Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History: A (Dis)united Kingdom
edited by: Naomi Lloyd-Jones, Margaret M. Scull
London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, ISBN: 9781137601421; 274pp.
Magdalene College, University of Cambridge
Date accessed: 9 June, 2023
Four Nations Approaches, as the editors acknowledge from the start, follows in the footsteps of a very solid tradition of edited collections, brought about by the rise of ‘New British History’ in the 1990s and early 2000s. Unlike the majority of that scholarship, however, this volume focuses on the modern rather than the early modern period: the stated aim of this chronology is that it allows the historian to transcend the discussion of ‘state formation’ (p. 5, and see also p. 62). Hugh Kearney’s ‘four nations’ label is adopted here to highlight the fact that ‘the extent to which’ England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales ‘shared a “British” history is interrogated, rather than assumed’ (p. 6), and the approach remains ‘pluralistic’ rather than ‘wholeistic’ (p. 5). ‘Interactions’, instead of ‘integration’, form the focus of analysis (p. 5).
On the whole, there are two dangers that the volume sets out to avoid: the Anglocentrism which is residual in J. G. A. Pocock’s work, and, almost inevitably, in many political and state-centred histories; and a backstaging of the differences and peculiarities of each nation in an effort to look at how they fit into a British ‘whole’. This backstaging usually leaves behind especially Wales, tacitly subsumed into England, and—as Krishan Kumar has most eloquently noted—England itself, whose supposed essence is often reduced to positional dominance in the Union and in the Empire.(1) In this historical moment, however, an explicitly dis-homogenising historiographical approach is made most relevant by the post-2016 trajectories not of Wales and England, but of Scotland and Northern Ireland (pp. 15-18). Lloyd-Jones and Scull are very aware of the risks of hindsight-thinking. That of coming to see the United Kingdom as less of a historical reality merely because of its present disgregation was an issue with which historians had to grapple already in the 1990s. (2) Yet in firmly choosing the Four Nations framework, and determinedly bypassing not only Anglocentric paradigms, but the very idea of ‘Britishness’, this book may well be riding an early wave of what will become the politically mainstream understanding of ‘British’ history.
Some of the volume’s contributors, it must be said, are openly sceptical: Paul O’Leary, for example, criticises the ‘metanarrative of national decline or disintegration’, and the doubting question marks with which most collections of essays on the subject tended to end in the 1990s—Uniting the Kingdom?, A Disunited Kingdom?, and so on (pp. 60-1). Arguably, however, the title of this book goes to the next stage of metatextual hesitation, using not only a question mark, but also inverted commas: British becomes ‘British’. A whole field of historical studies is now an imprecise term that is handled with punctuation tongs, from a distance, and held up to scrutiny.
How does it stand up? Naturally, this is not a question that can be answered in a single collection of essays. This volume, however, offers a good sample. Its chapters adopt various perspectives and approaches, from biographical history to fiscal and economic history, from historiographical analyses to intellectual history, cultural history, social history, and the history of grassroots political organisations.
After a thorough editorial introduction, Ian McBride opens the collection with a tribute to Pocock, and, among other themes, discusses how the latter’s positionality as an ‘imperial’ New Zealander shaped the whole field. Paul O’Leary follows, suggesting an interpretation of Four Nations history as a symptom of perceived disgregation, but in fact as illustrating precisely that disgregation is not inevitable, because the system depends not on a tension between centralisation and dissolution, but on a dynamic and ever-changing equilibrium of relationships. In his view, moreover, the New British History has been on the whole ‘methodologically timid’: material, linguistic, and regional approaches, as well as a stronger focus on memory, race, and gender, are among his suggestions for broadening its scope (pp. 70, 75)—and, one may add, areas in which even the last couple of years have seen great strides.
The second section of the collection contains seven case studies. Patrick Walsh aims to expand John Brewer’s framework of the eighteenth-century fiscal-military state, often deployed along very Anglocentric lines, to the rest of the Four Nations, and especially Ireland and Scotland. In order to achieve this, he considers not only fiscal revenue, but also ‘infrastructural’ and ‘human capital’ ‘contributions’ to the fiscal-military state, as well as its peculiarities away from the English centre. James Stafford looks at how the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ provided theoretical foundations for the Anglo-Irish Union of 1800: his chapter adds a deeper intellectual genealogy and an explicitly transnational note to the more usual approaches comparing 1707 and 1801. Ian B. Stewart dissects the phenomena that led to the uneven rise of ‘pan-Celticism’ in the long nineteenth century—a process which brought together previously distinct national traditions of ethnic identification, as a result of and reaction to the growing racialisation and ‘othering’ of the British ‘peripheries’. This racialisation was also contested and geographically gradual, complicating the boundaries between the Four Nations. The most striking example is perhaps the case of the ‘Saxon’ Scottish Lowlands, which, in the eyes of extremist racial theorists like Robert Knox (himself, of course, a Lowlander Scot), were biologically assimilated to England, and sat in stark contrast to their northern Celtic neighbours (p. 145). In the following chapter, Paul Ward turns to examining a traditional ‘English’ symbol, the Beefeaters of the Tower of London, and how, in the nineteenth century, they were revamped as representatives of the whole ‘United Kingdom’ through recruitment among a British and Irish veteran workforce, embodying the usual synecdoche of Britain into England. Next, Melanie Bassett explores the ways in which regional and national identities were embraced and reshaped by early twentieth century migrant dockyard workers in Portsmouth, offering templates for socialisation and group identification. Oliver Betts discusses the tension between the flattening ‘urban and English understanding of poverty’ which was deployed by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century activists, and the views and experiences of the poor themselves, in their own specific local contexts across the Four Nations. Finally, Martin Wright takes us through a potted history of socialist movements in Wales from the end of the nineteenth until the middle of the twentieth century, in a difficult search for any traces of specificity and ‘Welshness’. Language seems to provide the strongest element of distinctiveness, but ultimately, as he shows, logistical and ideological factors meant that a uniquely and uncontestedly ‘Welsh’ socialism became the path not taken in twentieth-century political activism.
