the run-up to Theresa May initiating Article 50, this move by those opposed to Scottish independence is an even more bizarre shot than the misfire with Sadiq Khan at the Scottish Labour Party conference some weeks earlier: historical details being swept away in the presentation of the sort of irrational sentiment that the pro-independence campaign used to be accused of, once upon a time. This sort of convenient historical revision is not exactly a new stratagem when matters of empire are afoot – Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931) was an archaeologist whose material culture work in the 1920s was used to spread the idea that there was ‘one German people’ that inhabited parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, in order to pave the way for those countries to be annexed as part of a ‘traditional greater German homeland’ in the thirties. Having disseminated the idea that there was a deep subterranean unity across territorial borders, it weakened the objections of German people to those borders being dismantled, and the territories annexed.

One article (even if it is in The Times) does not of course equate to the same scale of justification employed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany, who went so far as to fake newsreels of archaeological digs in order to support their arguments for expansion. But a determination to rewrite well-established history in such a globally-respected media organ indicates the limited stock that is likely to be placed by Westminster and its pet London commentariat on such accounts of strong European roots and links for Scotland, in the run-up to the second independence referendum. British Nationalists seem unhesitating in reaching lower and lower – into what is undeniably an all too familiar toolbag. When Theresa May, at the Scottish Conservative Party Conference at the start of March, attempted to justify her ignoring of the different political cultures demonstrated in the EU vote as a way of unilaterally setting up a hardline BrExit for English voters, it was more than a little chilling that she used the expression “for at heart we are one people”: as one commentator put it, “did she add ‘one leader, one Empire’?” British Exceptionalism is alive and well – and apparently applies to the warnings from history, as well.

Germany today is a modern global leader, with a progressive view of what Europe can be, and an accompanying comparatively open attitude towards refugees. To a very real extent, there is a sense that Scotland is more represented by what Germany is now in terms of progressive and social democratic pro-EU policies, whereas with its gunboat diplomacy on Gibraltar and rising xenophobia, England is heading very much more in the direction of what Germany was – back in the 1930s. The degeneration of British nationalism continues apace, and there is no small amount of bitter irony that the more the BritNats have attempted to traduce the Yes movement (often in the process trying to refer to them as ‘Nazis’), the more the British establishment has begun to look increasingly like a deeply racist regime…and resembling the early days of one of the most notorious of the twentieth century.

I have dealt with some of aspects of the demise of the British identity that previously gave some access for Scotland to be a part of Britain (first two of three parts here https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-queens-buried-rules-when-the-impartiality-of-the-monarch-is-strained-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-part-1 and https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/football-is-not-a-matter-of-life-and-death-its-much-more-important-than-that-of-football-and-diverging-flags-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-pt-2 ) in the Three Estaits series, and Paul Kavanagh  (https://weegingerdug.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-wrong-side-of-history/) neatly summarises a further dimension, while looking at Phillips article: “the many ties of Britishness, all the institutions and organisations which once fostered that sense of Britishness which remains strongest in the oldest generations, have been destroyed by the British state itself and most often by the Tories. Just 50 years ago there were dozens of large state owned organisations, British Coal, British Steel, the Royal Mail, British Leyland and many more, all were owned by the state and helped to create and promote a sense of a shared British experience and identity. They’ve all gone now, sold off and broken up, and as they disappeared they took that fragile sense of a British identity with them. And the reason it was fragile was because it was never strongly rooted in history, no matter how much Melanie tries to rewrite the past.” It is one thing for a historian to write of modern political events in the context of such history, but when journalists such as Melanie Phillips indulge in a Kossinna-like reinvention of history to justify the dominance of an anglocentric power construct, it suggests that advocates of the Union may still be experiencing difficulty finding that elusive ‘positive case’ that they searched so long for in 2013-2014.

Trying to reinvent a unitary British dream that was allowed to die in the decades following the second world war, and digging deep in the dirt of an imagined past for shards of justification, has no relevance when looking to decide what our future might be.

 

“I can confirm today that next week I will seek the authority of the Scottish Parliament to agree with the UK government the details of a Section 30 Order, the procedure that will enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an Independence Referendum…before it is too late to decide our own path.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 11:44, March 13th, 2017, Bute House, Edinburgh)