Regionalism and the Four Nations: Thoughts upon the Metropolitan Fallacy

Regionalism and the Four Nations: Thoughts upon the Metropolitan Fallacy

Daryl Leeworthy (Cardiff University) discusses the benefits of a regional approach to Four Nations history. 

Fifteen years ago, the Canadian history journal Acadiensis published a set of papers analysing the concept of region and its continued applicability to the study of the Canadian past. This is not a surprising ‘turn’ since regions are a vital aspect of Canadian life – Canada is, after all, a country knitted together from a mosaic of regional identities and frameworks. There is the West, the Prairies, the North, central Canada, la Francophonie Canadienne, Atlantic Canada, and the Maritimes. Some of these overlap each other, and some have exercised a more powerful influence over the writing of Canadian history than others. It’s a model familiar to that North-West European Archipelago otherwise known as the British Isles. Regular readers of the Guardian know how much they like to talk about the North and the South (although they frequently forget to add ‘of England); those who have seen the film Pride may recall the joke about the North-South Wales divide too. Likewise, Corkonians insist on their city being the ‘real capital’ of Ireland in contrast to the city at the end of the rocky road, and anyone with Scottish relatives will readily appreciate the Highland-Lowland, East Coast-West Coast dilemma. Things are undoubtedly more complex than that, but these old boundaries are a good starting point.

Regionalism inflects the way we understand our nation: what Wales means to a South Walian is not always the same as what Wales means to a North Walian. This isn’t merely a question of language, although it is often reduced to that, but one of geography, sociology, history, and demography Regions undoubtedly complicate the ‘national’ picture. Even for historians sensitive to the variations inherent in a ‘four nations’ approach, the regionalist approach can appear contrarian. There’s good reason for that. A narrative of political change appropriate, say, to Lancashire (think of Clarke’s Lancashire and the New Liberalism or Griffiths’ The Lancashire Working Classes or Joyce’s Work, Society and Politics) is unlikely to hold for South Wales or the South West of England or even neighbouring Yorkshire, but historians are more likely to accept its findings as true of the entire nation than they are to question it. Far too often an English industrial region is taken to encompass not just the English story but the rest of Britain too, however much the rest of us point out the holes.

Historians, it seems to me, have a problem with regional history because regions pose pesky questions of neat, comfortable syntheses. Regionalists, like scholars of gender, class, ethnicity, race, and sexuality, frequently adopt the stance of ‘well, it wasn’t like that for everyone’ and can easily get on the nerves of synthetically-inclined historians. I agree with the Canadian historian Ian McKay that we should seek the ‘abandonment of the metaphor of synthesis and […] encourage a strategy of reconnaissance’. That is to say, ‘it is neither desirable nor possible to produce a […] historical “synthesis” in which every [Briton – in the original Canadian] will somehow see him- or herself as part of a great integrated story. That is a mirage, and it is time to let it go’ (McKay, Acadiensis 29 [2000], pp. 90-91). This strategy of reconnaissance enables us to map the historical circumstances of the British and Irish state(s) in the modern and late-modern periods, as well as the lines of contestation that are inherently part of them.

In view of this, I have written elsewhere (with my friend and mentor Colin D. Howell) of the need to go beyond the ‘metropolitan fallacy’, that is beyond the idea that everything that is made in the centre is replicated on the periphery in an unquestioned manner. Human beings make their own history, after all, it’s the circumstances that they don’t get to choose. Recognition of this fallacy does not mean that either the metropolis or the nation suddenly disappears – let’s not throw the dialectical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater – but that the system of relationships is viewed much more critically than it often appears at present. After all, much of the vitality of regionalists and other pesky scholars derives from the existence of the nation-state as a unit of analysis. If the nation disappears, so too will a number of the points of contestation. Not the least of these is the desire of many of the pesky historians to fit the voices of the periphery into the wider frameworks and to rescue them from the condescension of posterity. The prospects of that are far more exciting than the next overly fat, synthetic book produced by the Daily Mail’s “historian” in residence.

So what might a regionalist approach to four nations history look like? I suppose it depends on what four nations history is for. To me, four nations history is about a fundamental reorientation of the histories of these islands away from the centre and towards the periphery, away from a tacit acceptance of the ‘natural’ (liberal) framework of the Anglo-British state and its official points of formation (e.g. Magna Carta) towards a more sceptical approach, away from synthesis and towards reconnaissance. Why is it the case that we think of medical services before the NHS as a kind of dark ages when in the valley my grandfather grew up in (and indeed the different one I grew up in, neither of which include Tredegar) working-class people could already access a whole range of medical services from general practice to dentistry and opticians free at the point of need? The answer to this question and countless others lies in the habit of historians to look towards the centre and not towards the periphery – to fail to grasp the metropolitan fallacy, in other words. So let me be contrarian and say this: the nation is dead, long live the region!

Daryl Leeworthy teaches at Cardiff University. He is currently writing a book on the history of the labour movement and social democracy in South Wales and recently completed (with Dr Rebecca Gill of the University of Huddersfield) an article on the Save the Children Fund and the moral economies of voluntary action in inter-war Britain which will appear in the Journal of Global Ethics later this year.


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