Can ‘middle child syndrome’ be applied to four nations history?
This week, Edinburgh PhD student Sophie Cooper ponders the complex interrelationships between nations and regions, and asks, just whose history are we teaching secondary school children?
‘Middle child syndrome can lead to a sense of low self-esteem, feelings of insecurity and jealousy of others.’
Many will not appreciate my use of this comparison, but I believe that it can be applied to the study of four nations history in schools. I studied “British” history for years within the English school system and in all that time, Scotland managed to get in for a lesson or few (James VI/I and all that), Ireland crowned a few pretenders to the throne, and Wales…well Wales hid Henry Tudor for a bit but that was about it. The biggest power struggle within the Four Nations for me, as a native of Yorkshire, was firstly with Lancashire and then with The South. England, and England’s government, was and has remained the most powerful nation in the United Kingdom. According to this crudely applied metaphor, it could also been seen as the first/oldest child in the mix.*
I wondered if friends who had grown up in other areas of the United Kingdom had experienced the same nation-centricism that I had. In Scotland there is currently a mandatory course on Scottish history and another on British history more widely at Highers level. Scotland has always been relatively sure of itself and its place in the UK – a middle child, but more of a Lizzie Bennet than a Kitty. In Wales, however, the national history seems to have been proscribed by the Westminster Government, which has led to a strong bias towards English history within Welsh schools. One report pointed out that this was in part due to the public education system which developed in the Victorian era and did not change much in the century afterward. Unsurprisingly, because of this the ‘history of the state, and thus of England, was the official history’. A 2013 report argued that (because of low self-esteem) instead of interpreting Welsh history within a British context, Wales was simply just left out of the history taught in schools. This report also credited the lack of Welsh national newspapers, and consequent reliance on an English press which has a habit of saying “British” when they really mean “English”, for the focus on English history in Welsh schools. With the growth of a Welsh national identity this may change, as may the teaching of history in English schools after the new curriculum (tsk!) is in place.
Ireland was the youngest: the last to join the United Kingdom brood and first to leave (mostly) – always deemed to be a little bit special. The Irish syllabus, unsurprisingly, is very Ireland-centric (it is set by the Irish Government). However I thought it was still important to consider as so many centuries of Ireland’s history were directly influenced by the Westminster Government. After asking Irish friends what their experience had been, it was clear that their education focused on Ireland with the British only making an appearance with Cromwell and Trevelyan. Moments in time when there is no way of escaping the entrance of British personalities into Irish history. The only other references to England or Britain were in a wider European context, and even then events like the First World War were recast in regards to Irish history. [The Northern Ireland situation is completely different, so I won’t go into it in lots of detail. But from what I can gather, the 20 and 30 year olds of today had a focus on Irish history up until 1922 and a sprinkling of “impartial fact”-based start of the Troubles history thrown into syllabuses that centred on European history.]
I currently live in Edinburgh – a city filled with English and Irish people. Internal migration is rampant throughout the United Kingdom, and it is not a new thing. Moving away from the high politics histories that we may have been taught in school, it is important to realise that British life has always had a supranational element. At times this was because of rural movement from across the four nations to the urban centres of production in Birmingham, Manchester, London, and Belfast. At others it was because of the landlord system which saw the landed gentry own estates across all four nations. The nineteenth century saw the movement of hundreds of thousands of Irish people to British cities, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the movement of large numbers of English and Scottish to Ireland. There are very few towns, and I would estimate no cities, in England that did not feel the influence of Scots, Welsh and Irish people. Therefore even if museums, schools and other civic institutions took a very localised view of how and which histories they taught and portrayed, it should be possible to include the histories of the all four nations within it.
By privileging one history over the others, instead of incorporating experiences from all, feelings of subordination and superiority are propagated. Maybe if we treated all the children the same, or at least acknowledge their achievements, the middle child(ren) wouldn’t feel as unloved.
*This is written by an English oldest child, so forgive the automatic sense of superiority and wish to please (acknowledged by this note).
 ‘The Cwricwlwm Cymreig, history and the story of Wales: Final report’ (2013) http://learning.wales.gov.uk/docs/learningwales/publications/190920-cwricwlwm-cymreig-final-report-en.pdf
 ‘The Cwricwlwm Cymreig’
Sophie Cooper is a History PhD student at Edinburgh University. She is researching militant Irish nationalism during the 19th century diaspora. She is one of the recipients of the British Association for Irish Studies’ Bursary Scheme 2014. You can read more about Sophie’s research on her Academia.edu page.