Britain’s Destiny

Ian Morris

Britain's destiny has been defined by its geography.
The British Isles, by Ignazio Danti 1565
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Britain’s Destiny

The Greek historian Thucydides called his account of the 5th century BC war between Athens and Sparta was ‘a possession for all time’, because ‘the past is an aid to understanding the future.’ Cicero, writing nearly four centuries later, agreed that history was magistra vitae, ‘life’s teacher’; and another twenty centuries after that, the part-time historian Winston Churchill also felt that ‘the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward’.

Yet historians nowadays seem less certain. Pointing out that ‘recorded history amounts to no more than about two hundred generations’, the great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton concluded that ‘Even if there is a larger purpose in history … we cannot really expect so far to be able to extract it from the little bit of history we have’. Nor was he alone; the first time I interviewed for a university job, another great historian—the classicist Arnaldo Momigliano—assured me in no uncertain terms that the only lesson of history is that history holds no lessons.

I was not convinced then, and remain unconvinced now. I’ve spent my own career as much in archaeology as in history, digging in Britain, Greece and Italy, and have never shared Elton’s belief that history goes back just 200 generations. Excavated evidence is different from the written kind, but it tells us a lot—and pushes our time horizon out from a few hundred to several thousand generations. Churchill and the ancients had it right, because when we look on this scale, we really do see patterns in the past and can probe what they reveal about our future.

I’ve written several books now looking at long-term patterns spanning the globe, and have had a lot of fun doing it. Yet one point remains on which I have to agree with Elton and Momigliano: that history is made by real people, not vast impersonal forces. No grand theory is worth the pixels it’s written in unless it actually makes sense of the messy lives of the individuals in particular times and places. Every ‘big’ historian, I think, should have to write a book trying to do just that.

I originally planned to write one about Greece, from its first human occupants (the world’s oldest evidence for upright apes may be a set of six-million-year-old footprints at Trachilos on Crete) to the euro crisis and beyond. But then, while I was still pondering what the book would look like, came the Brexit vote. Here, I realized, was a genuinely interesting problem: how would the issues of 2016 look if treated them as part of a 10,000-year story, going back to the time when rising waters began to create the British Isles by physically separating them from the European continent?

There were days when I wondered if this had been a good idea. In both quantity and quality, the scholarship on British archaeology and history is extraordinary, even overwhelming. I had a lot to learn—but also a lot to unlearn, especially about the archaeological fields I thought I knew best. Ancient DNA, stable-isotope analyses and hundreds of new excavations transformed our picture in the 2010s. But the deeper I got, the more fascinating the questions became—and the more convinced I was that a long perspective cast new light not only on Britain’s place in the world but also on where it might go next. The result is: Geography is Destiny.

The big lesson I learned writing it is that while Geography is Destiny, it is up to us to choose what to do about that. Geography drives history, but history also drives what geography means. The coastlines, rivers and mountains have not moved very much since the waters stopped rising after the Ice Age, but as our technologies (particularly for travel and communication) and organizations have expanded and contracted, the geographical facts have constantly taken on new significance. The logic of this back-and-forth between geography, technology and organization simultaneously explains the Isles’ 10,000-year history and gives a good sense of what might come in the next 100 years. And in the end, while the past may not be a very good guide to the future, it’s the only one we’ve got.

The British Isles’ history has gone through three phases. The first, filling the first 9,500 of the story’s 10,000 years, was characterized by relatively simple (although constantly changing) technologies and organizations, which meant that Britain’s proximity to the continent always trumped its insularity. The English Channel acted more as a highway than a barrier, while the Atlantic Ocean was very much a barrier, crossable only in the most exceptional circumstances.

The centres of wealth, power and sophistication always lay far off to the south and east, and Britain was very much Europe’s poor cousin. Every major innovation (from Homo sapiens itself to agriculture, writing, governments and empires) began in Africa, Asia or the Mediterranean and spread until—having reached almost everywhere else first—it ended up in the Isles as well. And ‘ended up’ is definitely the right expression, because beyond Britain, the world effectively ended. England’s history was largely about dealing with what came its way from the continent; Wales’, Scotland’s and Ireland’s, about dealing with what came their way from England.

