The Honeytrap of Universal History: Brexit and Grand Sweeps of History and Geography
Ian Morris, Geography is Destiny. Britain’s Place in the World: A 10,000-Year History (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022)
In a 2018 episode of the vacuous but addictive British reality TV show Love Island, contestants sat by the pool and pondered the effects of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. “What’s that?” a young woman asked of the referendum that had taken place two years earlier. After her friend explained that the United Kingdom would be leaving the continental bloc and they’d feel the effects, the young woman followed up: “So does that mean we won’t have any trees?” Chuckling, her friend responded: “That’s got nothing to do with it, babe. That’s weather.”
The moment drew laughs and disbelief from viewers. At the time, the government was still attempting to negotiate the terms of its withdrawal, and the public had grown frustrated at the pace and direction of the process. For those who had voted to remain in the European Union, the outcome of the June 2016 referendum still stung. Younger generations of “remain” voters, in particular, felt the escalator of progress turning into a malfunctioning elevator, one dropping rapidly to a bygone era. Because of certain campaign tactics — Brexit darling Nigel Farage had posed in front of a bus splayed with an image of queuing refugees with the caption “breaking point,” for example — there was a feeling that the operative force in the referendum, once the layers of political rhetoric were peeled back, had been xenophobic in nature. Such bigotry, many felt, was entirely at odds with their feeling of being not just English, Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish but European citizens.
But as the dust settled in the weeks after the June 2016 vote, there arrived more sober analyses on the motivations of those who had voted to leave. Some had placed their faith in proposed long-term economic and financial benefits, others wrapped themselves in the blanket of political sovereignty. After all, many of those who had voted to depart the union were old enough to remember the contentious deliberations over accession to the European Economic Community in the early 1970s and the nationwide referendum that followed.
I happened to be living in Britain at the time of the Brexit vote, an American fly on the wall to an issue I knew little about. My kaleidoscope of ignorance came briefly into focus during a lecture by the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, who took the somewhat provocative position — at least at that time — that the public’s decision was part and parcel of the United Kingdom’s long relationship with the European continent dating back hundreds of years. Careful not to downplay the significance of this moment in time, Simms’ words embodied one of the great contributions of historians: their ability to provide context in chaos.
In the years since that lecture in the summer of 2016, there have been a number of books that have attempted to place Brexit in historical context. Jeremy Black, Stuart Sweeney, and even Simms himself have published tracts on the subject. All three authors go back to at least the 17th century to uncover historical forces that have shaped present circumstances. But none have been more ambitious than Ian Morris’ Geography is Destiny, a work spanning over 500 pages and covering over 10,000 years of history. In it, the emeritus professor at Stanford makes a case that the referendum of 2016 should not be seen as an unprecedented moment as much as a common reckoning — one that those inhabiting the archipelago off the European continent have been revisiting at various points over thousands of years. “Brexit mattered,” he writes, “but it wasn’t the end of the world. It was just the latest move in an 8,000-year-long game.”
Apart from the stimulating argument, Morris provides fascinating details in these pages, and his command of British history is clear. His discussion of farming and weaponry as far back as 2400 BCE, the organization of distinct villages around the 10th century, the intricacies of the early bond market in 17th century England, and the trade and consumption of coffee, tea, beer, and ale in the 18th century all provide colorful nuance to this larger story. And while at times some detail seems to veer toward irrelevancy (for example, the discussion of tobacco production and trade in 17th century Virginia) the centripetal force of Morris’ thesis — how everything relates to Britain’s position vis-à-vis Europe — seems to stabilize those enjoying this historical merry-go-round.
For a work of this size and scope, there will undoubtedly be errors of fact as well as questionable judgments (the idea of the Suez Crisis of 1956 being “in a sense, the last battle of the world wars, where Britain paid the full price for losing its financial struggle with the United States” seems a stretch). But these should not detract from some of the larger questions this work raises about approaches to historical study and its application to the present. Concerning the former, the subject of methods often causes a fight-or-flight response — and I am no exception — but discussions of this sort have imminent practical value, for no other reason than how one approaches historical study can say much about how one perceives the present and imagines the future.
In the opening chapter, Morris describes himself, as he has in earlier books like Why the West Rules — For Now, as a “long-term historian.” Not only is he concerned with “big history,” he says, but he is also intent on breathing life into these old facts — in other words, on applying history to present questions. It is reminiscent of a similar approach made by the iconic historian Arnold Toynbee beginning in the 1930s. Like Morris, Toynbee was a trained classicist who, perceiving great changes in his own time, looked to the history of past millennia for grounding and guidance. Both historians bring distant history to life. And both, through their grand sweeps and expanding horizons, help readers think about some of the larger forces within and between societies that are always moving but often unseen. For Toynbee, it was the rise, decline, and disintegration of distinct civilizations — he counted 21 — and how these processes drove history. For Morris, it is how geography, and to a lesser extent technology and organization, produce a similar effect on the movement of history. Both accounts are educative, stimulating, provocative, and more than worthy of engagement. But they are also problematic.
In his latest work, Morris has fallen into the honeytrap of universal history, a snare that has caught some of the great historians over the last four centuries. Voltaire, Leopold von Ranke, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, even Francis Fukuyama to an extent, were all, diverse as they remain, guilty of such attempts. Akin to the last call at the pub: Historians want more, though they know they probably shouldn’t. In Morris’ case, he makes a worthy argument in saying the Brexit vote was merely the latest instance of a much larger and more consistent historical problem faced by societies on this island — namely, their relationship to the continent laying to the south and east. But the universal element in this history appears when he takes it a step further, claiming that the geographic reality made all of these wars, alliances, even referendums, expectable, if not wholly inevitable.
