Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History

Two PhD students in the Department of History at KCL, Maggie Scull and Naomi Lloyd-Jones, discuss the ideas and debates that lie behind their successful Four Nations History Network.

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We’re two PhD students looking not to change the world, but to reshape the debate on Modern ‘British’ History. Our own thesis research, although separated by 100 years, draws on a shared history. Yet had we not met on a statistical methodology course run by the School of Advanced Studies, our projects, however similar, might not have crossed paths. We realised that there was a need for a platform to connect researchers – be they postgraduates, early career historians or established academics. With this is mind, we created the Four Nations History Network for those working on the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. With the ‘New British History’ no longer so ‘new’, we hope to reignite the debate over how we study ‘British’ history. The network is open to anyone using ‘four nations’ or ‘British’ frameworks, and to those researching the individual nations.

Forty years ago, J.G.A. Pocock made a now famed clarion call for ‘British history’ to be revived and re-invested with a meaning allegedly stripped from it by the likes of A.J.P. Taylor.[1] He observed the lack of ‘histories of Britain’ and the dominance of what thereby effectively amounted to ‘histories of England’, in which the Welsh, Scottish and Irish appeared ‘when, and only when, their doings assume[d] power to disturb the tenor of English politics.’ He also noted the parallel practice of writing ‘histories of Wales, Scotland [and] Ireland’ as ‘separate enterprises’, thereby perpetuating the existence of ‘separate historiographical traditions.’[2]

Pocock’s mantle was most comprehensively taken up in the 1990s by a school of early modernists who, in a series of conference proceedings, emphasised the need to place given points in history into their ‘British’ context, so as to tease out a host of forgotten dimensions and establish a new, more complete narrative. Illuminating and lively though the debate generated by these studies was, by 2013 Toby Barnard could suggest that ‘the “British” approach to political history from 1485 to 1782 may have run its course.’[3] Yet the ‘British’ approach to modern history, political or otherwise, has barely hit the ground running.

The current political climate, with the simultaneous emergence of a four nations discourse and a renewed focus on the affairs of the nations within the UK, suggests alternative methodologies are required to understand the past and the present. For instance, David Cameron’s rhetoric has shifted in the months after the Scottish independence referendum. The morning after the vote, he stood outside No.10 and declared that voters had ‘kept our country of four nations together’. At his party’s 2014 conference, Cameron expressed his pride at being ‘Prime Minister of four nations in one United Kingdom’. Fast forward to the early hours of 8 May 2015, and we find Cameron again outside Downing Street, but this time pledging the Conservatives to ‘govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.’ The party nevertheless issued a separate ‘English manifesto’ and has outlined plans for ‘English votes for English laws’, while also vowing to press ahead with the Smith Commission’s recommendations on Scottish devolution.

Four Nations 1Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has both insisted on Scotland’s right to be heard at Westminster and called for ‘the assent of all four UK home nations before any withdrawal from the EU’.

A four nations approach is a different beast from other kinds of history, in that it is intentionally polycentric. The Four Nations History Network does not intend to be prescriptive, nor do we advocate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. In this respect, we heed David Cannadine’s warning that no one approach should be allowed to dominate.[4] Instead, our aim is to demonstrate that four nations frameworks are relevant to a range of fields, and, crucially, can be interpreted and applied in different ways. Moreover, we aim to address certain of the imbalances in the New British History. We do not seek to recount a process of state formation, alleged by some to offer merely ‘a more sophisticated version of old-fashioned anglocentric constitutional history.’[5] Four nations is not about core-periphery; it allows for and explores the complications arising from regionalism, pan-Celticism and the seeming inextricability of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’. Nor is the Network solely (high) political in its focus; we publish blogs on cultural, gender, imperial, intellectual and economic history. In some subject areas, a four nations approach is an intuitive exercise; in the case of others, we hope the Network will inspire critical engagement with such frameworks.

We hope to hold another conference as well as a roundtable discussion on the future of four nations as a framework for the study of modern ‘British’ history. So while Pocock made his ‘plea for a new subject’, we ask historians to broaden their toolkit and think about how four nations could relate to their research.


[1] See, for example, A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), v.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 47:4 (Dec. 1975), pp.601-621.

[3] T. Barnard, ‘Renewing the “New” British history’, unpubl. Dacre lecture, Oxford University (May 2013).

[4] D. Cannadine, ‘British History as a “new subject.” Politics, perspectives and prospects’, in A. Grant & K.J. Stringer (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (London, 1995), p.23.

[5]K.M. Brown, ‘Seducing the Scottish Clio: Has Scottish History Anything to Fear From The New British History?’, in G. Burgess (ed.), The New British History: Founding a Modern State, 1603-1715 (London, 1999), p.242.

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