Narrating the Nations

Narrating the Nations

This week Neil Evans (Cardiff University) examines the power of narrative in shaping four nations histories.  He discusses alternative narrative approaches for ‘British’ history.

One of the reasons for the success of English history is the fact that it can plausibly be fashioned into simple narrative. Whig history may be out of fashion but its legacy more than lingers on in this respect: it is still dominant. Simon Schama’s TV history of Britain was trailed as being an and exciting fresh look at the subject and many looked forward to it, hoping that this would be the case. What appeared in 2000 was nothing of the kind. After a quick nod to Skara Brae, it proceeded to tell a familiar story of English history, and one which was recognisable from my undergraduate days in the 1960s. When critics complained they were told that in a mere 20 programmes it was impossible to cover everything. Of course you can’t. But what can be covered depends more on the narrative chosen – and how that makes subsidiary choices – rather than upon the length of time available. Choosing to tell the story of English domination of the islands means that other things get squeezed to the periphery and denies the telling of their stories. There is a clear teleology in that narrative. It assumes a route to some final end (centralisation / Anglicisation) and excludes anything which does not contribute to that. But there has never been a final triumph for those tendencies and the attempts to at centralisation led to reactions and reassertions, reinventions of peripheral and other identities. Schama offered 1066 as a turning point. But for Wales, Scotland and Ireland 1093 was an equally significant date. It would not be impossible to build a narrative which had such a counterpoint running in harmony with it.

Long term narratives have their smaller components. In popular history, the Tudor era is crucial. But the story told is a selective, court-centred one: the dissolution of the monasteries, the resistance to the Reformation and the tightening of central control (incorporation of Wales; suppression of palatinates, Council of the North) do not feature and outside London we are unlikely to get anything other than Ireland as a sideshow which brings down the Earl of Essex. Mary Queen of Scots is as close as we get to Scotland. By contrast, Clare Jackson’s recent series on the Stuarts had the tag-line the ‘most British of dynasties’ and that makes an important point. In the seventeenth century it is much more difficult to ignore the wider dimensions. The Stuarts – or at least James I – were seriously Scottish in a way in which Henry VII was never seriously Welsh and Ireland obtrudes more obviously into the conflicts of the period than it does in the previous century. But for the seventeenth century even a three kingdoms approach tends to crowd out Wales, despite the fact that much of the King’s army was raised from there and it has a strategic importance as a possible route for Irish troops into Britain.

So, how should we narrate the four nations? I’ve already suggested one approach: a less triumphalist one which allows for both resistance and the stimulus of cultural contact to reshape the non-dominant cultures. Linda Colley’s Britons emphasises the overarching Britishness of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But that is not the only story. A new British state also prompted Welsh, Irish and Scottish assertiveness for their distinctive cultures, large parts of which were freshly minted for the performance, while during the industrial revolution regional cultures dialects were nurtured, sustained by the power of the new industrial cities. Catriona Pennell has a rather similar approach to Colley in her fine and commendably four nations book: A Kingdom United. But the creation of this Britishness was not a zero-sum game in which solidarity with the United Kingdom meant a loss of other identities. Britishness could be pluralistic and expressed along Welsh, Scottish and English lines.

There may be more radical approaches. Tom Holland has argued recently that English and Scottish history are mirror images of one another. Might that prompt a history of the Isles which was organised around two power centres rather than one? Or more radically could such a history be narrated from the periphery? Liverpool is the geographical centre of the pre-1921 United Kingdom. Might someone be so inventive as to tell the story from that vantage point? Would that be a means of writing a history of Britain which started from its regions and arrived at a national story, a different take on history from below? John Walton once saw this as an inevitable development. However inevitable it seemed, it has not happened. Less radically David Reynolds re-tells the story of twentieth-century British exceptionalism but transcends it and makes space for the four nations by employing a Habsburg comparison. Similarly Neil Macgregor’s Radio Four Series on German identity makes effective use of a broad-brush comparison of a shape-shifting, decentralised Germany with the territorially fixed and centralised Britain. Might a finer -grained comparison be less stark and more illuminating? Now that the future of the union looks less assured than it did it might be the time to rethink just what our narratives of our history might be. There are many ways of telling the story of the islands and we need to think about new ways of doing it.

Neil Evans is an honorary research fellow in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University and has recently edited (with Huw Pryce) Writing a Small Nation’s Past: Wales in Comparative Perspective, 1850-1950 (Ashgate 2013) and, (with Charlotte Williams and Paul O’Leary) A Tolerant Nation? Revisiting Ethnic Diversity in a Devolved Wales (University of Wales Press, 2015)

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