This kind of geographic determinism has surfaced in the public and academic discourse over the last hundred years. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography has been a New York Times bestseller since its publication in 2015. Years before, the noted commentator Robert Kaplan described what he perceived as the “revenge of geography” first in a controversial article and later in a book that received conflicting reviews. In the British context, historians as far back as the 1920s (and certainly before) have reflected on the constraints, benefits, and opportunities of Britain’s geographic reality. George Trevelyan, in his History of England, even declared in the opening pages: “History is governed by geography.” While years later, Maurice Bruce posited that the lay of the land — in addition to the English Channel — was a key component: “For England the determining factor is the tilt of the land towards the south-east, with the lower-lying country and the Thames estuary open towards the Continent; but for this, British history might well have run on very different lines.”
Apart from these names, there are few who have gone as far as Morris in his new book. Even the Annales school of historians, known for their development of longue durée history and the importance they placed on the “structural realities” laid forth by geographic boundaries and configurations, did not take such a strong view. Fernand Braudel, in his classic study of the Mediterranean world in the 16th century, wrote that geography “is no longer an end in itself but a means to an end. It helps us to rediscover the slow unfolding of structural realities, to see things in the perspective of the very long term.” Toynbee, too, whose philosophy of history resembled a certain determinism and who stressed the importance of how societies interact with their environment, did not go so far as to say it was a determining factor. At best it was a conditioning factor. This view — that geography is relevant but not supreme to the scholar — seems the safer bet. Indeed, even for those whose international thought has been closely associated with a focus on geographic position, writers such as Nicholas Spykman, to take a classic example, were careful to qualify their terms. Geography, he noted, was “the most fundamentally conditioning factor in the formulation of national policy because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and ministers go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.” But Spykman also specified further: “The geography of a country is rather the material for, than the cause of, its policy, and to admit that the garment must ultimately be cut to fit the cloth is not to say that the cloth determines either the garment’s style or its adequacy.”
Naturally, Morris’ determinism leads him to conclusions which have great implications for the future. A key framework of the book concerns three maps which position the British Isles, conceptually speaking, in a wider geopolitical landscape. First is the so-called “Hereford Map,” which spans from 6000 BCE to 1497. Here the Atlantic archipelago is depicted as a mere appendage of the true center of the world which revolved around the Mediterranean and modern-day Middle East. Next, “Mackinder’s Map,” of relevance from 1497 to 1945, reflected a Britain with far more agency, one that helped to eventually place the United Kingdom at the center of the world. Much of this, he argues, had to do with the British empire becoming a “world system” in the 19th century. Finally, there is the “Money Map” (from 1945 to 2103) which Morris sees as defined by economic and financial power and dominated by Beijing. He estimates the influence of China on future British foreign policy is such that “[t]he question that should have been on the referendum in 2016 was not what to do about Brussels. It was what to do about Beijing.” Morris writes that the eastward geopolitical tilt of the future is the clear direction of history, and those in Whitehall should take note. In lines that conjure up memories of Fukuyama’s closing lines of his magnum opus — where he described mankind as wagon trains journeying to similar destinations — Morris writes: “The secret of success is seeing which way the cart is going and working out how to make the most of it. Big history shows that geography is the key to working out what the cart is doing.”
While many of his arguments, to say nothing of his historical approach, go too far, there are numerous takeaways, conceptually speaking, for scholars and even officials. Morris at various points does well to emphasize the role that geography has played, and will continue to play, in strategic thinking. He highlights Winston Churchill’s three concentric circles — of a United Europe, an English-speaking people, and a British Commonwealth and empire — and how this influenced the prime minister’s view of foreign policy in the post-war years. He also notes, rather controversially, that Harold Macmillan’s move toward Europe was “the biggest strategic pivot since the 1710s.” Setting accuracy briefly aside, these views naturally oppose those who have argued that technology — especially concerning communications, trade, and transport — have “shrunk distances” and made geopolitics less relevant. Such arguments have been popular among famed British internationalist thinkers — among them H.G. Wells, Lord Lothian, and Barbara Wootton — but they tend to undervalue (and sometimes override) the continued significance of territory and sovereignty.
Today, as then, geographic considerations — whether land, sea, air, or space — should always occupy the minds of those interested in and responsible for high policy. But perhaps more importantly, scholars and policymakers might also be open to the question of what factors, other than geography, drive history. Here the historical and contemporary relevance of ideas, religion, societies, governance, technology, conflict, institutions, and individuals must be weighed. At the very least, such reflection shows that history and present experience cannot be simply reduced to, or traced back to, a geographic birthright.
This is no doubt a volume intended for the popular reader. His repeated comparisons of historical events to present experience would frustrate an academic historian. Henry VIII’s efforts to leave the “Catholic European Union” cannot be reasonably compared to David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum in 2016, for example. Even still, the work does perform a valuable task by giving a great deal of historical context and contrast to present experience. The book is more than worth a read. But reader beware — including those Love Island contestants who, like the rest of Britain, are still making sense of their predicament — Morris’ arguments should be chewed on and engaged with, but not swallowed whole.
Andrew Ehrhardt is an Ernest May fellow in history and policy at Harvard’s Belfer Center.