It's a question my agent posed me in connection with my book about Arthur ('King' Arthur, that is - the original, the historical, the one!) "What is Britain for?" What's the point of the book - current subtitle: "The True Story of Arthur and the Fall of Britain" - if we haven't decided what Britain is, and why we should give a damn?!
And at first I thought - "What is Britain for? Well, it's kind of for keeping the wind off Belgium. And for making sure Ireland doesn't get too close to the Continent."
But that was just me being facetious.
Anyway, I've spent about two months now on my rejigged opening chapters to Commanding Youth and I think I'm getting there. The question. What's it all for.
The Romans invaded, but they only took about a half to two-thirds of Britain - essentially, the same part as the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes would later turn into a place called 'England'.
The rest of Britain got renamed. The tattooed people to the north got called 'Picts' (from pictii- 'painted'). Their Irish equivalent was the 'Cruithne' - effectively, the Picts in Ireland (or, as Diodorus Siculus called them, 'those of the Pritani who inhabit Iris'). The Britons, according to a description given by Claudian Claudianus just five years before the Romans left Britain for good, remained rather 'Pictish' themselves.
So - all of the British Isles, plus a substantial part of Ireland, were once 'British'. Then Rome came along and turned just a part of the territory into 'Britain', the rest becoming somehow alien. And the bit Rome called Britain then got taken over by Germanic immigrants (the English) who were anything but British.
And therein lies the problem of Britain.
Over the centuries, England has tried to govern every part of the British Isles (and Ireland) from London. But England is the odd-one-out, the non-British part of the whole. Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall ... these are aspects of the real Britain, and they have all been imposed upon, trampled, exploited and frequently despised by the controlling English in their southern capital.
So I'm beginning to formulate an answer to the question "What is Britain for?"
It's for uniting against the stranglehold of London and the southeast, and for remembering that Britain existed long before England was invented.
Now I've just got to get that idea past my agent, who's based in ... yes, you've guessed it.