It seems facile to say that geography is a major determinant of history. Of course it is. Indian trade patterns were pinned to the monsoon winds. While Buddhism spread through the highlands of the Silk Road, acquiring a fondness for mountain retreats, Islam and salt were carried into sub-Saharan Africa on the backs of camels. The ideology of the Abrahamic religions has long been shaped by the desert winds.
However, geography doesn’t just shape the reality of history. It also shapes the stories we tell ourselves, whether or not those stories are true. Of course Britain’s legacy of shimaguni, its ‘island-ness’, made it a great naval power and protected it from centuries of land wars. Yet geography also shaped the psyche of Britain. Sometimes the two strands of geography, physical and psychological, have acted in tandem, but sometimes they have been detached.
For one thing, the national founding myth of the Second World War is almost unique to Britain. For most countries, the Second World War was an awful, genocidal, degrading bloodbath, but Britain remembers the war (with some justification) as a period of national unity, when people came together to fight against Nazi atrocities and defend Fortress Britain. This is not a complete story. A whole sector of the British press had a sneaking regard for Hitler until about a Planck time before the war started. The Times newspaper were accused of censoring their journalist Norman Ebbut’s reports of Nazi Germany, and Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail literally cheered for Britain’s home-grown fascists on his front pages. The Spectator responded that ‘the Blackshirts, like the Daily Mail, appeal to people unaccustomed to thinking‘.
However, even if the tale of Britain uniting to fight fascism is a partial story, it’s an extremely powerful one. Most countries finished the second world war weary and broken, half-yearning for revolution, with powerful Communist parties and discredited old hierarchies. Italy abolished its king, and hundreds of thousands of Germans and Austrians were purged from government jobs. The French Communist party won 28.2% of the vote. But Britain finished the war with its national identity confirmed, even strengthened. Brits remember a war in which they worked together, suffered together, and preserved their sovereignty. The country has never been as un-European as in those first days after the war, when it settled into the role as America’s right-hand-man, rebuilding the world of democracy and peace, and clinging on to scraps of Empire.
Shimaguni also contributed to Britain’s ongoing relationship with its lost empire. The Second World War was the last attempt1 to build a land empire in Europe: Habsburgs, Bourbons, Bonapartes and Nazis had tried, but that book was finally closed. Britain, however, convinced itself that it was different, again. The great sea empire, boats drawn on by the siren song of ‘Britannia Rules the Waves‘, not merely outlasted the war. Unlike France’s equally hard-lost empire, it still kind of survives, in the spectral form of the Commonwealth.
British politicians still sometimes resurrect the idea of the Commonwealth, as if it was anything at all. What is the Commonwealth? Does anybody know? It’s a wispy, mostly imagined thing. The idea that something other than historical unease ties together England and Scotland, India and Barbados, Namibia and Canada and Kiribati as ‘the Commonwealth’ is a nice idea, but it doesn’t hold much water if you ask me. It talks a big talk on trade and democracy, but as far as I can see it mostly stages cricket matches2. Nonetheless it is often invoked when people talk about Britain’s future after Brexit. Boris and others have suggested that Britain will flourish after Brexit by strengthening ties with the Commonwealth, an idea Australia’s ex-PM Kevin Rudd has enthusiastically endorsed as ‘absolute bollocks‘.
Europe Over There
I don’t think the islander mentality is particular to conservatives (big or small ‘C’), and I don’t think I’m exempt from it. In the hippy, radical sixties, British musicians mined their own past for inspiration, they looked across the Atlantic, and they went to India on spiritual soirees, but they barely ever turned to Europe. Given the boundless invention of British music of the era and after, this doesn’t feel like a loss. It’s a reminder that being an islander can mean being impartially open to ideas from the wider world, as well as remote from your neighbours. Japan has had its own version of this, magpieing systems of government and education from various countries in the 1870s, and shunning the world of its neighbours.
But something happened across the Channel at the end of the century, which Britain was only half aware of. All those national walls gradually loosened into porous lipid membranes, allowing people to cross national borders at ease to travel and work. On paper, Britain experienced a similar transformation, but it didn’t feel the same, because the United Kingdom’s only land border is out of the way of most of the population. However slowly and falteringly, people experienced the fluidity of borders across Europe, and so it was possible to imagine the European Union as ‘Here’, at least some of the time. Britain, separated by the English Channel, always saw it as ‘over there’, a foreign power that made laws of which Britain might approve or disapprove. Europeans increasingly learnt each others’ languages, and above all learnt English, but Brits never returned the compliment.
