Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been a geopolitical paradox – part of Europe but not in it

Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been a geopolitical paradox – part of Europe but not in it

The singular failure of the European referendum campaign, 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: serving merely as a synonym for international strategic rivalry. Instead I would endorse what is called classical geopolitics. It is a confluence of three subjects: geography, history and strategy. It draws attention to the importance of certain geographical patterns of political history. It fuses spatial relationships and historical causation. Critically it can produce explanations which suggest the contemporary and future political relevance of various geographical configurations.

It has the ability to provide judgement in practical conduct. This is partly a product of not obeying the artificial boundaries of disciplinary knowledge; it requires synthetic thought 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 who was responsible for formulating this approach and whose ideas have much relevance to the geopolitical reality of a post–Brexit United Kingdom was Sir Halford Mackinder. He was that rare beast in British public life: a polymath. Not only did he set up the School of Geography at Oxford, but he founded what was to become the University of Reading in 1926. He was also Director of the LSE. In 1919 he was appointed British High Commissioner to South Russia by the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon. He was also elected to the House of Commons. Between 1910 and 1922 and served as a Scottish Unionist MP for a constituency in Glasgow.

In 1902 he published a seminal book titled: Britain and the British Seas. In it there was articulated the geopolitical relationship between the British Isles and Europe. This interpretation has renewed relevance as a consequence of the poll the result of the 23rd June 2016. The geographical starting point is the was the south–east coast of England. This area is both proximate to and opposite what he called the ‘linguistic frontier of Europe’. It was at this frontier that a confluence occurred between what he called the Teutonic and Romance peoples. These two streams of influence had a geographical expression in the form of the Rhine River and delta and the Seine River and its estuary. Uniquely both influences had shaped Britain. He expressed it in the following way: ’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.’

Britain’s relationship to Europe can be described as a geopolitical paradox. No British or European leader has recognised or acknowledged it before or after the Brexit vote. Mackinder had identified a pivotal geographical pattern of political history and gave expression to it: ‘Britain is part of Europe, but not in it.’ He then articulated the implications for practical conduct: ‘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 much to recommend it one hundred and sixteen years later. Of course, 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 large point is made; and it is still the great ports and the historical and living hinterlands of the Elbe, the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Seine and, no less, of the British archipelago that shape and distinguish our economies.

It would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that much has changed in the relationship between Britain and Europe since 1902. Given the importance of trade with Europe, if Mackinder were alive today he would have taken into account the pertinence of these economic realities. The geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe has at its heart two qualities that are difficult to align: mutability and paradox. They constitute the essence of the policy challenge that the Conservative Government of Mrs May has to resolve.

History illuminates the pertinence of the first quality in that it was not until the Tudor period that the English Channel became an effective separating 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’. He understood that geography was 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; trade became more European after 1973 though trade and investment remained significantly Atlantic, but it was dynamic in either direction. The dynamic factor – services – was born in the Atlantic imperial economy. After the end of empire and the shift into ‘Europe’ the City’s services flourished. They remained surprisingly global, not European.

The recognition of economic change in geopolitics is not a rejection of geographical significance but a recognition of the synthetic 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 what are the chances of the current British political class recognising and engaging with these geopolitical realities? I would suggest they are non-existent. Instead they have placed their faith in their ability to negotiate in a manner that is redolent of the merchant traders struggling for short-term margins with no sense of strategic issues. The consequences of such attitudes have historical form.

The Bolshevik Ivan Maisky, who was the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1932 and 1943, recognised the futility of this approach. Witnessing the growing crisis on the European continent prior to the Second World War, he made two incisive comments in his diary. First what it was like to be on the receiving end of these negotiations. On the 18th May 1939 he observed the British 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.’

Secondly, he recognised the folly of imputing to your opponent assumptions that are your own. On the 21st May 1938 he wrote: ‘These Englishmen perceive them [European dictators] as they would a business man from the City or an English country gentleman. They could not be more mistaken’. History does not repeat itself, but it is certainly going to rhyme.

We did not have hard appeasement, we had a softer version; we did not have a hard anti-fascism, we had a soft one; we were not ‘in Europe’ politically until we were all for entry; we were ‘out’ of the Euro. Yet British parliamentarians voted for the Lisbon Treaty which could have been stopped by a referendum if the electorate had been given the one they were promised.

The particular choices with respect to Brexit are big and can change with surprising speed. However, the geopolitical pattern is clear: we are an important but peripheral European state with a deep history that both binds and separates. Geopolitics is not going away. There are hard choices to be made, and they will not be all in the same direction. The current government cannot split the difference on great issues and hope to remain unaffected by seeking a gentleman’s agreement not to press us too hard. An inability of the British political class to grasp and articulate the geopolitical reality that Mackinder so persuasively identified will deprive the British people of the holy grail of geopolitical analysis: to give judgement in practical conduct. Now is the time when the United Kingdom needs it the most.

Britain has always been part of Europe but not in it