Story of the Isles

Many books have been written about Brexit. Usually, though, the focus is on the fifty years in which Britain was a member of the European Union. Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History places the UK’s momentous decision in the full sweep of British history. In doing so, it sets itself apart from dozens of other accounts by allowing readers to “see the larger patterns that have driven, and continue to drive, British history.” The volume opens in 8000 BC and closes in 2017.  

Our guide is Ian Morris, a British archeologist and historian teaching at Stanford, whose previous books include War! What Is It Good For? and Why the West Rules – For Now. His latest offers a geopolitical exploration of British history: “Brexit was just the latest round in an ancient argument about what Britain’s geography means.” This is “big history,” with all the juicy stuff about Caesar, Cromwell, and Churchill set inside space and time: “big history to put post-Brexit Britain into the context of post-ice-age Britain’s multi-millennium relationship with Europe and the wider world.” 

Morris argues that this metaphysical framework shows that Nigel Farage—the British politician who led the Brexit charge—was more right than likely even he knew when he made the Brexit debate about values: “Big history suggests that identity, mobility, prosperity, security, and sovereignty were not just the top concerns in 2016: they have always been what people worry about.” Farage won the referendum because these values are how geography registers in our lives, and the effects of geography are outsized. Morris tells us that, “geography’s meaning consistently depends on two things: technology, especially the branches connected with travel and communication; and organization, especially the kinds that allow people to use new technologies effectively.” This is a rather particular way to understand geography that some might dispute, not least one of the stars of the book, Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947). We will return to the influential Edwardian strategist soon, as Morris’s use of Mackinder is idiosyncratic.

Three Maps

To see the outsized effects of geography, Morris builds the book around three maps. The Hereford Map, made circa 1300, places Jerusalem at its center with the British Isles at a distant edge, next to Europe. The Channel and North Seas appear to be no wider than the Rhine and Seine. This is because, like those rivers, these seas were highways, not barriers. The map renders symbolically a truth which memories of the Raj can make the English overlook: in the vastness of their history, the British have been recipients of trends and innovations reaching the isles from across the European land mass. For much of what Churchill called “this long island story of ours,” innovations starting in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean gradually rippled outwards, slowly evening out across the European continent to finally reach Britain. Morris calls this Thatcher’s Law, since it was Margaret Thatcher who explained in 1975 that, “We are inextricably part of Europe.” An example of Thatcher’s Law is agriculture. Tolkien’s Shire makes us think England and farming coeval, but husbandry arrived late in England, circa 4000 BC. Fig trees were planted in Israel around 9000 BC.   

In the 1902 Mackinder Map, the UK has replaced Jerusalem at the center. Whereas the Hereford map, painted by Richard of Haldingham and Lafford, was chock full of land, Mackinder makes the world’s oceans pronounced, befitting the self-conception of a sea-borne empire. In WW1, Germany tried to force Britain back to the Hereford map. American soldiers would arrive in the theatre in 1917, but the Somme had already reversed the tide and set Germany up for defeat. Though books and TV routinely describe the Somme as a disaster, the Allies won the battle, and the grim reality is “the Somme in 1916 was proportionately no bloodier than Malplaquet and Waterloo.” Furthermore, the Allies eventually won the war, and England handsomely met its security goals. 

Not even the British Empire could break the grip of Thatcher’s Law.

However, something fundamental had shifted during the war, and the Money Map replaced Mackinder’s. The war hobbled Britain’s economy: income tax in the UK stood at 6% in 1911 and in 1919 it was 30%. Having converted to making war materiel, British manufacturing was stuck making things people no longer wanted; and Britain could not afford its war debts. The US economy had surpassed the British in 1890, and President Wilson now pressed the US financial advantage, building a navy and merchant marine leapfrogging Britain’s. “And so it was that Wilson, not the Kaiser, broke the British world-system. For centuries Britain had defeated Continental rivals by outspending them, but those who live by the cheque book can die by it too.” The Money Map supplanted Mackinder’s and today, critically, the regnant Money Map shows three behemoths: Washington, DC, Brussels, and Beijing. In consequence, “Britain finds itself perched at the edge of one of the three modern mountains of money.” 

Moat and Counterscarp

The Hereford Map became the Mackinder Map when British governments consolidated two strategies: the making of a fleet nimble enough to make the “roadways” of the seas around Britain a moat, and making a counterscarp of the Low Countries. Counsellor to Elizabeth I, William Cecil appears to have been the first minister to articulate the enduring British strategy of the counterscarp (the outer wall of a ditch in a fortification): to ensure that the seas around Britain functioned as a moat, a navy supplemented by an army denied assembly points for invasion on the nearest foreign coasts. England would consistently send armies to the Low Countries to deny any great power access to staging points across from England. With the twin strategies in place, England was free to make a momentous change, a great pivot with Britain swapping “their minor part on a European stage for the starring role on an Atlantic one.” From the Tudors onwards, British governments “united the whole British Isles into a single state ruled from London while simultaneously creating an intercontinental empire.” This, argues Morris, did not birth an empire so much as a world-system of trade and cultural projection, “a multi-dimensional network of nodes and connections girdling the entire earth. It was the most intricate organism humans had ever created—yet no one was exactly in charge.” 

