“Four Nations History: A New Subject?”
University of Huddersfield
Thirty years ago, the Welsh historian and ‘People’s Remembrancer’, Gwyn Alf Williams, posed the question ‘When was Wales?’ and concluded that Wales is a nation made and remade following successive breaks (or brutal ruptures as he put it on television) in its history. One such rupture then engulfed the people of his native land: the failed devolution referendum of 1979, the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the devastating impact of Thatcherism. All this, he suggested, left the Welsh naked beneath an acid rain. Gwyn Alf, as he was and is affectionately known, died aged 70 in November 1995 and never saw the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, nor could he have envisaged the independence referendum due to be held in Scotland in a few months’ time. The contradictions inherent in that campaign would likely have brought forth some of Gwyn Alf’s finest Dowlaisian denunciation but it’s hard to imagine him being anything other than an enthusiastic supporter of independence. His solution for Wales, well:
If capitalism in Britain lives, Wales and the Welsh will die. If we are to live, capitalism in Britain must die.
Not exactly words that many historians would utter today, but food for thought in this age of the Great Recession, cuts, and coalitions.
The truth is, of course, that many of the profound changes in Wales have largely gone unnoticed by historians elsewhere, particularly across the border in England, and ‘British history’ continues to mean English history with a thin shading around the edges of some events in Scotland and Ireland, and the necessary mention of Rhondda coal or Merthyr iron. I must confess, now, to turning instantly to the index of big releases, such as Selina Todd’s recent The People or Emma Griffin’s Liberty’s Dawn, and looking for any substantial mention of the non-English parts of the islands. Somewhat to the annoyance of colleagues! But then, I once read a book proudly labelled Coal: A Human History that didn’t even mention the South Wales Coalfield. They usually go back on the shop shelf in a fit of annoyance at that great lie: “British history”. So much for dolce et decorum est pro patria scribere.
Last year, I attended a conference at University College Cork exploring issues related to the 1913 Lockout in Dublin. As might be expected there were papers focused on the Lockout itself, on similar labour struggles in Cork, Waterford, and Limerick, and on the question of British-Irish relations through the TUC. And then there were a number of side papers, my own included, which examined the Lockout from the point of view of Scottish workers, Welsh workers, and English workers. In other words, we had a ‘four nations’ perspective on the 1913 Lockout which shed genuinely new light on a major historical event – one of the defining moments of the labour wars of a century ago.
This sums up my own approach to the question of ‘Four Nations History’. To draw, for instance, on newspapers from the whole of the Irish Sea region to make sense of events that engulfed the South Wales Coalfield between 1910 and 1914; or, to discuss it with friends working on similar matters in Ireland, Scotland, and England, and draw together the similarities and differences. How else can we explain miners in Ynysybwl calling for a general strike in Britain to aid the locked out workers of Dublin in 1913? The explanation might come down to internationalism, solidarity, and so forth, but unless we bother to seek out such connections, the richness of our past is lost.
Without looking again at the histories of the islands from the point of view of all the peoples who live here, we are, I believe, in danger of missing the true lessons of the past. It’s too easy for historians of ‘Britain’ to be lazy and write just about England: it is okay to do that but be honest and say that’s what you’re doing. In appealing for genuine Four Nations History, a new generation of historians seeks to take up the mantle of the late Rees Davies in understanding the dynamics of interaction, engagement, and development, which occupied all the peoples of these islands. We make a plea not for a new subject, but a re-awakening of an old one!
Daryl is currently lecturer in community history at the University of Huddersfield. He grew up in the South Wales Valleys, studied ‘British’ history at Oxford, and completed his PhD in labour history at Swansea University in 2011.