Roundtable write up: ‘Four Nations? Historical perspectives on UK devolution’

Roundtable write up: ‘Four Nations? Historical perspectives on UK devolution’


Maggie and Naomi reflect on the roundtable discussion of four nations methodologies organised by the Four Nations History Network and History & Policy.

On 19 July, the Four Nations History Network and History & Policy co-hosted a panel on historical perspectives on devolution in the United Kingdom, held at King’s College London. Professor Linda Colley acted as respondent, with former MP John Denham, Lord (Paul) Bew, Naomi Lloyd-Jones and Professor Chris Williams speaking on England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, respectively. Professor Colley briefly opened the roundtable, commenting on its timeliness. Each speaker then had 10 minutes in which to offer a long-view on devolution in their respective nations, with Professor Colley responding to their comments at the end. There followed a lively debate on the usefulness of studying the past as a means of understanding the present political climate.

This collaboration came about when History and Policy Director Dr Andrew Blick approached us with the idea of a event on four nations history. Through discussions it became clear that, with the United Kingdom’s constitutional make-up rapidly changing, there was a need for devolution to be understood not only in the immediate context of the individual nations concerned, but also holistically. Devolution in the United Kingdom has been piecemeal, and campaigns for ‘Home Rule’ have moved at different paces within different nations. However, the disjointed nature of these processes should not obscure the fact that we remain an United Kingdom. We chose a roundtable format to enable our experts to not only offer historical perspectives on England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales separately, but to consider the consequences of their forming a union-state.

The event took on a new significance in the wake of June’s Brexit vote. The referendum result fundamentally altered the dynamics of how the United Kingdom can be discussed. Former Labour strongholds in de-industrialised areas in the north of England and in Wales voted Leave, while SNP Scotland solidly backed Remain and favoured a ‘European’ identity, and in Northern Ireland the vote defied patterns of nationalist versus Unionist party politics. The possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum, questions over the Northern Irish border, and the triumph of ‘English nationalism’ inevitably loomed large.

It is also not without irony that the movement toward a ‘New British History’ in the 1980s-90s occurred in a period in which fears over the potential break-up of the United Kingdom and concerns over Europe were at the forefront. So is this a case of history repeating itself or coming full circle?

You can listen to all of individual talks here. In addition to this, we have summarised some of the key questions that arose from the discussion. We would love to hear your thoughts on these issues, and on where four nations history can go from here. Please leave comments below or get in touch with us via Twitter or Facebook.

  • To what extent is a four nations methodology extensive or comprehensive enough, especially in the light of contemporary developments? Or is it in fact too broad-brush?
  • With Brexit suggesting shifts in how the United Kingdom and its constituent nations see their places in the world, along with their mutual relationships, what can taking the four nations long-view tell us?
  • With this in mind, what can we learn from the history of federalist movements? Do they offer any prospect of viable alternatives to the present system and would one model work for all nations? What would this mean for national and localised forms of devolution?
  • And would we require a written constitution, as Linda Colley suggested in her response to the discussants?
  • Are there unifying factors that could suggest a re-emergence of a common ‘Britishness’?

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