Whose mythical past?

In February this year, scientists unveiled a reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man, who died around 9,000 years ago, and whose skeleton was found in a cave in Somerset in 1903. DNA analysis has now revealed that ‘the earliest known Briton’ – part of a population from which modern white Britons are thought to descend – probably had dark to black skin and blue eyes.

There is nothing particularly shocking about this, given that we know all human beings originated in Africa and that racial differences are the results of adaptations to different environments over hundreds of generations. Nevertheless, at the very least Cheddar Man’s pigmentation qualifies as a fun fact, and the news duly made headlines along with the striking image of the reconstruction.


But, of course, for many there was also something else: a frisson of glee at such a graphic blow to the old-fashioned, racialised view of Britishness as whiteness. And in the absence of any significant scientist, historian or politician to articulate this view today, one gleeful Twitter user went to the trouble of delving into the Daily Mail online comments section to catalogue the gratifying spluttering about political correctness gone mad. Take that, reactionaries!

Steven Clarke, the director of a Channel 4 documentary about Cheddar Man, even managed to make the discovery about Brexit, when he said, ‘You go back quite far and discover that everything’s in flux, everything changes. That’s the message of the film. There is a national debate, and a debate about our relationship with Europe. All those things are still in the mix. It speaks to us now.’

Of course, Cheddar Man’s skin colour tells us nothing about Brexit, or any other contemporary political issue. But it is significant that anyone should think it does. There’s a suggestion that some people are still in thrall to a now discredited idea of race and nationality as fixed over time, and that it informs their political decision-making. The news about Cheddar Man was taken by many as a blow for a more enlightened worldview, one that recognises both our common humanity, and the fact that different human populations have always migrated and intermingled in various ways.

Indeed, the story was reminiscent of a controversy that erupted last year, when historian Mary Beard was involved in a Twitter storm over the suggestion that a high-ranking soldier in Roman Britain could have been black. It had begun when someone objected to a BBC animation for schools that depicted such a man. Professor Beard and others pointed out that this was not as improbable as critics seemed to think, and consequently she was subjected to the usual abuse. To the extent that this backlash was racist (and sexist), it is easy to dismiss it: reactionaries prefer living in the dark to being enlightened. But as with Cheddar Man, perhaps there was also something else.

Because, after all, the Cheddar Man scientists were only reporting the facts as they had found them. In the case of the BBC animation, someone had chosen to depict a Roman soldier as black. Even if we accept that this was a reasonable decision, is it possible to imagine someone feeling annoyed by it for reasons other than racial hatred? Not all or even most of those who objected online did so in racist terms. Others, perhaps too confidently, simply dismissed the idea as surely having been inspired by political correctness rather than scholarship. One of Professor Beard’s more prominent antagonists was the Lebanese-American author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is certainly no British nationalist (though he has said unkind things about the EU).

Perhaps some people are too quick to react against anything that smells like political correctness, even seeking it out with the same morbid fascination as those who patrol the Daily Mail comments for racism. But there is nothing necessarily unhealthy about rolling your eyes when you feel an educational resource is ‘lecturing’ off-topic. The BBC quite rightly has a responsibility to reflect the diversity of modern Britain, but it’s easy to see how this could become a habit, with producers feeling the need to reflect the diversity of modern Britain even when depicting Britain’s past.

Yes, there is always a plausible explanation of how one of Robin Hood’s merry men could have been Middle Eastern, but such strained justifications distort the historical record far more than simply casting black actors in white roles and leaving it at that. A UKIP councillor was rightly ridiculed for objecting to the excellent Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret of Anjou in the BBC’s Hollow Crown. What grates is not the colour of anyone’s skin, but the more explicit pretence that the ethnic diversity of contemporary Britain is nothing new.

The idea that the people of the British isles were overwhelmingly white in complexion for most of recorded history is not a racist myth. Nor is it anything to be proud or ashamed of – it is simply a fact. Large-scale immigration of non-white people was unknown before the Second World War. And since the 1990s, immigration overall has reached unprecedented levels. To acknowledge that Britain’s current level of ethnic diversity is new is not to take a position for or against it. There is a debate to be had about whether the effect has been positive, negative or neutral – or indeed all three in different ways.

The problem is that in the current climate it feels rude even to have that debate. What is someone does say something racist? Far easier to pretend there is nothing to discuss. Britain has always been a vibrant, multicultural society! The earliest known Briton was black! What’s all the fuss about?

This kind of bad faith is not healthy. It allows racists to set the terms of debate on immigration, since the only thing anyone else is allowed to say about it is that we don’t like racism. It leaves no room for the significant numbers of non-white British citizens who are in favour of curbing immigration one way or another. And, of course, it prevents anyone from making the case that mass immigration has changed Britain for the better. It also prevents us from noticing something remarkable.

Britain is often described as a mongrel nation, with Celtic roots, Roman influences and successive influxes of Angles and Saxons, Vikings and then Normans before anything like ethic stability was established. It is easy to forget that this process was anything but peaceful. Of course, more recent immigration has sometimes resulted in social disharmony and racism. But the really striking thing about immigration in the past few decades is that it has taken place with so little friction, even coinciding with a decline in racist attitudes.

This is not to downplay the difficulties that have arisen, from pressure on social services in some areas to a more widespread sense of things being out of control. But those who feel the country has benefitted from large-scale immigration are oddly shy about what is surely a historic success story. Britain has welcomed millions of new people, many from very different societies, and yet remains stable, democratic and at peace.

Those who fear that these things are threatened, either by further immigration or by the corrosive effects of multiculturalism, will not be reassured by breezily false claims that Britain has always been like this. It has not, and the pretence can only exacerbate popular resentment at change that has not only come about without proper democratic debate, but is not even acknowledged to be real.

As someone who favours a liberal approach to immigration but holds no brief for multiculturalism, I would like to see a more open debate about how Britons of all ethnic backgrounds can share more than a geographical location. The starting point is surely to admit that a mythical past of primordial and continuous diversity is just as unhelpful as an insistence that to be British is to be white. And given that nobody holds the latter view, might we stop congratulating ourselves for exploding it?

First published on All in Britain.