26 November 2020

Geography is not destiny when it comes to Brexit

By Geoffrey Sloan

The greatest failure of the European referendum campaign in 2016, on both sides, was the inability to articulate an understanding of Britain’s geopolitical relationship to Europe.

By geopolitics, I do not mean its current usage: interpreted merely as a synonym for international strategic rivalry. I refer, instead, to classical geopolitics, which is a confluence of three subjects: geography, history, and strategy. It draws attention to certain geographical patterns of political history. It fuses spatial relationships and historical causation. It can produce explanations that suggest the contemporary and future political relevance of various geographical configurations. 

One of the founding fathers of geopolitics was Sir Halford Mackinder, and his ideas are still pertinent today. He set up the School of Geography at Oxford, and founded what was to become the University of Reading in 1926. His 1902 book Britain and the British Seas is the seminal text on the geopolitical relationship between the British Isles and Europe and it’s more relevant than ever because of Brexit. For Mackinder, the geographical starting point was the southeast coast of England. This area is both proximate to and opposite what he called the “linguistic frontier of Europe”. At this frontier, there was a confluence between what he described as the Teutonic and Romance peoples. Uniquely, both of these influences had shaped Britain: “To the Teutonic – Easterling and Norsemen – England owes her civil institutions and her language; to the peoples of the west and south, her Christianity and her scholarship.” 

Mackinder identified the geographical pattern of political history: “Britain is part of Europe, but not in it”. In summary, the relationship is framed by a geopolitical paradox. He expressed the granular detail in the following way: “Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group, set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent; that the opposing shores are indented; and that the domain of the two historic races come down to the sea precisely at the narrowest strait between the mainland and the island.” 

This analysis still stands up today. Analytical terms change, but, whether we say France and Germany or the prosperous North and the debt-burdened South or, like Mackinder, the Teutonic and Romance peoples, the same geopolitical point is relevant; it is still the great ports and the hinterlands of the Elbe, the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Seine, and the British archipelago that mutually shape and impact each other. 

It would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that much has changed in the relationship between Britain and Europe since 1902. Given the importance of the single market for the British economy, Mackinder, if he were alive today, would have acknowledged these economic realities. Unfortunately, for the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to demonstrate that he understands that geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe and that it has at its heart two enduring qualities that are difficult to align: mutability and paradox. They constitute the essence of the policy challenge that successive Conservative governments have struggled to resolve. 

History illuminates the mutability of the relationship. It was not until the Tudor period that the English Channel became an effective strategic boundary. Before then, Mackinder argued that: “London was more closely connected on the tide ways with Paris, Flanders, and the Hanseatic cities than with Scotland or Ireland or Wales.” Geography is not an immutable phenomenon. It could, in certain circumstances, condition other factors, and its meaning, in a political and strategic sense, could change. English and Scottish trade was European before it was Atlantic and remained importantly European even when its dynamic became Atlantic.

Economic change does not nullify the significance of geography. What is important is the flow of the grain. Writing in 1890, Mackinder declared: “The course of politics is a product of two sets of forces, compelling and guiding. The impetus is from the past, in the history embedded in a people’s character and tradition. The present guides the movement by economic wants and geographical opportunities. Statesmen and diplomats succeed and fail pretty much as they recognise the irresistible power of these forces.” 

The question is whether British policy makers will engage with these geopolitical realities? I would suggest there is little evidence they recognize these factors. Instead, they have placed their faith in negotiating in a manner that is redolent of merchant traders struggling for short-term margins with no sense of strategic issues. This mode of operation by our political elite has historical form. Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1932 and 1943, recognized the futility of it. He had a ringside seat during the growing crisis on the European continent prior to the Second World War. On May 18, 1939, he observed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain “bargaining with us like an old gypsy, trying to foist a bad horse on us instead of a good one. It won’t work.” History does not repeat itself, but it is certainly starting to rhyme. 

The choices with respect to Brexit are big, and there is little political consensus between the four nations of the United Kingdom. However, the geopolitical reality endures: we are an important, but geographically peripheral, European state with a history that both binds and separates. This history is not going away, and major changes with Europe must be grounded in what Mackinder called the “geographical realities” if peace and prosperity are to be secured. 

A dimension of Brexit that represents the antithesis of these “geographical realities” has been the British government’s attitude towards Northern Ireland. Brexit there has spawned geographical determinism. The European Union, Irish government, and Sinn Fein have all endorsed the illusion that geography is political destiny. Boris Johnson, by acquiescing to a trade border in the Irish Sea, has done two things simultaneously. First, he has distanced Westminster from the challenge of maintaining the integrity of the British state. Second, he has walked away from the fundamental challenge of statesmanship: maintaining the unity and integrity of the state that you are responsible for. He has ignored that most critical geopolitical aphorism: there is no such thing as a natural state. As early as January 2021, a part of the British state will be administered jointly with the European Union.

The phrase most commonly associated with this dysfunctional geopolitics is ‘the island of Ireland’. It has historical form that can be traced back to 1937, when Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera made an illegal claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. Since then, the scope of its political traction has expanded enormously. Successive British government papers on Northern Ireland have been peppered with the phrase. At its heart lies the false assumption that because Ireland is geographically an island, political unification is both natural and inevitable. It omits the complex network of human, historical, and socioeconomic associations that exist within the British Isles as a whole. 

These associations have a unique resonance in the relationship between Northern Ireland and Scotland. For example, the medieval Latin name for Irishman was Scotus. England and the south of Ireland have a different set of associations forged over many centuries. Until the arrival of Covid-19 the busiest air route in the British Isles was the one between London and Dublin. To paraphrase former US diplomat David Bruce, the arrangements that Boris Johnson has agreed to for Northern Ireland will release a gigantic dissonant fireball in the night of Britain’s post-Brexit prosperity and security. 

Mackinder understood that economic wants and geographical opportunities should guide present policy. Northern Ireland does over £9 billion of trade with the rest of the UK, and only £2 billion with the Irish Republic. Yet, the British government has imposed on a part of its own territory the same mutability and paradox that geography conditioned with respect to the relationship between the British Isles and Europe. This conscious political decision has resulted in a qualified status for Northern Ireland. It is still part of the United Kingdom, but no longer fully in it. 

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Geoffrey Sloan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, or of CapX.