Is ‘British’ History another way of saying ‘English’ History?

Has anyone ever travelled to the US or come into contact with American tourists and they say the dreaded lines “are you from England?”, and you graciously reply with one of two prepared lines: “I’m British” (the old James Bond line) or “actually I’m from Wales”. Often they ask whether Wales is somewhere in England or just say that Britain and England are the same thing in which i promptly try my best to end the conversation politely or sometimes ask whether the US is a part of Canada. This little rant is now a segue into my main post about the relationship between English and British history.

When general British history books describe events they often give more of a generalised overview of events, for instance the suffrage movement. They talk about campaigns, marches and the violent outbursts that occurred. However, these accounts are often from limited sources and refer to anglicised events. I should add further that these events are often further limited to Southern England, obviously London. Events in Northern areas of England are often grouped into a London narrative. Often other issues such as class and ethnic background are not mentioned when talking about experiences of such events in general histories. These often are provided by their own exclusive historical research projects. HOWEVER, in my own experience, not many historians focus on Wales as a more specialised study. It often gets lumped in with England.

Even when Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland get a brief mention, lot of older histories of Britain lump them together as a universal Celtic experience.

The Welsh, Scottish and Irish people have distinct identities that cannot be grouped in with English experiences and labelled as the general experiences of the ‘British peoples’. There has been constant debate over the issue of certain aspects of British history not necessarily being one of the four nations. Pocock states that British history denoted ‘the historiography of no single nation but of a problematic and uncompleted experiment in the creation and interaction of several nations’.[1] This approach is so problematic due to historians not treating British history as one of several different nations but treating an often English narrative as one that is British.

In the introductory essay of Naomi Lloyd-Jones and Margaret Scull’s Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History: A [Dis]united Kingdom?, the historians debate about this notion of British history being Anglo-centric and accurately argue that ‘the histories and historiographies of the four should not be subsumed under the monolith of the one whole’.[2] British history should be one that incorporates the different narratives of the four nations, and thus more detailed histories of these separate nations should be investigated.

A study by Welsh Historian Angela John in Sitting on the Severn Bridge: Wales and British History, argues that ‘British has tended to mean English in much history writing’ and she finds most of her time being taken up with ‘asserting difference between English and Welsh trends’ when universal statements were made.[3] This viewing of Britain as a singular country instead of adopting a four nations approach to history has meant that a lot of Welsh, Scottish and Irish history remains in the shadows often being assumed to have had an identical experience with England which normally is in effect labelled as ‘Britain’ when it comes to general history. As John accurately states: “Integration of Welsh history into ‘British’ history can ignore significant and peculiarly Welsh perspectives as well as risk seeing Wales only in terms of how it contributed to the forging of a British State”.[4] There are many advantages of looking at a combined British history, such as examining the relationships between the four nations in relation to topics that affect the whole of Britain and the power struggles in forging a nation’s identity as separate from the subsumed British one. Such histories often label English narratives as British and then group the other nations into a united Celtic experience in which they are assumed to have all shared narratives. The Anglo-centric readings of British history often partition the non-English parts of the United Kingdom into a ‘Celtic Fringe’ a phrase used by Harrison to partition the histories of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish anti-suffrage activities. More comprehensive studies must be conducted rather than assumptions of Celtic experiences.

This debate is one that is ongoing and I have used parts of my own research to highlight my opinion on this matter. This post is meant to just introduce the debate to a wider audience and I am in no way directing this post at any specific historian. I hope that this prompts debate as well as highlights the need for more specialised histories unveiling local stories.