Neil Oliver interview: Politicians could learn from history
- Credit: Grant Beed
Nicola Sturgeon told SNP delegates at the party’s conference in Glasgow recently that its goals of Scottish independence were “clearly in sight”. Coast presenter Neil Oliver tells Wayne Savage why he thinks it’s a bad idea.
Neil Oliver doesn’t like referendums, especially when they affect the destiny of millions for untold generations. Not wildly pro-EU, he’s a unionist by instinct.
“I’d prefer to see those matters discussed and decided by elected members of Parliament. The United Kingdom is a good thing and has more to offer than places continually stagnating into smaller pieces,” he says.
There was a furore when the Renfrewshire-born archaeologist, historian, journalist, author and presenter was appointed president of the National Trust in Scotland last year.
Hundreds of people signed petitions calling for the removal of the “divisive” and “anti-independence” supporter who’s described talk of a second independence referendum as a “cancerous presence” and was even less kind about Alex Salmond.
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“I think it’s better to remain in the marriage then get divorced and cut everything in half. So, yeah, there were eyebrows raised. That’s true of anybody that’s in the public eye for any reason.
“If you happen to have a public profile your opinion seems to drown out other people just by dint of the fact you present a few television programmes which is obviously silly. Everyone has opinions; there are 60million opinions in Britain.”
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He’d already quit social media because of flak from pro-independence supporters.
“I got fed up with social media for all sorts of reasons, it was a bit like being in a crowded pub all the time - you couldn’t hear anything, there was just this constant hubbub of noise. It crystallised to a point where there just so much coming my way I found it exhausting eventually and thought ‘stuff this’. I left the pub and was pleased to be out in the fresh air again.”
I wonder if his stance on Scottish independence, on Brexit, is the result of his passion for history and archaeology; which goes back to his childhood and tales of his paternal and maternal grandfathers’ First World War exploits.
He’s wary because there was no division in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales thousands of years ago. There was just an archipelago of islands populated by disparate tribes who forged a common tongue to survive.
“There would have been local allegiances, fighting, all of the rest of it; but concepts of places like England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are relatively modern. My reading of history has made me more inclined to see the place as one entity, populated by all sorts of different people with all sorts of different ideas which I think is fair enough.
“You can cope with that within the context of a parliament but I’m disinclined to see places fragmented into smaller and smaller places. It’s the same with Europe… I don’t think the European Union’s the greatest thing… the bureaucracy, the gravy train and all the rest of it.
“I’m equally sceptical about it but I tend to think you’re better all inside the tent together talking than having any unnecessary boundaries between each other. My idea’s no more sophisticated than that. I always think nationalism is ultimately a bit like garlic or chilli powder... if it comes to be the dominant flavour... it’s not the way I’m inclined.”
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It’s a long story that’s 50,000 years old and it’s not over yet. It’s all because of history. You can’t understand anything without history. If the story of the world is a book, then all of us are born on a different page. If you only read a few lines around your page, you won’t understand the whole.
The British Isles have mattered in the world for thousands of years. The roots of our history are unimaginably deep, holding onto these landscapes with an unbreakable grip.
“History can pass a lot of people by as being not relevant or not something they think matters much to their daily lives. That’s... I don’t want to say dangerous but I think it’s very unfortunate when people become disconnected from the long story of Britain.
“Everything makes more sense when you study history. The more you read, the less judgemental you become. All the things that are happening now have happened before. It’s always been the case that people can’t get on with each other.
“If kids out there are worried about relations between the West and Russia, you can tell them we’ve fallen out before. We’ve also been at war with America. Countries reach a high point and then they go through low points. That’s all explained by history. Like everyone else, politicians can have a better understanding of what’s happening by appreciating there are patterns.
“We’ve come through everything - wars of religion, with fundamentalists tearing each other to bits about Catholicism or Protestantism; we’ve been invaded time and time again, we’ve come through two wars in the 20th Century. We’ve been the good and the bad guys. We’ve been welcoming and very unwelcoming to incomers.
“Without history, what’s happening now can feel like the end of the world and you might think Britain might cease to exist or the world will change radically, which it might. But Britain’s a resilient place...
“If you give yourself the background of history, apart from anything else you get the reassurance that Britain’s been through an awful lot worse,” he laughs.
“In 50 years, 100 years, 1,000 years time there will still be islands off the west of Europe populated by people probably not unlike us.”
Neil tries to see this history as the lifetime of a person – one who has lived a very long time and for whom there’s nothing new under the sun. It seems to him that we, the children of these islands, are guiltier of treating our parent like someone grown old and grey, even frail and forgetful.
We find it harder to see the real person beneath the years and ought to see them as someone grown wise. This person is old, but not by any means too old. There’s so much we could and should learn from them.
“More and more we dare to patronise the place, treat the person like a doddery old soul who cannot cope alone, who might even need taken into care.
“To me, the truth is altogether different. This place, these islands have taken care of us since a time beyond the reach of memory. Treated properly, they will continue to do so. The story of the British Isles is a textbook of wisdom, lessons learned from triumph and disaster.
“Woven through the fabric of these islands is a story like no other. We should be proud. More than that we should show some respect. Whatever the future holds, the instruction manual for how to cope with any and every eventuality is already in our hands and in the ground beneath our feet.
“The story of the British Isles is one every single one of us should know and give thanks for. This book, this tour, is my own personal understanding of the story – based on 100 of the places I have visited and written about during the last decade-and-a half. Visit these places; understand what each has to say and the story comes into focus.”