How far back in time must we go in order to understand Brexit? For Tim Shipman, whose All Out War emerged just four months after the public went to the ballot box in June 2016, the intricacies of the referendum campaign held the secrets to Leave’s unexpected victory; in Philip Stephens’ Britain Alone, it was the postwar collision of ambition and reality, beginning with the Suez crisis in 1956, that framed our departure; Brendan Simms, meanwhile, in his pre-referendum Britain’s Europe, drew from the past millennium to understand the UK’s storied relationship with the continent.
Ian Morris, a British historian, archaeologist and professor at Stanford University, started writing Geography is Destiny the day after Britain voted. Its publication, almost six years later, is justified by its mammoth scope: setting his sights much further back than our accession to the European Communities in 1973, or the end of the second world war, or even the arrival of the Romans, Morris seeks to unravel 10,000 years of the British Isles’ history to explain the patterns behind the UK’s eventual departure from the EU.
If “big history” means focusing on long-term trends over short-term details, Morris might be considered a “big historian”: his 2010 book Why the West Rules — For Now cast a 15,000-year gaze over the differences between east and west and emphasised the importance of geography in the way divisions developed. Similar forces are at work in Geography Is Destiny. “It is only on a multi-millennium timescale that the forces driving Britain’s relationships with Europe and the wider world make themselves clear,” he writes.
Morris’s overarching belief is that the big history of Brexit is geographical and “best told through maps” — dozens are dusted off in support of his narrative, with three in particular underpinning it. The first of these is the Hereford Map, painted around 1300, still hanging in Hereford Cathedral and striking because of its positioning of the British Isles. Squeezed against the side and scarcely separated from the rest of Europe, they were the edge of the known world and the last place that goods and ideas from the more productive east ended up.
What Morris terms “Thatcher’s Law” — the Conservative prime minister’s 1975 claim that we are inextricably part of Europe and cannot be removed from it — was certainly unavoidable for the millions of years during which water did not separate Britain from the continent, and arguably for thousands of years prior to the middle ages in which external forces by and large dictated its destiny.
Late-medieval exploration eventually revealed that Britain was anything but on the edge of the world, and its fortunes had been utterly upended by the time of geographer Halford Mackinder’s 1902 map, in which he placed Britain at the centre of the world to reflect the predominance of European maritime power. The turn of that century represented the dying days of the three per cent of the island’s history in which it took centre stage, as opposed to the rest of the time when it was merely “Europe’s poor cousin”.
The outsized reputation enjoyed by the country in this brief period made its postwar decline all the harder to accept. By the time of the third map — a WorldMapper visualisation of UN data, where space is allocated proportionally by 2018 wealth generation — Britain is squeezed between North America, western Europe and East Asia. Advances in transport and technology have reduced the English Channel to a dribble, and once-distant powers have become neighbours. The referendum result simply reflected the changing way Britain views its place in Europe and the world as a whole.
Morris succeeds in condensing 10,000 years into a persuasive and highly readable volume, even if there are moments that risk a descent into what he seeks to avoid: “a catalogue of men with strange names killing each other”, as historian Alex Woolf put it.
Geography Is Destiny ends not in 2016, however, but 2103: the year in which Morris estimates eastern development indices will overtake western (a tongue-in-cheek prediction, by his own admission). His conclusion that China, not Europe, will dominate Britain’s future is striking, if rather abrupt. Still, in an account as ambitious as this, and with the country’s post-Brexit story still to be fully written, it is perhaps fitting that this history should end in the future.
Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000 Year History by Ian Morris, Profile, £25/Macmillan, $35, 576 pages
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