‘A Vertiginous Sense of Impending Loss’: Four Nations History and the Problem of Narrative

Paul O'Leary

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This chapter seeks to argue that four nations interpretations of the modern history of Britain and Ireland have been overdetermined by a meta-narrative of national decline or disintegration. Raphael Samuel captured this succinctly and eloquently in 1995 when he discussed the circumstances surrounding the emergence of four nations history in terms of ‘a vertiginous sense of impending loss’. That sense of something important slipping away—whether it was the UK’s place in the wider world or the loosening of cohesive ideas of national identity at home—has motivated attempts to chart the complex historical relationships between the different parts of ‘these islands’. Understanding the origins of British institutions and identities in the past has never seemed more urgent than when they appeared to be in decline or undergoing dissolution in the present. This chapter questions the terms of that discussion by focusing on three areas that have been central to research in the field: the nature of the British state, how national identities are understood, and the ways in which transnational history presents opportunities for situating this history in an international and, indeed, a global context. It suggests that more systematic recognition of a metanarrative of decline has the potential to open up other avenues of enquiry and alternative interpretations.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFour Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British History’
Subtitle of host publicationA (Dis)United Kingdom?
EditorsNaomi Lloyd-Jones, Margaret M. Scull
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781137601421
ISBN (Print)9781137601414
Publication statusPublished - 27 Nov 2017


  • United Kingdom
  • historical narrative
  • state development
  • identity formation
  • transnational history


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