This is not the first book about the relationship between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom to be published in recent years. But, like its predecessors, it falls into the usual pattern of trying to define a British identity when, in fact, what is meant is an English one. For Frank Welsh the nations capital is London.
England, as the largest and most aggressive of the four countries, has dealt with Scotland, Wales and Ireland with varying degrees of bully-boy violence, and most books of this kind are anglocentric, that is to say they are mostly concerned with what makes for Englishness. The trouble is, most English people do not often think of their national identity, except in times of crisis when they merge it with a sense of Britishness in which the rest of us are expected to sink our differences. This double standard has rubbed off on the Scots and Welsh, both peoples who at different times have thought themselves separate and yet part of the 'Yookay'. This problem is at the heart of politics in Scotland and Wales today and shows no sign of being resolved, despite the creation of devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and now London.
On the whole, Frank Welsh is sympathetic to Welsh and Scottish aspirations, but his English roots (despite his surname) show from time to time. For instance, he just cant get his head around bilingual signs in Wales: he finds stretching the language of Dafydd ap Gwilym to accommodate signs for service station is faintly silly and, like the reactionary Kingsley Amis used to, sneers at the use of banc and tacsi. Its a small point but symptomatic of a mindset which will never appreciate the Welsh point of view.
More seriously, he can see how Wales has been misgoverned over the centuries and notes with approval such initiatives as the National Assembly, but only up to a point. Early in his Introduction he writes: Perhaps only the most optimistically deluded of Welsh nationalists can foresee a future Welsh state, but a core Welsh-speaking province of the four western counties might emerge. Says who?
There are, too, unwarranted jibes, as when this author swipes at some Welsh politicians for going to an English university, as well as spelling mistakes, for example Aberhonddhu, instead of Aberhonddu, the Welsh name for Brecon. I am constantly amazed that copy-editors in London publishing houses seem so ignorant when it comes to the spelling of Welsh place and personal names, and I am sick of seeing the bastard form Daffyd. They should be told that such crass insensitivity makes for a lack of confidence that can put Welsh readers off. It ill behoves Frank Welsh, on the first page of his book, to complain about the inaccuracies in Norman Daviess The Isles, and one is suspicious when in a footnote he damns Hugh Kearneys British Isles with faint praise as being altogether more successful.
That is a pity, because The Four Nations is an interesting book, full of insights and quite informative on some aspects of the fraught relationship between the four nations, and it ought to be required reading for our politicians, especially those who climb the slippery pole at Westminster.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgement should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddior adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatad Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.