I knew Michael “Misha” Glenny as a young BBC correspondent reporting the tragedies of the disintegration of Yugoslavia from the eighties and more recently as the author of the book and executive producer of the smash hit TV thriller series McMafia, about the spread of global crime into politics and the world of billionaire finance. Misha’s interest is in part hereditary. His father Michael senior was a student of Eastern Europe and a famed translator who legend has it learned Albanian in a week. BBC Radio 4 had the good idea to exploit Misha’s background to make a series now available in BBC Sounds, on How to Invent a Country, the country being the UK under strain. To many of our readers, he ploughed the familiar identity furrows. But the astounding discovery of this fine journalist and historian of the Balkans was his own background which he examined for the first time – in and around Newry and Warrenpoint. The best of several accompanying articles appeared in the FT.
As I set out on my travels, the first thing I sought to understand was why England defines itself apart from its neighbours. It was a Scottish historian, Murray Pittock, who offered me the pithiest explanation as we sat in front of a roaring fire at his house in Stirling. England emerged as a kingdom as early as the 10th century. First Mercia and Wessex merged. Then came the absorption of Kent and East Anglia before finally the Vikings were driven from Northumberland. “England dominates the best agricultural land,” said Pittock. “And the lack of devolution within England meant it was heavily centralised around London at a very early date and that centralisation was built on its agricultural heartlands.
… This story begins for me in Davos, where in February 1987 my brother Paddy and I arrived after a treacherous eight-hour drive from Vienna. The Swiss ski resort is of course now synonymous with the World Economic Forum, the annual shindig for the Masters of the Universe. Not for my family: we got there long before the rich and famous. In the first half of the 20th century, this Alpine wilderness was the last station for those hoping to defeat tuberculosis. One of the pilgrims was my grandfather, Arthur Willoughby Falls Glenny. But he never made it out alive, succumbing to TB in 1947, aged just 49. When Paddy and I succeeded in unearthing his grave, buried under a good two feet of Swiss snow, we learnt something else — that Glenny had been born in Newry, County Down.
When I arrived in County Down, I was astonished to find documents at the Newry and Mourne Museum that made it clear that the Glennys had been a highly influential and wealthy family for over three centuries. A stroll through the graveyard of St Patrick’s Church confirmed this. Close to the entrance stands a large austere oblong stone inscribed “The Glennys of Newry”, and behind this lay four generations of my direct descendants, ending with my great-grandfather (Arthur’s father). The family had a country mansion and the elegant Littleton House on the outskirts of town. We owned great tracts of farmland across County Down. And what land! I had no idea how beautiful the undulating, deep green fields of South Down are, lying in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne. One area of Glenny influence I visited was Warrenpoint, ..
Border country like this is especially vulnerable in a country with a history of sectarian conflict. Declan Lawn, a Belfast screenwriter, told me how fast matters can escalate. “When we hear politicians in Westminster talking about border infrastructure and they say, ‘Oh, it’s just a camera’, well we know that within a week when someone tries to blow that camera up, then you have a manned post,” he said. “Then suddenly that’s attacked and within, say, a month you have to have the army back guarding. Now that sounds like catastrophism. But we know, having lived it, that escalation here is everything, it is what happened.”
It is not just the Nationalist community that is appalled by the insensitivity of politicians in London. Unionists are too. They both know that England looks at British history as either domestic politics in which the Celtic periphery occasionally impinges or as how the UK interacts with the outside world. Unspoken in this English worldview is something frequently articulated by foreigners — the conflation of England with Britain. This is where those separate histories I mentioned earlier start to make themselves felt. The English are usually unaware of them, even though they often play a central role: Bannockburn, the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda or Edward I’s conquest of Wales. The English barely take note of those events, preferring to reference Agincourt, Waterloo or the two world wars. The difference? These are played out on the international stage, not the domestic. Englishness is more entwined with an imperial identity and less with the internal relations of the Union. The confrontation with the EU follows that pattern…
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London