Over there, ‘Europe’ (isn’t it weird and revealing that we often refer to the EU as if it was the continent?) tried to ban prawn cocktail crisps, made 107 regulations for pillow dimensions, and fretted about newts, the press said. Boris Johnson was a big part of that Europhobic press. They often lied; the EU never tried to ban prawn cocktail crisps, although Britain did leave an essential flavouring off an agreed list of safe food additives3. However, the European Union really does make thousands of decisions that affect people’s lives, for better or for worse. Other European countries are just as ambivalent about those decisions, but they don’t feel quite the same disconnect from them.The psychological gulf between land borders and open seas probably wasn’t a conscious factor in many people’s Brexit vote, but I think it mattered.
My own view is that it was the boats that did it. The dinghies that cast out from Libya, Syria and Turkey en masse since 2014 might have landed in Greece and Italy, but the image of boats landing in small port towns and overwhelming border patrols couldn’t have been better calculated to stoke islander fears. I honestly don’t think most British people were that worried about Polish Brits serving in coffee shops and Romanian Brits working at IT start-ups. Instead, I think negative feelings about immigration reflected a deeper, primal fear that Europe’s borders might become unmanageable, and the outside would come flooding in. The Spectator fretted that Britain would become the ‘unwitting helper‘4 of people traffickers. As early as October 2014, the British Conservative Minister Joyce Anelay opposed spending money to rescue wrecked Mediterranean refugees5. Six months later, the inimitable Katie Hopkins wrote her famous column, calling refugees ‘cockroaches‘6. Most people of all political persuasions rightly condemned Hopkins as a lazy, morally bankrupt jackboot-wannabe, but I feel like the primal fear of invading ‘boat people’ lurks under a lot of British concerns about immigration.
I know many honourable and kind Brexiteers who care about refugees and see themselves as internationalists. I know that they would be horrified and offended to hear me say all this. I want to clarify that I know there are plenty of stupid, self-satisfied Remainers, and plenty of people who voted Remain for irrational or selfish reasons. Likewise, not all Brexiteers voted out of fear, or even cared about immigration in the first place. Moreover, the EU can be inward-looking in its own way, protecting its own members and wary of the wider world. However, I don’t think you can overlook the shimaguni psyche if you’re investigating that night in 2016.
Shimaguni to the Future
Having been back in the motherland for a few months now, I’ve had the opportunity to test the waters and see how things are changing. I’m not altogether encouraged. A lot of the debate about ongoing trade talks with the EU, from politicians and blokes down the pub alike, seems to show no understanding at all of the motivations of the other side of those talks. The EU’s main priorities are to keep its four freedoms, ensure that standards for manufactured goods are maintained, and to dissuade other countries from leaving the union. It doesn’t want a trade deal with the UK more than all other considerations, and I don’t think it’s going to make any deal that will compromise its core priorities. I would guess it’s highly likely that Britain crashes out of the transitional period with no trade deal in December.
Although I’d rather all of this didn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. The people of England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland have survived worse, and we’ll survive this. However, what won’t survive this- surely, can’t survive this- is the Union.
All this time I’ve been pulling a verbal sleight of hand. I’ve been talking about Britain and the United Kingdom in a unitary way, as if its constituent parts think alike and act alike. This is a lie. When I talk about Britain’s shimaguni attitude, I’m really only talking about England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland are different; Northern Ireland because it has to be, because it knows what borders are, their lethality, their political weaponization. Sooner or later Northern Ireland will realise that it can’t afford a solid border with the European Union, and it will recombine. Scotland meanwhile seems to be in the middle of some unicorn transformation, becoming more open, liberal and outward-bound than ever before. It’ll most likely break away by 2030, and then in a nice piece of irony, it’ll take up the burden Ireland has cast off- a troublesome, quarrelsome border with a foreign country.
I respect the outcome of Scotland’s inevitable second referendum, but I worry about England. I worry because I don’t believe the Brexiteer version of events. If we are leaving a continent with a provincial mindset to become global Britain, international-minded and more open than ever, that’s great. But it’s not what I see on the ground. I see a country that’s tightening its definition of Britishness, sending elderly Afro-Caribbean settlers from the fifties home on technicalities. I see a country that’s having a conversation about itself, with itself, in a darkened room. I see a country that is threatening to dismantle its state news provider, muzzle its judiciary, sideline its journalists and tame its civil service. If we’d been paying attention to what happened in Europe, we’d say that the first couple of months since Boris won his majority have worrying parallels in the democratic decay of Poland and Hungary. But we haven’t, so we don’t.
1- to date, anyway.
2- I want to make clear that I am opposed to cricket in all its forms, and do not regard this as a positive example of internationalism.
3- I have a vested interest in the truth, because I love prawn cocktail crisps.
6- I’m not going to link to Katie’s article, partly because it was a despicable, inhumane heap of shit, and partly because even The Sun was embarrassed by it and took it offline.