By Oliver A.
Britain has not always been an island. For most of human history the area now known as Great Britain was attached to Europe as a peninsular. 8000 years ago, a tsunami, called Storegga, broke the land-link between England and France. Megan Lane in a BBC article titled ‘The moment Britain became an island’ poses the question: ‘Did that wave help shape the national character?’ With reference to the political character of Britain, my answer would be a definite yes. From the Commonwealth and Euroscepticism to the special relationship with the USA, the geographical fact of us not being joined onto mainland Europe continues to mould the British political landscape to this day.
The Commonwealth of Nations is made up of 54 member states, almost all of which are former British colonies. Being an island, Britain was forced to invest heavily into its navy, with one example being the Naval Defence Act 1889, which required the Royal Navy to maintain a number of battleships equal or greater than the next two biggest navies combined. The political backing of the Royal Navy has always been immense, and this powerful navy led to the largest empire in history. How does this affect Britain’s modern-day politics? It fed euroscepticism.
It seems all political discussion over the last few years has been about Brexit: the British people’s means of rejecting the EU altogether. The fact the UK had strong economic ties with both present and former colonies via the Commonwealth provided it another economic union, which at the time was deemed a safer bet the European Economic Community. Hence they didn’t join the EEC at its formation, but instead tried joining in in 1963 and then again in 1967. Both attempts were vetoed by Charles De Gaulle, the President of France from 1959-1969, on the grounds another member might have upset the balance that had been found within the union.
This meant when Britain did eventually join the EU on the 1st of January 1973, there was and always has been an image its being the awkward customer, never quite fitting in. This has been a recurring pattern, perhaps best summed up by the fact Britain lost 128% more votes in the EU Council of Ministers than the second most ‘voted-against’ nations, Germany and Austria, between 2009 and 2015. The UK also arguably did not see the benefits of the EU to quite the same extent as mainland countries, a point Margaret Thatcher made when she demanded a £730 million rebate on grounds of ‘value of money’ back in 1984.
When we remember that the 2016 referendum only needed 2% of people to vote the other way to have a different outcome, all the anti-European conversation brought about by Britain being an island has probably made a difference, and arguably shaped the county’s political landscape over the last few years. Of course, there were other reasons apart from geography that contributed to Brexit, but given how close the referendum was, any point of influence could have made the decisive difference.
Britain’s island form, and detachment from the rest of Europe has also partly helped create a ‘special relationship’ with America, which according to the US embassy website has culminated in ‘The United States ha[ving] no closer ally than the United Kingdom.’ The ‘Special Relationship’ – a term first employed by Churchill in 1944 – was formed as a part of the joint effort between the USA and the UK against Nazi Germany in World War 2. One of the key reasons Britain was still in the war at that point was because the English Channel stood between it and Hitler. Since then, the political closeness between the UK and US has been apparent, best shown during the time of the ‘political soulmates’ Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Today, this closeness can still be seen in politics with the example of joint military commitment to Afghanistan over the last two decades.
From Brexit to Britain’s favourable relationship with the world’s largest economy, the fact it is an island has almost certainly contributed to the current shape of its political landscape.