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A Floating Commonwealth, by Christopher Harvie

Go West – where the train is late

Reviewed,Pat Kane
Friday 04 July 2008 00:00 BST

The train from Wolverhampton to Aberystwyth stuttered along its journey, reversed twice, and eventually expired at the second-last stop. On the way, I had passed a wild rollercoaster of hills and valleys, a grassy chaos which this trainline seemed to have been punched through. When the emergency bus chuntered over the hill to Aberystwyth, the Irish sea seemed to tower over the town like a frozen tsunami, luminous and gray.

It's really not easy to get to Wales's coast on the west; but once there, you find a 19th-century university town, a beautiful arts centre and a lively digital intelligentsia. All of which social complexity, at the end of a bad trainline, instantly corroborates one of Christopher Harvie's main theses in his book on " politics, culture and technology on Britain's Atlantic Coast". He argues that there was once a "West Britain", a coastal littoral from Glasgow and Carlisle, via Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool, to Holyhead, Swansea and Cardiff, whose autonomy - both geographic and civilisational - is insufficiently recognised.

In its heyday, from 1860 to 1930, this was a littoral whose vigour and sophistication generated great writers, humming trade routes, radical political movements, and world-changing industrial innovations. But this floating commonwealth was not, or not easily, directable from the metropolitan "core" of London and the Home Counties. One of Harvie's intriguing arguments is that the capital's semi-landed political elites used the enterprising prole-and-bourgeois energies of West Britain for war and profit, but was surprised when a variety of nationalisms (Welsh, Scottish and of course Irish) emerged from those areas - nationalisms which questioned, until this day, the assumed benefits of Union and Empire.

Harvie's long-standing interest in the regional unevenness of Europe - he's a professor in British Studies at Tübingen in Germany, and a Scottish Nationalist MSP (and adviser to Alex Salmond) right in Gordon Brown's backyard - comes to a symphonic peak in this book. With his customary feistiness, Harvie admits that he's no less "political" a historian than Niall Ferguson or Linda Colley, Simon Schama or David Starkey. If they have been involved in reshaping the British story as that of a Union worth defending, Harvie sees his job as tracing out its faultlines, the better to explain the gathering disunities of the current kingdom.

But Harvie is too good a historian - too much in love with the criss-crossings and serendipities that a close study of the archive reveals - to let his political position crudify his writings. There are some extraordinarily sophisticated essays here, which combine biography, cultural studies and economic history to give a real sense of the vitality of this "littoral". A chapter on the enduring figure of the Scottish engineer (remember Scotty in Star Trek?) sources his power as "the citizen of a constitutional state who hammered out the links that held it together", journeying through Kipling, Carlyle, Conrad and Longfellow. Yet West Britain's engineering prowess, building the trains and boats for largely state-funded British and imperial expansion, bore its own seeds of decline. For all the heroics of the Clyde or Ulster-built shipyard, the inability to shift from capital to consumer goods, from train tracks to model-railway kits, was ultimately fatal.

Harvie is especially good at selecting an economic or artistic personality, and using his furiously allusive scholarship to place them at the heart of historical change. George Bernard Shaw's engagement with his native Ireland, though his 1904 play John Bull's Other Island, is shown to be "an omen of incipient, if scarcely perceived, crisis". As Harvie details, the elite milieu of fin-de-siècle West Britain was a rich stew of activists funded by businessmen, and what Engels had called the "avocati": pushy, ideological writers and thinkers like Thomas Carlyle, John Buchan and Patrick Geddes.

Geddes - the father of town planning, friend of Gandhi, a scintillating but infuriating Edinburgh polymath - stalks all Harvie's writings. Here, he turns up in Dublin, smelling the winds of change, and proposing a "Dublin Plan" that's rubber-stamped just in time for the declaration of the Free State in 1922. Harvie is a historian not so much of ideas, but of ideas-makers - their collaborators, their risky long-shots, their bank-balances, their struggle to shape the mentalities of their worlds.

There is a big theory beneath the factual constellations. The unity and dissolution of West Britain shows how "high politics" (strategy steered by statesmen, moguls and civil servants) and "low politics" (the adaptations of civil society, artisans, local government) can interact fruitfully if they share a sense of "world" together. Harvie's current adventures - advising a Scotland government which not only aspires to the same concertation between high and low policy, but aims to do so within a "world" defined by independence within Europe - make him a remarkably consistent member of the "avocati".

But as the under-resourced rail infrastructure of Wales juddered me to my coastal destination, it seemed possible that this floating commonwealth - or at least a Celtic alliance of nations and regions - might revive its linkages, for mutual benefit. For one thing, a hydrofoil down the littoral would have been an easier trip. As the break-up of Britain continues, Harvie has provided a new mental and historical map for these islands, which could have more than scholarly consquences.

Pat Kane is one half of Hue and Cry and author of 'The Play Ethic' (Macmillan)

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