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A Message in a Bottle from West Britain

Chris Harvie's reclamation of the rich littoral of West Britain opens minds to a world after London
Arthur Aughey
9 September 2008

Arthur Aughey reviews A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture and Technology on Britain’s Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930 by Christopher Harvie.

(Oxford 2008, 319pp +xii)

G M Trevelyan once described social history as ‘history with the politics left out’. Christopher Harvie’s A Floating Commonwealth could be described as British history with England left out. Or to put that more accurately, British history with London left out, for Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester get their proper due in this story of the industrial, commercial but above all, intellectual, intercourse across the Irish Sea and its Atlantic connections through the North and St George’s Channels. In the ecumenical spirit in which Harvie writes, where the British Isles has become (p31) ‘These Islands’ (which would probably mean, as Terence Brown observed, that when Harvie is in Tuebingen he should properly call them ‘Those Islands’) the possessive ‘Irish’ should become, I suppose, ‘Our’. His extra-metropolitan focus does a great service and helps us to see the country as others, outside London, saw it. This sensitivity to the historical texture, vibrancy, energy, creativity and significance of the provincial world is Harvie’s great contribution to historical study.

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time gets a brief mention (p16) and those familiar with the sequence may recall in volume 7 Jenkins’s posting to Northern Ireland (as a subaltern in a Welsh regiment) at the beginning of the war. The place is described there as a miserable, Godforsaken, alien, void where the locals (when they are allowed to speak – only once) speak with stage-Irish accents like characters in an English repertory company. The void, of course, is the absence of London and London is the centre of things (as in Harvie’s own book of the same name on British political literature). Harvie’s brilliant work shows that life was indeed elsewhere outside the Home Counties and it is a life where Belfast was not the dismal background for cultured melancholy but really was (to use that old Ulster Unionist, self-enhancing, phrase) the ‘heart of the British Empire’. Not only did the ships, ropes and engines of the city help pump the commercial lifeblood of that Empire but also the intellectual influences of the city contributed as much to the character of the country as did the playing fields of Eton. And for Belfast also read the other ‘provincial’ cities of the United Kingdom from Glasgow to Swansea, from Hull to Hartlepool. Though Harvie describes Powell’s novels as an example of ‘obsessive genealogy’ A Floating Commonwealth is itself a work of obsessive genealogy and one is sometimes overwhelmed by the cast of characters, their intellectual connections and their cultural and political influences. At times one longs for a Hilary Spurling-style companion as an aide memoire to their arrival and departure in the text. And like A Dance, the characters keep re-appearing, if only because Harvie’s book has its own genealogy in papers delivered at academic seminars where the repetition of reflection is obvious. The breadth of his knowledge is impressive and his essayist’s style a delight (a style which the academic obsession with specialised journal articles is slowly killing off). By the end of the book, the characters of Carlyle, Geddes, Buchan, even Robert Tressell are as familiar to the reader as A Dance’s Widmerpool, Stringham, Quiggin, even Dicky Umphraville. Here is an invitation to go back to those historical sources and to re-think the world that has gone as well as the one in the making.

Harvie inserts us into what Michael Oakeshott would have called ‘a flow of sympathy’ along the regions of this Atlantic Coast though the world he writes about is a world that has now passed, an industrial-commercial complex the character of which has been changed and changed utterly, territories of religious controversy and theological dispute, the substance of which controversy and dispute has been lost to our shopping, entertainment culture. The intellectual impact is probably incalculable. This is a transition which is noticeable throughout the United Kingdom, one representative example, perhaps, being the Woodstock Road in East Belfast, residence of those shipyard workers of Harland and Wolff and Workman and Clark about whose achievements Harvie is so eloquent. That street has a bookshop that formerly sold religious commentary, the immense dusty variety of which was shifted to the attic as the shop became a circulating library for the aristocracy of labour, dealing in popular novels but also books on history, arts and sciences, a localised version of Belfast’s famous and radical Linenhall Library. Slowly but surely the books began to disappear, like the shipyard itself, to be replaced mainly by videos, cds and dvds and with them, it seems, a whole mentalite (as Harvie would describe it). That this decay - of a spiritual life of religious, political and cultural ferment - represents a real loss is something which Harvie’s book recalls to mind. It is not, of course, confined to Belfast but is a loss which haunts all of the places described in the book, where the industrialised production that gave dignity as well as toil to the working class and its local bourgeoisie has given way to industrialised drinking, where the nonconformist chapel which gave moral fervour to political claims has given way to the lap dancing bar.

A Floating Commonwealth illustrates the historical diversity of the United Kingdom but also what that diversity shared and, I would argue, still shares in common. In her Nationhood and Political Theory (1996), Margaret Canovan used Hannah Arendt’s analogy of the public world as a table located between those who sit around it, one which relates and separates people at the same time, to convey philosophically the picture Harvie paints historically. What constitutes the political commonwealth is less the characteristics people possess as individuals than the inheritance they share as members. In short, she argued, ‘we are British not in virtue of conforming to some particularly British way of thinking but because (either by inheritance or adoption) we jointly own the complex legacy of the nation’ and what unites is ‘shared ownership of something outside us’, not ‘similarities inside us.’ The shared ownership Harvie examines was possibly best expressed by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Basil Brooke in 1950, who declared that (for Unionists at any rate) ‘the Crown has two meanings. It is the symbol of the unity of the British people, and it is the symbol which, in giving us a common allegiance, also gives strength and influence. As a single unit in the British Empire we should have comparatively little power and little authority, but with the unifying body of the Crown bringing the whole British Empire and British people together it is a force in the world’. Here was a concise expression of distinct identities; of the significance of political allegiance; of participation in a larger multinational association; and, of course, a lingering vision of the British imperial and civilising mission.

When the Troubles broke out again in the late 1960s it was this expression of allegiance and identity which caused difficulty for British Ministers, mainly because it was an embarrassing echo of a world which, in their modernising intent, they no longer recognised. It may be added that David Miller’s very influential reading of Ulster Unionism in Queen’s Rebels (1978) – that, unlike everyone else, Unionists had failed to develop a serviceable national identity and were mired in an old Scottish-derived, Covenanting tradition – misunderstood the relationship of British allegiance to Ulster identity. The particular and exclusive British world of Brooke is no more but I would argue that this covenanting understanding is possibly more relevant to the United Kingdom today than the modernist view. Moreover, it is a political disposition with which Harvie himself (if this does not embarrass him) might have some sympathy. Though Ulster Unionists get the accustomed bad press, the ‘geotechnic’ of the Atlantic coast he describes shows more clearly than before how right they were to opt out of the Irish nationalist dream (see especially the lame argument of G B Shaw on page 173 that Ulster was needed to save the Irish nation from its own worst self). Times do change, though, and the reverse is now true (Harvie, like all Scottish nationalists, makes much of the experience of the Celtic Tiger). The Belfast Agreement of 1998, however, allows the citizens of the Irish republic to veto unification and if Ulster Unionists were not altruistic enough to sacrifice their interests for Irish unity at the beginning of the last century then the same is probably true of the Southern Irish at the beginning of this century.

Harvie concludes by arguing that ‘a sense of “world” is required for the distinct ‘parallel worlds of politics, business and culture’ to work. The large implication, which is left unspoken, is that not only has the integrative world of the littoral floating commonwealth disintegrated but also that the Union ‘world’ of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is disintegrating too. Does modification, as J G A Pocock (New Left Review 2000 no 5) once challenged Tom Nairn, necessarily mean disintegration? We can’t know yet but this wonderful book provides historical depth for those wishing to argue either way.

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