Reading through the collection, the main question that arises over and over concerns the choice of ‘nations’ as the building blocks of this historiographical framework. In some chapters, most notably Stewart’s, Bassett’s, Betts’s, and Wright’s, the attempt to break up the British compact into its component ‘Four Nations’ ultimately seems to highlight, instead, a local and regional dimension, skipping the intermediate stage. As Wright demonstrates, for example, the historian setting out to identify a uniquely Welsh form of socialism has to confront the slipperiness of the ‘national’, in characterisations of individual lives, of ideologies, and of ‘organisational structures’ alike. In other words, at times it seems difficult to distinguish what conceptual work the notion of the ‘Four Nations’ does in the volume, besides facilitating a (sorely needed) decentralised and multipolar understanding of the United Kingdom’s history. In turn, the blurriness of internal national boundaries opens the door to considering the blurriness of external ones—the international dimension of ‘British’ history.
Something that is all but absent from this book (for exceptions see Lloyd-Jones and Scull, pp. 12-19, O’Leary, pp. 71-3, and Stafford, p. 129), yet very relevant to any fragmented understanding of the United Kingdom, is the relationship of its constituent parts to Europe, and to the rest of the world. Once again, we must be wary of presentism and hindsight, but the fraught links to the Continent, and most recently of course the European Union, currently look like the hauls that are best positioned to rip any existing faults along ‘four nation’ borders into gaping canyons. At the same time, a running thread throughout several of the chapters is how international links also problematise the internal coherence and unity of each of the Four Nations themselves.
In short, looking at any ‘nation’ too closely, especially if the goal is bypassing the structures of states, is bound to prove a messy affair. According to Lloyd-Jones and Scull, ‘the current fashion for transnational history represents more of a threat to the old new British history, with its focus on the state, than it does to the four nations model’ (p. 26). I would suggest a case for the opposite: amidst the shifting haziness of national feelings, the modern state is perhaps the one semi-stable entity which can bear the analytical weight of mediating between the transnational and the local. Whether we conceptualise this mediation as happening in a centralised fashion, or ultimately through four distinct branches or structures, it arguably provides the only substructural adhesive that can hold anything as large and composite as a ‘nation’ more or less together as one piece. The artificial stiffness and theoretical weakness of the idea of ‘nation’ were, we should note, explicitly highlighted by Kearney himself, who entitled his foundational book A History of Four Nations, but focused on what he called the ‘Britannic melting pot’. ‘Upon closer examination’, he wrote,
what seem to be “national” units dissolve into a number of distinctive cultures with their own perceptions of the past, of social status (“class” is here seen as subordinate to culture), of religion and of many other aspects of life. (3)
The editors of this collection are very aware of these roadblocks, as shown by their careful choice of words in the introductory chapter: they speak of ‘distinct national and local experiences’, ‘interactions between nations, regions and individuals’, and ‘fissures within and between the nations and national alignments as much as their commonalities’ (p. 19). Yet the underlying conceptual tension remains unsolved.
Here we risk rehearsing a well-trodden semantic debate, stale by comparison with the ground-breaking work of historians of race and Empire. The important point is that this collection offers valuable templates for a British and Irish history that is truly, structurally such, and begins to tear down the disciplinary boundaries imposed by geographical specialisation, in a system where one is often either an English or a Scottish or an Irish or a Welsh historian. Localities and their interactions deserve more attention than they have received so far, and the precondition is increased dialogue and connection among historians of different areas, regardless of nationalised professional patterns. This was the original goal of the ‘Four Nations History Network’, from which this book stems, and it is clearly fulfilled.
- K. Kumar, The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge, 2003).Back to (1)
- L. Colley, ‘Britishness and otherness: an argument’, Journal of British History, 31:4 (1992), 309-29, at 311-16.Back to (2)
- H. Kearney, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2012), p. 9.Back to (3)