»  National Review

June 5, 2000

  Disunited Kingdom

The Isles
        by Norman Davies

Forty years ago the English comic-song duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann produced their "Song of Patriotic Prejudice," a sort of spoof English — as opposed to British — national anthem. After an introductory verse to set the theme ("The rottenest bits of these islands of ours / We've left in the hands of three unfriendly powers …") there followed a verse each abusing the Welsh, Irish and Scots, in terms that would nowadays get you prosecuted for Hate Speech:

The Welshman's dishonest —
He cheats when he can —
And little and dark,
More like monkey than man …

One chorus went: "The English, the English, the English are best / So up with the English and down with the rest!"

At that point in history, with the Irish slumbering in theocratic isolation and the rest of the islands still enjoying the afterglow of success in war, the English could afford to be good-natured about the peoples with whom they share that brumous north European archipelago. At other times — and the present is one of those other times — relations have been less of an occasion for humor.

In The Isles, Norman Davies has set out to present a more organic and inclusive account of British history than the usual English-centered narratives. His focus is on the various arrangements — the cohabitation agreements, as it were — by means of which the peoples of the islands have got along together, or failed to do so. He has taken this approach for a very good reason: he believes that the current constitutional situation in the islands is on the point of breaking down, and that we can best understand what is coming by studying what went before. For added perspective, he gives extensive coverage not only of what happened, but of what various people — historians, novelists and poets — have thought about what happened. The Isles therefore includes historiography as well as history, and such other dainties as a poem by Edward II (in medieval French, untranslated) and a four-page extract from Sir Walter Scott's A Legend of Montrose.

Davies has taken to heart Confucius's observation that you have to get the names of things right before you can say anything intelligent about them. Hence the title of his book. We commonly say "the British Isles"; but this is very inaccurate. The Roman province of Britannia encompassed only the southern part of the larger of the two big islands. There were sorties into the forests of the far north, but no permanent settlement; and the other island, Hibernia, was left alone altogether. The number of the inhabitants of the Isles who have thought of themselves as "British" has never been a hundred per cent, even during the brief period (1801-1922) when the Isles formed a single nation; it has probably never broken ninety. Davies has been similarly fastidious in selecting names for the various sections of his book. He deals with the early Plantagenets, for example, under the heading "The Isles of Outremer," to fix in our minds the fact that these were Frenchmen speaking French, who looked on the Isles as overseas possessions.

I confess I found this punctilious attention to nomenclature fussy and irritating at first. Seeing King Stephen referred to as "Étienne de Blois" and James II as "James VII, II and II" (i.e. of Scotland, England and Ireland respectively), I thought I had strayed into the company of those crabbed fools that want me to call Bombay "Mumbhai" and Gypsies "Roma." By the 18th century, though, I was starting to see the point, and I set this book down at last feeling sure that I was wiser than when I picked it up. I had not appreciated, for example, the unifying effect of the industrial revolution on the various nations of the Isles. The great coal fields of south Wales fed the steel mills of Yorkshire and Tyneside, which passed their output to the shipyards of Glasgow and Belfast. Now that has all gone, washed away in the great industrial decline of the last half-century, and the cohesion of the U.K. is correspondingly weakened. South Wales and north Wales have much more in common now than they had a hundred years ago, when the south fueled the Empire (that other defunct common enterprise) while the north stagnated in rustic poverty; more, indeed, than seven hundred years ago, when the south was controlled by Anglo-French Marcher Lords while the north held out under native princes. As with Wales (and "Davies," I note, is a Welsh name), so with Scotland and even Ireland — although, the Irish being Irish, the facts will probably take a century or two to sink in.

Nor is it only the U.K. that is in crisis; as Davies demonstrates very convincingly, England herself is facing the need for fundamental systemic change. All the great pillars of the state as it was fifty years ago have cracked and split. The Church of England is now a minority sect, with only four per cent of the population in regular communion. The Monarchy has been hollowed out by publicity, by the follies of its younger members, and by its inability to compete with the culture of celebrity. Commercial dynamism and progressive taxation have broken up the class system. Parliament is increasingly bypassed by a politicized judiciary, an executive smooth in the ways of media manipulation, the various supranational bodies of Europe, and a regime of regulation so complex it is understood only by the great army of professional bureaucrats who administer it. The English can no longer even succeed in sports, most of which they invented: at the 1996 Olympics, we got but one gold medal. Poland got seven.

The English do not help their own case. We are surely the most reflective, most diffident people that ever existed. The ideal of English tailoring is that one's suit should not be noticed. These traits have colored all our history. Of the last British Empire, Davies notes that: "All the finest imperialists … professed on the one hand a deep love of native cultures and, on the other, a profound moral unease at the implications of unbounded power." Of what other Empire can that be said? We have even declined to populate our own throne. The current dynasty is German: Queen Victoria spoke German for preference, and the present Queen's father was the first of his line to marry a non-German (he chose a Scot). The previous dynasty was Scottish; the ones before that Welsh, French and Scandinavian. England has not had an English monarch for over nine hundred years; Britain has never had one. Davies notes that Diana Spencer was the first person of English descent ever to approach the British throne, and adds, in an all-too-rare flash of humor: "Her Englishness was one of the few attributes that was never held against her."

As a reward to the reader for finishing this rather lengthy book, Davies has added no less than sixty-three appendices, containing a wide variety of material. There are maps, of course, and royal genealogies, and tables and statistical charts; but best of all there are patriotic songs from most of the nations of the Isles. "Land of My Fathers," "Scots Wha Hae," "The Wearing of the Green" … Even the Protestants of Ulster, to whom Davies has otherwise been very unfair, have two entries here: one the Orangeman's favorite, "The Sash My Father Wore," the other "Lilliburlero" — "the song that danced James Stuart out of three kingdoms" (see above), whose tune survives in association with the nursery rhyme "There Was an Old Woman Tossed Up in a Blanket." There is, however, no song representing the English.

In The Isles Professor Davies sometimes irritated me, occasionally angered me, and once bored me (his much-too-detailed account of the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland). He succeeded in enlightening me, though; and my only suggested improvement for future editions of his book is that it include a CD of all those wonderful songs, with Flanders and Swann added to speak for us English.