Is Brexit a Swamp Creature From 10,000 Years Ago?

Ian Morris’s latest pop history looks for the roots of British particularism.

By , author of the book The Shortest History of Germany.
An engraving depicts King Alfred the Great of England dividing his kingdom into counties and instituting tithes as a form of taxation.
An engraving depicts King Alfred the Great of England dividing his kingdom into counties and instituting tithes as a form of taxation.
An engraving depicts King Alfred the Great of England dividing his kingdom into counties and instituting tithes as a form of taxation. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, historians seem to abhor the lack of a grand narrative. In our lifetimes, we have seen several such narratives come and go: Buried is the Marxist fantasy that history is a conflict between classes, as is the idea that the march of time inevitably leads to modernity and liberal democracy. Then, led by Jared Diamond’s wonderful Guns, Germs, and Steel, came the revival of the French longue durée school that views even earthshaking events—such as the collapse of the Soviet Union—as mere surface disturbances in the millennial tides of history. Today, as the shelves of any well-sorted bookshop will show, we find ourselves in a new golden age of the oldest of all historical grand narratives, first employed by the thinkers of ancient Greece: Geography defines a people’s destiny.

This notion has given Ian Morris’s new book its very title, Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History. Best known for his grand narrative of geographical determinism, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, Morris—a British-born historian, archaeologist, and professor of classics at Stanford University—has now turned his attention to Britain’s historical destiny.

The devil is often in the details of a book’s title. Another successful work in this genre, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World subliminally suggests a world of would-be free agents struggling to break free from the chains of their circumstances. Morris’s choice of words suggests something rather different: It implies that there is indeed such a thing as “destiny” in human affairs.

Just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, historians seem to abhor the lack of a grand narrative. In our lifetimes, we have seen several such narratives come and go: Buried is the Marxist fantasy that history is a conflict between classes, as is the idea that the march of time inevitably leads to modernity and liberal democracy. Then, led by Jared Diamond’s wonderful Guns, Germs, and Steel, came the revival of the French longue durée school that views even earthshaking events—such as the collapse of the Soviet Union—as mere surface disturbances in the millennial tides of history. Today, as the shelves of any well-sorted bookshop will show, we find ourselves in a new golden age of the oldest of all historical grand narratives, first employed by the thinkers of ancient Greece: Geography defines a people’s destiny.

Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History; Ian Morris; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 576 pp.; ; June 2022

Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History; Ian Morris; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 576 pp.; $35; June 2022

This notion has given Ian Morris’s new book its very title, Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History. Best known for his grand narrative of geographical determinism, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, Morris—a British-born historian, archaeologist, and professor of classics at Stanford University—has now turned his attention to Britain’s historical destiny.

The devil is often in the details of a book’s title. Another successful work in this genre, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World subliminally suggests a world of would-be free agents struggling to break free from the chains of their circumstances. Morris’s choice of words suggests something rather different: It implies that there is indeed such a thing as “destiny” in human affairs.

There is another way in which Morris’s title is notable. It turns out to be, let us say, a bit economical with the truth. Morris is not really aiming to provide a 10,000-year survey of Britain’s place in the world. What he really wants is to explain Brexit.

He intends, he writes in the introduction, to show that “Brexit in fact has everything to do with deep history, that only a long-term, large-scale perspective can make sense of it and that big history can even show us what Brexit might mean.” He thus assumes, a priori, that the Brexiteers’ exceedingly narrow victory in the 2016 referendum to bring the United Kingdom out of the European Union was more than a quotidian political event. In Morris’s view, the vote was not contingent on the political situation in Britain—and more specifically, within the Conservative Party—at the time, but can “only” be understood if we look at the “deep history” of this island instead.

For Morris, this deep history starts when the Neolithic Revolution—humanity’s transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture—was delayed in its advance into the British Isles. The argument runs that this delay was caused by the survival of hunter-gatherer cultures in the unusually rich wetland environments of what is now northern France and Belgium, preventing the new lifestyle’s transfer across the English Channel. Morris isn’t the first to point out that under particularly beneficent circumstances, some hunter-gatherer cultures were robust enough to mount real resistance to the otherwise irresistible spread of farmers and the powerful states enabled by surplus-producing agriculture. Others have pointed, for example, to the peoples of the northwestern American seaboard, which likewise offered unusually rich seafood resources. To Morris, though, this interesting archaeological event (if we accept the argument as a true account) was the birth of British exceptionalism: “This is the earliest known example of what was to become one of the most important patterns in Britain’s history: an outer rim of defences, of whatever kind, which could block unwelcome processes of evening out by preventing them from reaching the Continental shores opposite England.”

There is, of course, nothing new in suggesting that Brexit is the most modern version of English particularism. Daniel Hannan, the man the Financial Times called “the brains behind Brexit,” announced in 2015 that the English invented freedom itself—or rather, that their ancestors brought it with them “from deep in the German woods” from where some of them migrated some 1,500 years ago. Morris’s version of this is original in that in place of the popular modern image of Britain as an island fortress protected by the channel, he proposes the idea of a forward defense based on the notion of a special capacity for resistance on the other shore. He asserts that successive cultures in Britain reacted in similar ways, as if by destiny, to defy “unwelcome processes” coming from across the channel by means of intervening and constructing alliances in northern France, Belgium, and at times up to the shores of the Rhine—a faint echo of the hunter-gatherer resistance against influences from further afield.

