This essay draws on the author’s previous work, specifically: The Geopolitics of Anglo-Irish Relations in the 20th Century.
The greatest failure of the European referendum campaign in 2016, which can be attributed to both sides, was the inability to articulate an understanding of Britain’s geopolitical relationship to Europe. By geopolitics, I do not mean its current usage: interpreted merely as a synonym for international strategic rivalry. I refer, instead, to classical geopolitics, which is a confluence of three subjects: geography, history, and strategy. It draws attention to certain geographical patterns of political history. It fuses spatial relationships and historical causation. It can produce explanations that suggest the contemporary and future political relevance of various geographical configurations.
What sets geopolitics apart is that it does not obey the artificial boundaries of disciplinary knowledge; classical geopolitics embraces a synthetic approach to address policy problems and issues. Furthermore, the problems and issues themselves do not respect those artificial boundaries, nor do the solutions.
The British thinker responsible for formulating geopolitical perspectives that still have pertinence to Britain’s future relationship with Europe was Sir Halford Mackinder. He was that rare beast in British public life: a polymath. He set up the School of Geography at Oxford, and founded what was to become the University of Reading in 1926. He was also the second Director of the London School of Economics. In 1919, he was appointed British High Commissioner to South Russia by then-Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon. He was elected to the House of Commons and between 1910 and 1922 served as a Scottish Unionist MP for a constituency in Glasgow.
In 1902, he published a book titled, Britain and the British Seas. It was one of his seminal texts that articulated the nature of the geopolitical relationship between the British Isles and Europe. This analysis has renewed relevance as a consequence of the 2016 “Brexit” poll result. For Mackinder, the geographical starting point of the relationship was the southeast coast of England. This area is both proximate to and opposite what he called the “linguistic frontier of Europe.” At this frontier, there was a confluence between what he described as the Teutonic and Romance peoples. These two streams of influence had geographical expression in the form of the Rhine River and the Seine River and its estuary. Uniquely, both of these influences had shaped Britain: “To the Teutonic – Easterling and Norsemen – England owes her civil institutions and her language; to the peoples of the west and south, her Christianity and her scholarship.”
Mackinder identified the geographical pattern of political history: “Britain is part of Europe, but not in it.” In summary, the relationship is framed by a geopolitical paradox. He expressed the granular detail in the following way: “Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group, set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent; that the opposing shores are indented; and that the domain of the two historic races come down to the sea precisely at the narrowest strait between the mainland and the island.”
This analysis still has pertinence 118 years later. Analytical terms change, but, whether we say France and Germany or the prosperous North and the debt-burdened South or, like Mackinder, the Teutonic and Romance peoples, the same geopolitical point is relevant; it is still the great ports and the hinterlands of the Elbe, the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Seine, and the British archipelago that mutually shape and impact each other.
It would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that much has changed in the relationship between Britain and Europe since 1902. Given the importance of the single market for the British economy, Mackinder, if he were alive today, would have acknowledged the pertinence of these economic realities. Unfortunately, for the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to demonstrate that he understands that geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe and that it has at its heart two enduring qualities that are difficult to align: mutability and paradox. They constitute the essence of the policy challenge that successive Conservative governments have struggled to resolve.
History illuminates the mutability of the relationship. It was not until the Tudor period that the English Channel became an effective strategic boundary. Before then, Mackinder argued that: “London was more closely connected on the tide ways with Paris, Flanders, and the Hanseatic cities than with Scotland or Ireland or Wales.” Geography is not an immutable phenomenon. It could, in certain circumstances, condition other factors, and its meaning, in a political and strategic sense, could change. English and Scottish trade was European before it was Atlantic and remained importantly European even when its dynamic became Atlantic.
Economic change does not nullify the significance of geography. What is important is the flow of the grain. Writing in 1890, Mackinder declared: “The course of politics is a product of two sets of forces, compelling and guiding. The impetus is from the past, in the history embedded in a people’s character and tradition. The present guides the movement by economic wants and geographical opportunities. Statesmen and diplomats succeed and fail pretty much as they recognise the irresistible power of these forces.”
The critical question is whether British decision makers will recognize and engage with these geopolitical realities. I would suggest they are dangerously low. Instead, they have placed their faith in negotiating in a manner that is redolent of merchant traders struggling for short-term margins with no sense of strategic issues. The consequences of these operating codes of our political elite have historical form. Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1932 and 1943, recognized the futility of these codes. He had a ringside seat on the growing crisis on the European continent prior to the Second World War. He conveyed powerfully in his diary what it was like to be on the receiving end of this political behavior. On May 18, 1939, he observed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain “bargaining with us like an old gypsy, trying to foist a bad horse on us instead of a good one. It won’t work.” History does not repeat itself, but it is certainly starting to rhyme.
The choices with respect to Brexit are big, and there is little political consensus between the four nations that make up the United Kingdom. However, the geopolitical reality endures: we are an important, but geographically peripheral, European state with a history that both binds and separates. This history is not going away, and major changes with Europe must be grounded in what Mackinder called the “geographical realities” if peace and prosperity are to be secured.
A dimension of Brexit that represents the antithesis of these “geographical realities” has been the British government’s attitude towards Northern Ireland. Brexit there has spawned geographical determinism. The European Union, Irish government, and Sinn Fein believe the illusion that geography is political destiny. Boris Johnson by acquiescing to a trade border in the Irish Sea has done two things simultaneously. Firstly, he has distanced Westminster from the challenge of maintaining the integrity of the British state. Secondly, he has walked away from the underlying and eternal challenge of statesmanship: maintaining the unity and integrity of the state that you govern. He has ignored that most critical of lodestars: there is no such thing as a natural state. As early as January 2021, a part of the British state will be administered jointly with the European Union.
The phrase most commonly associated with this dysfunctional geopolitics is “the island of Ireland.” It has historical form that can be traced back to 1937, when Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera made an illegal constitutional claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. Since then, the scope of its political traction has expanded enormously. Successive British government papers on Northern Ireland have been peppered with the phrase. At its heart lies the false assumption that because Ireland is geographically an island, it presupposes that political unification is both natural and inevitable. It omits and erases the complex network of human, historical, and socioeconomic associations that exist within the British Isles as a whole.
These associations have a unique resonance in the relationship between Northern Ireland and Scotland. For example, the medieval Latin name for Irishman was Scotus. England and the south of Ireland have a unique set of associations that were forged over many centuries. One modern dimension of this is underlined by the fact that until the arrival of COVID-19 the busiest air route in the British Isles was the one between London and Dublin. To paraphrase former U.S. diplomat David Bruce, these arrangements for Northern Ireland have released a gigantic dissonant fireball in the night of Britain’s false post-Brexit prosperity and security.
Mackinder understood that economic wants and geographical opportunities should guide present policy. Northern Ireland does over £9 billion of trade with the rest of the UK, and only £2 billion with the Irish Republic. Yet, the British government has imposed on a part of its own territory the same mutability and paradox that geography conditioned with respect to the relationship between the British Isles and Europe. This conscious political decision has resulted in a qualified status for Northern Ireland. It is part of the United Kingdom, but no longer fully in it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.