Cross channel adventure


We are an island race par excellence; even if you are an immigrant, once you become a British citizen you cannot help but adopt the national character in this respect. That characteristic is insularity. You have no choice in the matter. You might like to consider yourself a citizen of the world, but the sea has made other arrangements.

Compared to Britain, all the other countries in Europe (except little Malta) have rather hazy borders. At a point in recent history Denmark extended south into what is now Germany. The border area, Schleswig-Holstein, led to two wars in the 19th century. Poland did not exist at all in the nineteenth century, being divided among its neighbours; when it was briefly restored to independence after the First World War it extended far to the east. The Russian Revolution had caused the collapse of the Czarist Empire, and the borders of Poland reflected this fact. A few years later the victorious Stalin pushed the borders of his client state out of its eastern territories and focused the state into what had formerly been Prussia. The German city of Danzig became Polish Gdansk.

It is the same all over Europe; Norway emerged from centuries of foreign domination only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Portugal was occupied by the French under Napoleon; Belgium was created in the aftermath of his defeat. Strasburg has repeated changed its allegiance from Germany to France, depending upon which country won the most recent conflict. The South Tyrol changed from Austrian to Italian sovereignty after the First World War. This process is still going on; in 2014 Crimea was forcibly transferred from Ukraine to Russia. The borders of all mainland European states have moved as a result of plebiscites or wars.

By contrast the borders of this country are set in stone. This is literally true along much of the West Coast, and while the sandier shores of Lincolnshire and East Anglia may come and go, it is the impersonal actions of the waves we have to thank, rather than warlike invaders. This has given our people a wholly different perception of our nationhood. Northern Ireland is different, in having a land border with a foreign country, but the creation of Northern Ireland is a relatively recent and fractious phenomenon. Things would be rather different if Scotland ever becomes independent; but as things stand the British mainland is fixed in a way that the borders of other European countries never have been and never could be.

Australia, New Zealand and Japan are also countries whose borders are defined by the sea. Canada is largely bordered by sea, and the common heritage of the British Empire has made the land border with the USA a peaceful one. (Contrast this northern border of the US with the southern one with Mexico, where there has recently been serious consideration of building a wall.) Although their country is much larger in area and smaller in population than Britain,  Australians has a similar insular character. Although there is plenty of open space available for settlement, they have very strict immigration requirements, and that is a part of their feeling of nationhood.

This watery border has other consequences for the way we run our lives in Britain. The fact that we opted out of the Euro was in a large part a reflection of our insularity. The pound represents the country, and the coinage had been a changeless part of life for centuries. Victorian pennies regularly turned up in your change until old pennies were abolished in 1971, and the old shilling remained legal tender into the 1980s, although it was referred to as five new pence. It was no accident that the symbol on the old penny was Britannia, surrounded by sea.

The position of being surrounded by water has had other effects too; it gave the country strong borders, but it also made the sea an extension of our national reach. The Channel may have kept foreigners out of Britain, but the sea opened up the world to our Navy. The sea is why the British Empire had a global presence, and that has made the English language the global means of communication. Most of us see no need to speak any language other than English.

The sea has given our country immunity from armed foreign invasion for nearly 1000 years, and this has enabled the evolution of our constitution. The Magna Carta remained a legal milestone throughout the centuries; in other places in Europe the laws of their lands have been swept away by changing empires and foreign armies, but Britain has been insulated from such changes. We normally trace our monarchy back to William of Normandy, although it is possible to go back to Alfred the Great. It is a great history, providing a continuity unknown in the rest of Europe.

In the 21st century the strength of our maritime defensive bulwark has been to some extent compromised. In the second half of last century the great increase in air travel made the English Channel less relevant; if you are going abroad the way is to fly. We are also now bound to France by the Channel Tunnel, and this too has made a portal through our previously impregnable boundary. We are marginally less insulated from the attentions of ‘less happier lands,’ but we are still a pretty insular nation.

Since I started to write this article on our island nation much of what I said has been reinforced by the decision to leave the European Union. A lot has been made of the wider possibilities of trade after Brexit, but the overwhelming impression is of Little England pulling up the drawbridge. Like it or not, if you are English you belong to an island people.




3 responses

  1. And what about the invasions of Romans, Anglo-Saxons, or Normans in former times? The glorious island is from the beginning of times a land of immigrants.



    England was certainly created by migrants from Europe; the Anglo-Saxon bloodline is particularly strong in the East of the country as revealed by modern DNA research. Subsequent waves of migrants, from the Vikings to the Normans, have left little mark on the genetic make-up of the people. The invaders may have been influential politically but they were too few in number to alter the genetic profile of England. There was little migration in the later middle ages, and the disruption of the Reformation which led to a flood of refugees from the Netherlands and France was largely concentrated in East Anglia. There was little migration in the eighteenth century. Following the potato famine there was a influx of Irish migrants (they did not all go on to America or Australia) and following the pogroms and Nazi persecution the arrival of Jews was important culturally but not significant numerically. After the Second World War we saw substantial levels of migration from former colonies in the West and East Indies to fill an employment gap. The recent surge in migrants from Eastern Europe reflects the relative economic success of the country.

    Despite all these migrants we are still a very traditional Anglo-Saxon nation. One of the most iconic occasions in the national year is the Last Night of the Proms. I scan the audience looking for an Asian or Black face, without success. I wish it were otherwise, but you cannot make these new citizens participate in this quaint English custom.


  3. I never thought I would find such an everyday topic so enrhgallint!


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