About ten years ago, I was talking to someone from The-Pub-Is-The-Hub – Prince Charles’ outfit for advising community pubs. They told me how the best economic unit for a community pub to survive economically wasn’t 10,000 people in the catchment area or even 2,000. It was 500.
That was a revelation to me, and the beginning of a fascinating search for other examples when smaller units survive better economically than bigger ones.
Maybe some hint of that was also why Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has been presenting a BBC radio series about the lost kingdoms of England, like Anglia, Mercia and Wessex and so on.
I have been wondering myself about the significance of such ancient history. After all, why has the BBC commissioned Hislop now?
Perhaps because there is a deep sense that our units are now too big to be effective – and because the idea of small nations across Europe, introduced in our own age by Freddie Heineken, is beginning to work away at our imaginations.
That is in fact one of the reasons why I wrote my series of novels about Caractacus (the third part, Roman Briton, is now out) – though these are earlier nations: Celtic ones and rather smaller than those Saxon behemoths.
In fact, there were three reasons why I began researching Caractacus – party because I read about his lost autobiography which might have explained how he held back the Roman invaders for nine years (this was a misunderstanding on my part: it was probably never been written).
It was partly because the idea appealed to me of Caractacus being a Christian king facing down the pagan Romans (who just happened to have arrived a little after Joseph of Arimathea came to our shores between 3-5 years earlier).
But partly also because I wanted to re-imagine Britain as a group of semi-independent nations under a high king.
Because we only have Roman sources, we normally think of the Iceni, Brigantes or the Silures as barbaric tribes.
They may have been that of course, but they may also have been something a good deal more civilised – nations like Icenia (under King Prasutagus and Queen Boudicca, covering Norfolk and Suffolk), or Brigantia (under Queen Cartimandua, covering Yorkshire), or Siluria (under King Arviragus and covering south Wales and Somerset. And held together by loyalty – or lack of it – to a high king.
Rehearsing a list like this is even more of a reminder how much classical scholars cloud our view of our own history. These are all Romanised names – we know that Caractacus was originally Caradoc, but recovering the rest demands an informed but imaginative approach to linguistics.
The days of high kings may now be gone, but Brexit does at least give us an opportunity to think about the structure of our nation, the right scale to be most effective and where our natural boundaries actually lie.
Maybe, if we can sort out the old logical issues about UK devolution – which used to be called the West Lothian question – that the idea that, in the almost legendary history of our home, we used to live in small semi-independent nations. So we could again: not just Scotland or England but maybe home rule for London or Sussex or Dumnonia.
Either way, it can be fun thinking about a far more localised structure for Britain that might actually be a futuristic vision of nations that might provide a template for other parts of the world.