‘There were no Celts’ says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins in new book
A new book by Simon Jenkins argues that “there were no Celts, just sociable sailors” but that it became politically advantageous for the Welsh, Irish and Scots to say that they had a political identity in common.
His book The Celts: A Sceptical History argues that there has never been a distinct people, race or tribe claiming the name of Celtic, though remnants of different languages and cultures remain throughout Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall.
Guardian political columnist Simon Jenkins argues in the book that a Celtic identity become useful as each nation had an experience of oppression under Anglo-Saxon, English then British rule, leading to the near break-up of the UK in the present day.
“My intention is to dispel the concept of a single Celtic people, language or nation,” he says in the book.
“There are Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man.
“They have never in any respect cohered as one entity and I regard lumping them together as Celts or ‘the fringe’ as distorting and dismissive.”
He does however argue that the people of the separate ‘Celtic’ nations faced oppression and that their own histories should be better taught as part of the UK.
“Britons are taught from birth the story of England, just England,” he said.
“They are taught little or nothing of the ‘others’ – notably the Irish, Scottish and Welsh commonly referred to collectively as the Celts.”
Indeed, it was the failure of the Welsh, Irish and Scottish to unite, first between themselves and then together, that was partly responsible for England’s domination, he argues.
“By the eleventh century, under Anglo-Saxons, Danes and then Normans, England was among the earliest ‘nationalised’ states in Europe. It was an early ‘union’,” he said.
“Unlike those of England, few of the clans or ‘kingdoms’ of Wales, Scotland and Ireland behaved as if they were members of a collective whole. Their efforts at self-government came constantly to grief, with rulers no sooner succeeding in briefly uniting their peoples than they died in feuds and civil wars.
“Over time, these westerners did combine sufficiently to be recognisably Irish, Scottish and Welsh, with distinctive languages and dialects. What they never did was unite against England. They did not speak a common language or acknowledge one leader.”
He argues that only in the 17th century did a did scholars begin to see the isles as possessing a collective ‘Celtic’ past, largely through the
identification of a common linguistic root.
Simon Jenkins, who is half Welsh and half English, does however note that if the UK is to survive, the English centre must begin to treat the other nations with more respect.
“It must find stability and cohesion by devolving to them ever-greater autonomy through new federal institutions,” he says.
“It has to change its outlook as well as its constitution.”
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