A teacher once warned me, always trust geography, never history. Geography was truth, history a pack of distortions. Yet geography has long been an academic underdog. To the Greeks of Ptolemy and Strabo’s day it was the queen of sciences, the study of reality, only to be suppressed by a thousand years of theology. The Earth should be flat, maps were sinful and geography was heresy. Jerusalem was the center of the universe. The sixteenth-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator narrowly escaped being burned at the stake.
Geography never recovered. Such being the conservatism of education, it was elbowed aside by the aristocrats of the classics and maths. As recently as the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher created a state curriculum, the “new geography” of the environment failed to make a “core” or even foundation status. It remains a mere “option” at GCSE, while its practitioners are portrayed as rugger dimwits and figures of fun. The medieval schoolmen cast a long shadow.
In 2015 Tim Marshall caused a publishing sensation when his Prisoners of Geography sold one and a half million copies. It was little more than a catalog of what happens to countries when global politics ignores geography, but it seemed revolutionary to readers left in ignorance of the subject. Marshall’s book remains the most succinct guide to what is happening in Ukraine today. In Geography Is Destiny, Ian Morris applies the Marshall approach to the story of the British Isles. It was written in the aftermath of Brexit, when geography was not so much neglected as seen as irrelevant. A running theme of the book is Morris’s mischievous quotation from Thatcher in 1975. Then voting to stay in the Common Market, she declared that “nothing would ever take us out of Europe, for Europe is where we are and where we have always been” . He calls it Thatcher’s Law. His task is to harness Britain’s history to its physical place in the world, from the Ice Age onwards.
The essence of geography is unfairness. We should thus stick to the historian Robert Tombs’s maxim that “islands cannot have the same history as continental plains”. They cannot spread, as have Russia or China, by merely conquering adjacent territories. Instead they must exploit maritime technology behind the security of Shakespeare’s “moat defensive to a house”. They must evolve an ingenuity and a politics to turn geography to advantage.
To Morris, that has been Britain’s story for most of its existence. Stone Age hunter-gatherers were followed by Mesolithic farmers, settling variously in the rugged west and the fertile east of the British Isles. We still do not know for sure where these differing groups hailed from. Morris is alert to the controversies of “migrationists” versus “invasionists”, fueled by evidence from the new science of DNA archaeology. He dismisses the “invasion neurosis” of traditional prehistorians — the idea that technological evolution must come through newcomers.
It now seems probable that most ancient Britons originated some time after the last Ice Age from the storm-tossed shores of Iberia and Biscay, either by sea or from France, before or after Britain became an island. This is despite one outlier survey in 2018 suggesting a mass repopulation c.2400 BC by invaders from the Russian steppes. I hope no one tells Putin. Morris has no time for the discredited thesis of a “Celtic invasion” in the first millennium BC.
Whether there were genetically “two Britains”, west and east, remains moot. The Britannia fashioned by the Romans clearly reflected a divide in the islands’ social geography. The south and east were swiftly Romanized, while points west were largely left to “barbarians”. As for the subsequent Saxon invasion, Morris supports the view that this simply never occurred, that the Anglo-Saxon presence stems from a continuation of long-standing raids. Either way, the division of the British Isles so often portrayed as north–south is in truth east–west, glibly described as Celtic and Saxon. It has remained a constant in the politics of the British Isles from Rome to the present day.
Continuity of place is thus a more reliable guide to England’s history than invasion or revolution. The Roman “imperium” did not abandon Britain in AD 410; it rather mutated the hard power of the legions into the soft power of the Roman church. For two centuries that church had to confront Irish/Ionan Christendom, culminating in victory at the Synod of Whitby in 664.
From then on Morris’s narrative has Brexit as a thematic subplot. Each twist and turn reflects Britain’s arm’s-length engagement and disengagement from the wider history of Europe. Thus, there have been half a dozen Brexits since Britain “joined Europe” at Whitby. He tried to join again in the Hundred Years War, until defeated in 1453. It “left’” under the Henrician Reformation, joined under Marlborough in 1701 and left a dozen years later at the Peace of Utrecht, when it “pivoted to a global Britain.” It is as if Britons could never make up their minds as to the meaning of the words “off-shore”.
From Castlereagh’s aloofness at the Congress of Vienna to Lord Salisbury’s “splendid isolationism”, nineteenth-century Britain maintained an aversion to the politics of Europe. The English Channel was wider than the Atlantic. Only in the twentieth century did geography demand commitment to two European wars and a Cold War. Yet Brexit refuses to die, evident in the present government’s hostility to European migrants, even unlike refugees from Ukraine, who are required to apply for visas, those fleeing to EU countries.
Morris illustrates his story with three maps. One is the Hereford Mappa Mundi of c.1300, depicting England as a mere slice on the edge of a Europe-dominated world, its hub being Jerusalem. The second is Mackinder’s map of 1902, showing the imperial British Isles as the new Jerusalem, holding center stage with the world’s continents arraigned round it. For a brief span of time, Britain defied geography and bestowed its blessings and power on one and all. We still live in the shadow of Mackinder’s map, as it hogs the language of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s craving for “a global Britain”.
That map ignored geography’s junior partner, economics. Just as Britain’s physical empire proved unsustainable, so did its economic one. By the second half of the nineteenth century, it could no longer boast eighty per cent of world manufacturing, while its disproportionate spending on defense had to be explained by Churchill as “the price we pay to sit at the top table”. Hence Morris’s third map, originating in the Pentagon in the 1990s. It is of circles of global wealth, with the US firmly at the centre. Britain has no circle of its own. Meanwhile, in the past half-century, China’s economy has reinforced this map, growing a hundredfold. Its produce apparently fills ninety per cent of the shelf space in a US Walmart store.
In 1991 the economist Richard O’Brien wrote a panegyric on the digital age, declaring it “The End of Geography”. The global village had arrived. Borders were dead, as money could flow wherever it chose. The keyboard was the new map of the universe. But as Morris points out, O’Brien was wrong. In the twenty-first century, nations, identities and borders remain in place and are still the determinants of history. Trade is not an all-powerful peacemaker, falling victim to the new warfare of sanctions. Nations matter. Ask Afghanistan or Ukraine. Ask any lorry driver on the road to Dover.
Morris is a master of the sweep of history. His narrative is always accessible, if a little reckless. It does not really help to compare William the Conqueror to Hitler, or Britain in 1216 to Greece in 2010. Even Morris’s granting primacy to geography sometimes falls victim to politics. His view of Brexit – that “leave meant leave” – ignores the option of Britain’s remaining part of Europe’s single market. It is geography that will one day assert the necessity of Britain rejoining that market.
A running topic of the book is confusion. Britons are never sure quite where they lie, other than alone. Isolation, so long a strength, now seems a weakness. This in turn conceals a deeper confusion closer to home. Morris finally presents a fourth map, of a Britain remarkably similar to that left by the Romans. It suggests that for the half of the land area of the British Isles occupied by Scotland, Ireland and Wales, the latest Brexit could prove a breaking point. For these western lands, a fight to rejoin the EU could one day become “the most sensible way to deal with their bigger English neighbor”. Ireland has already shown the way. Scotland may follow. If so, it would be the final revenge of geography on its long neglect by Britain.
Simon Jenkins‘s The Celts: A sceptical history will be published in June
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