All this was dictated by geography, but Britons had many ways to respond to it. For millennia, most managed just fine in small, egalitarian and mobile forager bands, until farmers immigrating from Europe swept that world away around 4000 BC. As interactions became more complex, people organized larger tribes and chiefdoms, building great religious monuments at Newgrange, on Orkney and at Stonehenge, only for metal-using immigrants from the continent to sweep these worlds away too after 2400 BC. By the final centuries BC, chiefs in what would later be England were transforming themselves into kings, collaborating or resisting as Gauls and Romans came to trade but stayed to conquer.

Rome imposed a radically new way for southeastern Britain to deal with the continent, as a province within an empire, and when that empire collapsed, even newer ways had to be found. Rome in fact returned in 597 AD, but this time with monks not soldiers. These brought England into a new sort of empire, rooted in faith and identity rather than military power (the similarities between this Catholic union and the modern EU are sometimes striking). Novel kingdoms were created in England, some of them united with parts of France and others with parts of Scandinavia, while rivals in Scotland, Wales and Ireland sought continental allies of their own to encircle and neutralise England.

The variety of ancient and medieval outcomes is remarkable, and still more permutations would doubtless have been found had technology and organization not changed the meanings of geography out of all recognition in the 15th century. Europeans had learned to build ships that could convert the Atlantic from a barrier to a highway, and in 1497, John Cabot—a Venetian expat in Bristol—sailed from England to Newfoundland, showing that Britain was no longer the edge of the world. By the 1580s, men like Francis Drake and John Hawkins were insisting that ships able to open the oceans could also close the Channel, making insularity trump proximity for the first time in history. It is no coincidence that it was in the 1590s that Shakespeare first called England:

This precious stone set in the silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Before Shakespeare’s day, this would have made no sense. Now, however, secure behind its moat defensive, England could unite all the Isles into a single kingdom and even create an intercontinental empire—but only if the English fused technological revolution with an organizational one, creating governments which could raise enough money to build fleets able to do everything which was needed.

Arguments over whether this was possible or even desirable tore the country apart, but by the 17th century’s end, England had exchanged its supporting part on a European stage for the lead role on a global one. A newly United Kingdom took over a quarter of the planet, one-third of its trade and, after unlocking the awesome power of fossil fuels, fully half of its manufacturing.

US Secretary of State Dean Acheson

The world had never seen anything like this, but, having changed the meanings of geography enough to make British global domination possible, technology and organization just kept on changing them even more—until, by 1945, British global domination was once again impossible. Fossil-fuel industries had spread across the world. Mountains of money even bigger than London’s had accumulated in Europe, North America and East Asia. Cars, container ships and jet engines had shrunk the world. In this brave new world, insularity was no longer a defence against airplanes, radio waves or intercontinental missiles. Proximity now trumped all.

It was unkind of the American Secretary of State Dean Acheson to say in 1962 that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’, but it was true. Two generations have passed since then, but much remains unclear about what geography now means for the British. Should the Isles be sheltering in the shadow of the American mountain of money? Or would they do better on the slopes below Brussels? Or climbing up towards Beijing? Could they carve out an independent path between the American, European and Asian peaks? Or collaborate with the old English-speaking Commonwealth to heap up a hill of their own? Or would it be better for the constituent countries of the United Kingdom to part company and go their separate ways?

A 10,000-year perspective suggests some answers. The question on the 2016 ballot: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’—was the wrong one. For millennia, England’s history had largely been about dealing with what came its way from the continent, while Wales’, Scotland’s and Ireland’s had been about dealing with what came their way from England. By 2016, however, that was no longer the case.

When we apply to our own days along the principles used for analyzing the deep past, it becomes obvious what the question should have been. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pointed it out a decade ago. ‘The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance’, he observed. ‘It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world’. The question is not what to do about Brussels; it’s what to do about Beijing.

The real legacy of Brexit is that, for a crucial half-decade, it distracted Britons from focusing on the true meaning of modern geography. If only we had paid attention to what it says on Aspects of History’s homepage, that the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

Ian Morris is an academic, archaeologist and author of Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000 Year History.