Morris’s term for this strategy, which appears again and again in the book, is “counterscarp.” He derives this term from its use by Queen Elizabeth I’s chief advisor William Cecil, who used it when arguing for a new policy of making alliances in Protestant Europe to counter the threat from Spain. And indeed, from that time on, the notion is perhaps useful, though hardly original enough to merit the notion of being proposed as a new historical insight. It is axiomatic that British foreign policy from Elizabeth onward frequently centered on ensuring that the Low Countries did not fall under control of a European hegemon. Many historians have noted, for example, that some of the barrier fortresses constructed with British support in the early 1700s in what is today Belgium—such as Ypres and Mons—would become grimly familiar to British troops during World War I. The problem is that Morris wants to do more than just rehearse this well-known argument: He wants to show that it goes way back before that.

The trouble is, it doesn’t. Before the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, there is simply no evidence for any strategy pursued by any ruler of England that might be described as that of a “counterscarp.” So Morris has to invent it. Thus he implies that Alfred the Great, had he had more resources back in the 9th century, might have preferred “conquering a counterscarp in Scandinavia” to filling his own country with burghs. But there is simply no evidence that Alfred, or any other Anglo-Saxon monarch, ever even remotely considered invading and occupying any part of Scandinavia.

At one point, Morris’s desire to illustrate what he appears to consider a deep, fundamentally positive cultural instinct to defend England or Britain against continental incursions leads him into an astonishingly lamentable passage: “The closest analogy for what William [the Conqueror] did to England might be what the Nazis planned to do in 1940. … Far from exterminating England’s Jews, William actually brought the first Jews into the country, but in other ways his kingdom was just as vicious as the Third Reich.” The alarm bells sound when any writer starts bringing comparisons with the Nazis into medieval history, for it’s a sure sign that a big idea is being pursued irrespective of any factual argument.

This is great shame, because when he’s not tirelessly pursuing his theory of the “counterscarp,” Morris is able to describe complex events with great lucidity. His explanation of why the Anglo-Saxon kings adopted Christianity is wonderful and to the point: “Every time a ruler found Jesus, the benefits of following his example snowballed a little more for others. Only Christian kings could marry other Christian kings’ daughters, and only Christian kings could tap into the church’s booming wealth and diplomatic networks.”

Unfortunately, all that really matters to him is his grand new narrative. What doesn’t fit is treated as flyover history, simply to be ignored. Thus, in this book of 576 pages, around 200 are dedicated to events before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and some 200 cover events since 1900. The entire five centuries between the Norman Conquest and the Reformation are dealt with in only 40 pages. Those were the vital years in which the genuinely exceptional things about England were born and developed, including the power of Parliament, common law, and a rich, expressive language that uniquely mixes Germanic and Latinate roots. You can’t help suspecting that the reason Morris treats this central era so briefly is that any proper discussion of it would quickly have revealed the absence of any counterscarp driver in English foreign policy.

On the contrary, for much of that time, England’s kings and ruling elite were entirely obsessed with holding and conquering territory in France. And their motivation was not to defend England against invasion but because they wanted part of France, or even all of it—the land whose language they spoke among themselves and used to write their laws and hold their parliamentary debates. Every historian has to be selective—never mind those who cover 10,000 years of history in less than 600 pages—but when the selectivity is so blatant, readers are bound to have second thoughts about the author’s big idea.

Indeed, Morris seems to have second thoughts about the counterscarp explanation himself. In his final section he talks of how, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of China, there is a “new map” of the world drawn by the United States, and of the way in which Britain has been obliged to “come to terms with this new map.” But since the tectonic plates have not actually moved much since the end of the Cold War, Morris is evidently not talking about geography and real maps at all but about geopolitical ideas and mental constructs, which is a rather different thing.

Perhaps that was really what he was thinking about all along. His two favorite rulers of England and Britain are Alfred the Great and Winston Churchill. Their virtues are described in very similar terms: “Alfred’s genius lay in seeing that these issues of mobility, prosperity, security and sovereignty were ultimately about identity. His subjects had to want to pull together.” Churchill, having lost his counterscarp in France, “gave the British a new way to see themselves, as the few who stood alone, defying evil, all in it together.” Clearly, the operative word here is “together.” In the end, Morris’s “deep history” has nothing to do with geographical determinism and everything to do with the political construction of a modern British national identity in which the mythology of an island fortress, with or without a counterscarp, has been notoriously central.

Morris set out to “show us what Brexit might mean” by looking at that deep history. And in a way, he does, but not the way he intended: By the time he concludes that “Brexit … was just the latest move in an 8,000-year-long game,” it has become clear that there was nothing deep or historical about that event and that Brexit was, rather, the result of thoroughly modern thinkers constructing entirely ahistorical myths—exactly as Morris does here.

James Hawes is author of the book The Shortest History of Germany.

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