Why we need four nations history: the undergraduate perspective

In a special post, BA student Ellie Clifford (King’s College London) argues that a four nations approach should form an integral part of undergraduate Modern British History courses. 

In the 1990s, a series of conferences were held which hoped to galvanise the way in which we study British history. The attendees hoped that historians could build a better understanding of Britain, by taking the time to address the history of all four nations which were part of it. However, despite this optimism, when I started studying History at King’s College London two decades later, the Four Nations approach still did not always come naturally to me in my work.  For undergraduates, inundated with multiple ways in which to study history, it can be daunting to try and focus too much on one single approach.

Many of my A-levels focused on an Anglo-centric angle of British history. It is my degree which has made me conscious of the usefulness of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in the historical debate.

For me though, the Four Nations approach is not a sole focus on the histories of these nations. It is using them in order to improve my understanding of what has happened in Britain as a whole, and in England. The nature of the courses at King’s have formed that understanding of the approach, and I would be interested to see how others would define it. As a student whose main interest is the history of Britain, Four Nations history has been paramount to my studies since my first year. It certainly helped that one of the first PhD students who instructed me in British history was Naomi Lloyd-Jones, herself! Rather than solely acknowledging the key role of Westminster politics, I believe the approach allows for a better cultural, political, and social understanding of variations across Great Britain. 

On the subject of the History modules at King’s, it is interesting to note that many of the British modules dedicate specific weeks to the study of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The emphasis on these nations allows students to improve their background knowledge, and their contextual understanding, but its effects are not solely positive. For example, one of the second year modules I study, “Electoral Politics in Britain, 1868-1945,’ reserves weeks thirteen and fourteen for this task. This means that an emphasis on the three nations comes more than half of the way through the module. Whilst it is positive to see that King’s are actively working to counter an England-centred view of History, the course can often feel disjointed as a result of these weeks. The Four Nations approach can be an effective way of covering a range of topics, such as religious variations, but it can be easy to neglect key comparisons from previous weeks. The reality of the Four Nations approach is that it often comes so late in the course that it can lead to some anticipation about its pursuit, and this must be addressed.

As somebody with a newfound respect for the approach, it sometimes seems novel to me that it is not a process considered by all of my peers. It is not uncommon to find History undergraduates at King’s who do not know what the Four Nations approach is, or why it matters. Those academics championing it should call for its inclusion in modules which focus on developing the research skills of current undergraduate students. At King’s for example, it would fit nicely with the curriculum on “History and Memory“, or in “Historical Skills, Sources and Approaches. This would help those studying British history improve their use of the approach, and would provide a refreshing consideration for those who are not. More undergraduates need to understand what the Four Nations approach really is, in order to further promote its usage in the academic community.

Reflecting on the place of the approach in undergraduate study, it is pleasing to see an increasing amount of scholarship on Ireland, Scotland, and Wales emerging. Enthusiasm for the Four Nations debate must be promoted in undergraduates, so that future professional academics will approach the subject.  Once the Four Nations approach is implemented one thing becomes clear: the Four Nations approach is hard because you assume it will be the same as England; enjoyable because it is not; and important because it reflects Britain’s relations with its own, and with the rest of the world. It must be encouraged.

Ellie Clifford is a second year History undergraduate at King’s College London. She is particularly interested in the history of Britain in the 19th and 20th century. She is also interested in the role of public history, and has a weekly radio show on KCL Radio called “Have I Got History For You.”

The King’s College London History Department is a Four Nations History Network partner. Find out more about our partners here.


2 thoughts on “Why we need four nations history: the undergraduate perspective

  1. I would think that this would be an essential part of any curriculum in the United Kingdom. Speaking as a Canadian who lives in a country created by an 1867 Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, yet called the British North America Act, and only recieving a charter to amend it’s own constitution in 1982; the matter of a four nations history continues to be a lived reality and rarely one of academic concern.

    Throughout my lifetime I have never heard anyone reply to questions about their background being English or British, avoid the opportunity to clearly identify themselves as Irish, Scottish or Welsh. That is outside of those who possess “Loyalist” background or have recently arrived from the English part of the United Kingdom. The latter often refering to themselves as being from a region or county or even more likely a specific urban area or simply preferring ‘Canadian now”.

    Especially next to the sizeable French population found throughout the country, very few Canadians would have identified themselves as British North Americans. That is outside of periods of extreme jingoism and a questionable minority who have always held themselves destined by birth to hold economic and political power over the citizens of this country. Resulting in much of the political and economic battles, contemporary and historical, that comprise our short history. Until very recently most Canadians wer often overtly aware of the settlement patterns, socio-economic decisions, educational opportunity and localized emnity and violence this ‘one nation invention’ produced. And all would have been very protective and cognizant of living out a four nations history. All of them in my experience both interested and all accounts well outside the preserve of interested academics.

    A clear institutional recognition of the four nations history can only be commended

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