Four nations in row

Four nations in row

Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson (Liverpool John Moores University) analyses William Gladstone as a ‘centrifugal force’ in United Kingdom history and argues that the Grand Old Man’s actions on Home Rule  led to the heightening of pre-existing national affiliations.

Nations may be likened to planets. Both have distinct identities and trajectories. At times, however, they align. In the heavens such alignments are accorded great significance by astrologers.  On earth the meeting of nations, whether in war or in peace, is generally the preserve of historians. The association between nations is akin to the alignment of the planets in that the importance accorded to such configurations is down to the spectator.

A comparison of nations and planets may appear somewhat fanciful, especially when looking at nations that share borders or even a parliament. Perhaps the history of the four nations of the British Isles brings to mind images of satellites orbiting a planet rather than majestic spheres lining up in space. Still, there have been times, even fleeting moments, when the relationship between all four nations takes centre stage.

One example of a particularly notable historical alignment of the four nations took place during William Ewart Gladstone’s visit to south Wales in Whitsuntide of 1887. That year saw another alignment in the form of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Whereas the jubilee provided an opportunity to bring the nations together under the skirts of Queen Victoria, Gladstone proved to be a more a centrifugal force. Although it needs be said that the jubilee was not as much of a centripetal occasion as many have assumed. [1]

Even so, Gladstone’s visit was something else. His speech at Swansea has been considered ‘a major turning point in the description and imagery of the United Kingdom’. [2] The address has been described as ‘an argument for a four nations approach to the United Kingdom and for an empire which was integrated by diversity rather than force or strict conformity’. [3] This notable speech was, however, only a part of a discussion that illuminated the public sphere with contending conceptions of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the speech owed a great deal to its context.

One of the reasons for this was Gladstone himself. The Liverpool-born statesman embodied the four nations: his parents were Scots, he married a Welsh woman and lived in the Principality, and he desire to ‘pacify’ Ireland had been part of the political landscape since 1868. When he visited Swansea, Gladstone was attempting to mobilise support for Irish Home Rule. His ‘Celtic’ associations resulted in him being seen as a chameleon. An Ulster paper attacked his visit to Swansea thus: ‘Mr Gladstone’s nationality fluctuates in sympathy with the audience which he is addressing for the time being’. He is a Scot born in Liverpool ‘yet he has always been a Welshman.’ [4] In some respects, both Disraeli and Gladstone were both outsiders. Although Anthony Stephen Wohl was justified when he argued that Gladstone’s personification as a Celt was less sinister than images of Disraeli in 1870s, his conversion to Irish Home Rule and courting of the Welsh meant that Gladstone was seen by Unionists as not so much un-English as anti-English – a similar development of resentment as that detected by Wohl in his consideration of Disraeli.  [5]

(C) Punch, 11 June 1887

(C) Punch, 11 June 1887

The location of Gladstone’s speech played an important part in the debate too. Swansea was no backwater, yet it was the most ‘Welsh’ of the port towns of south Wales. It also provided a convenient location for Irish supporters. Representatives of the Irish in south Wales were joined by those who travelled from Ireland to lend their support. As a Manchester paper observed: ‘the fraternity between the Welsh and Irish demonstrators [from Cork and Waterford] found expression in green and white rosettes which with which the processionists were decorated.’ [6] This reading of the crowd was not accurate as the colours – green with a white centre – were decided upon by the welcoming committee because they were ‘the ancient colours of Wales’. [7] Yet the confusion is telling: observers could interpret this substantial demonstration numbering some 50,000-60,000 as a coming together of nations that were unhappy with the current state of the Union.

In addition, the timing of the visit helps explain why the occasion provoked such discussion about the four nations and their relationship to one another. Opposition to the collection of the tithe in north-east Wales result in protest and law-breaking. Gladstone travelled through some of the affected areas on the way to Swansea. At one of railway stations, Gladstone stated ‘questions which are exclusively Welsh ought to be settled by the voice and interest of Wales’. [8] Gladstone the churchman was opening the door to disestablishment. His support for the interests of what might be called the ‘periphery’ had been demonstrated not just over Ireland, but in his support of the Crofters Act of 1886. Despite attempts by his rivals to case Gladstone as the man who was about to shatter the union, this was no revolutionary moment. Still, Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule, his decision to court the Liberals of south Wales, alongside a less secure sense of English or imperial might, led to the heightening of pre-existing national affiliations. Welsh, Irish, Ulster and English identities were proclaimed and debated in what amounted to a debate over what Britain was and should be. An agricultural depression, struggles over land rights in Ireland, northern Scotland and Wales, contributed to a sense of insecurity that took place against the backdrop of the Golden Jubilee.

 [1] Mike Benbough-Jackson, ‘Celebration and social divergence: Swansea and the Golden Jubilee, 1887’, Llafur, 9:4 (2007), 61–71.

[2] D. G. Boyce, ‘The marginal Britons: the Irish’, in Robert Colls and Philip Dodd (eds), Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880–1920 (London, 1986), p. 235.

[3] Mike Benbough-Jackson and Neil Evans, ‘Ritual, symbol and politics: Gladstone, Swansea and Wales in 1887’, Welsh History Review, 26:3 (2013), p. 473.

[4] Belfast Newsletter, 4 June 1887.

[5] Anthony Stephen Wohl, ‘“Dizzi-Ben-Dizzi” : Disraeli as alien’, Journal of British Studies, 34:3 (1995), 375-411, p. 393.

[6] Manchester Examiner and Times, 6 June 1887.  

[7] South Wales Daily News, 25 May 1887.

[8] Cambrian News, 10 June 1887.

Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson is Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University. is particularly interested in representations, symbols and group definition. As well as a blog on place and identity ( and the First World War (, he has published work on landlord/tenant relations in Rural History, political ideas and culture in the Welsh History Review, travellers’ perceptions in Ceredigion, and national celebrations in Llafur, Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Local Historian, Religion and Society in the Diocese of St Davids 1485–2011 (Ashgate: 2013) and Merseyside: Culture and place. Mike has written a Concise History of Cardiganshire (University of Wales Press, 2007), the only one volume history of the county, Cardiganshire and the Cardi: Locating a place and its people, c. 1760—2000 (University of Wales Press, 2011) and edited Merseyside: Culture and place (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) with his colleague Prof. Sam Davies.


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