A singular failure of the current referendum campaign that can be attributed equally to both sides has been an absence of any attempt to articulate the nature of Britain’s geopolitical relationship to Europe. By geopolitics I do not mean its current form of usage: serving merely as a synonym for international strategic rivalry. What can be described as classical geopolitics is a confluence of three subjects: geography, history and strategy. The reason why geopolitics can provide guidance in practical matters is because it doesn’t obey 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 boundaries: nor do the solutions.
The British thinker who mastered this synthetic approach and whose ideas have much relevance to the current referendum debate is Sir Halford Mackinder. He was that rare beast in public life: a polymath. Not only did he set up the School of Geography at Oxford , but also what was to become, in 1926, the University of Reading. He was also British High Commissioner to South Russia between 1919 and 1920. Between 1910 and 1922 he was elected 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 he gave outlined the geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe that is still of pertinence today. The geographical starting point of this relationship, he argued, was the south –east coast of England. This area was both proximate to and opposite what he termed a ‘linguistic frontier of Europe’. This was a confluence between what he termed the Teutonic and Romance peoples. 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.’ These two streams of influence had converged on Britain from the Rhine delta and the estuary of the Seine respectively.
Britain’s relationship to Europe can be described as a geopolitical paradox. Or as Mackinder himself expressed it ‘Britain is part of Europe, but not in it.’ He also argued that ‘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 description still is of relevance one hundred and fourteen years later.
Yet it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that much has changed in the relationship since 1902. Given the importance of trade with Europe and its pivotal role in our security, it could be suggested that if Mackinder were alive today he would have to take into account these economic bonds across the Channel which had never been as strong before in absolute quantity of trade. Geographic factors of what Fernand Braudel called the ‘longue durée’ have been offset by newer – and in fact older – trading patterns. Mackinder argued that it was not until the Tudor epoch that the English Channel became an effective boundary. Before then ‘London was more closely connected on the tideways with Paris, Flanders, and the Hanseatic cities than with Scotland or Ireland or Wales’.
Mackinder’s understanding of the geopolitical relationship revealed the two qualities that were at its heart: mutability and paradox. Before the British public go to vote on the 23rd June they deserve, from our politicians, some engagement with and some acknowledgement of these enduring geopolitical realities that Mackinder did so much to articulate, and the transforming character of commercial links that he acknowledged.
Dr Geoff Sloan