However, not even the British Empire could break the grip of Thatcher’s Law. The counterscarp explains why Britain defended its empire by committing massed ranks to the Western Front in 1914: “Germany could not be allowed to dominate Europe, leaving it free to build an even bigger fleet, and absolutely could not be allowed to conquer the Belgian counterscarp.” It also explains why the Battle of Britain provoked Churchill to his greatest speeches. An earlier British PM, Stanley Baldwin, warned Parliament that “the bomber will always get through.” Thus, “when you think of the defence of England,” he told Parliament, “you no longer think of the white cliffs of Dover; you think of the Rhine. That is where our frontier lies.” The horror for Britain in 1940 was that the counterscarp evaporated in eleven weeks of Blitzkrieg. For this reason, the Battle of Britain is the stuff of legend, and the battle raged as much on the shop floor as in the air: the RAF lost 915 aircraft, the Germans 1733, and the factory floors on the Rhine could not keep up. During the battle, Britain built 2091 new planes, whilst Germany could only manufacture 988. “British aircraft, pilots and production were all superior,” concludes Morris. 

Nowhere is Mackinder’s geopolitical theory discussed. This leads to an analytical problem. The Mackinder Map might have the British Isles in the middle of the map, but Mackinder’s theory posits Russia, not Britain, as the pivot of world history. Mackinder reasoned that since Russia sits at the heart of the largest land mass on the planet it must have an outsized effect on world events. History confirms this, he argued; the historical record shows that Western Europe evolved under constant pressure from mass migrations travelling with no resistance through the wide-open steppe. Mackinder is a geopolitical analyst because the lay of the land is his explanatory tool. 

The stones of Stonehenge were quarried in Wales, and dragged the long distance to Wiltshire by vast crews of enslaved workers. The latest thinking is that the Welsh stones came to Wiltshire to honor a ruling family of Welsh origins.

Morris needs his Mackinder, not just the Mackinder Map. “The English Channel and the oceans are still there, but are no longer moats defensive. They have been shrunk to insignificance by precision-guided missiles and almost instantaneous information flows.” Geography Is Destiny has appeared amidst the Russo-Ukraine War, which has reminded us that war is still about putting bodies on the line to take and hold ground. War is still being contested in forests, on slag heaps, and in trenches. China sees this clearly and is leery of trying to rush the tall rocky beaches of Taiwan. Tossing missiles around is never going to cut it, and, like river crossings, amphibious invasions are the most difficult of all military maneuvers. Contending with geography adds significant extra horror to meeting enemy fire. For this reason, David Goldman, a Senior Writer at Law & Liberty, has been arguing that China will blockade and strangle Taiwan on the seas, and indeed, has already started to tighten the noose.

Mackinder would not readily recognize the following as a geopolitical explanation: “Across the last hundred years novel technologies and institutions have tied so much of the world together, making the stage so big and so crowded with actors, that Britain has been shoved out of the limelight.” However, Morris does better with internal British geography. “Geography is unfair,” observes Morris, and it has almost constantly stoked regional conflict in the UK. Ireland is separated from the mainland by a sea, and Wales and Scotland are rocky zones far poorer than the fertile lowlands of south-east England, one of the wealthiest places on the planet. Throughout British history, Irish and Northern grievances (often fully warranted) have opened England to a flanking movement, with the Spanish and French making efforts on many occasions to break the English counterscarp by delivering blows from the rear. In the Brexit vote, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all voted to stay in the European Union, but it was the English who voted the UK out.    

Future Unknown

Geography Is Destiny is a whopping 500 pages, excluding footnotes. It is one-stop shopping. If you like geopolitics and you want a whirlwind tour of Viking raiding parties and the shenanigans of Henry VIII, then this is the book for you. The theoretical component would fit in a much shorter, sharper book, but Anglophiles will thoroughly enjoy revisiting the highlights of British history. 

Morris is an archeologist, so the Neolithic and Bronze Age sections are particularly nicely worked. When farmers migrated to Britain from the Continent, this “was a hunter-gather Armageddon.” In the scheme of things, it happened relatively fast. Archeological digs dating to 4200 BC have no pottery finds but by 3800 BC pottery is found everywhere in the British Isles. Hunter-gathers were egalitarians, the first evidence of chieftains dating to 3700. With agriculture, there came increased property holding and political hierarchy. Evidence includes megalithic tombs with stones linked to ruling families. The stones of Stonehenge were quarried in Wales, and dragged the long distance to Wiltshire by vast crews of enslaved workers. The latest thinking is that the Welsh stones came to Wiltshire to honor a ruling family of Welsh origins. What is not in doubt is that Stonehenge was the “most spectacular religious landscape outside the Mediterranean world.”

Bronze age archeology attests to a big uptick in ferocious fighting. The oldest human remains found in England (at Cheddar Gorge in Shropshire) dating to 8300 BC show evidence of scalping. Remains from the British Bronze Age (c. 2200 BC) show a significant increase in the dead having met violent deaths. Killing did not abate with the Iron Age (c. 750) and evidence across Northern Europe reveals the Celts had a penchant for gruesome worship. Ritualized killings show bodies stabbed, then beheaded, and then cut in two. Happily, it is Celtic art that has perdured. 

Some readers might be disappointed that after 500 pages there is no prediction as to how Britain will fare post-Brexit. Morris’s “big history” only delivers the insight that movement towards and away from the Continent is cyclical in British politics. In fairness, this is insightful enough. Brexit has happened (sort of), and yet, though the entire Global South has declined to join US-led sanctions against Russia, the UK is at one with its NATO allies, and is likely doing more than any European country in giving arms, training, and targeting intel to the Ukrainians. Morris is right: Thatcher’s Law is always operating.