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How to be an Island: A Long-View Look at Britain’s Borders and National Identity

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With this summer’s queues at Dover and congestion at airports across the UK, the challenges of Britain’s island geography have never been more visible. But the idea of Britain (and, more perniciously, England) as an island has forged the nation’s self-image from the very earliest times, shaping fundamental ambivalences at the heart of national identity. These contradictions and tensions continue to reverberate in culture and politics today, as we navigate the new reality of Britain’s borders, after Brexit and beyond.

Most famously, the island nation is invoked in John of Gaunt’s ‘this England’ speech in Shakespeare’s play Richard II – verses memorised and recited by generations of British schoolchildren. John of Gaunt evokes England as ‘this other Eden’, ‘this fortress built by nature for herself’, ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’, encircled by the water like a wall, or the moat of a castle. But there’s sleight of hand: England has expanded to occupy the entire island, stealthily filling that neat insular geography and displacing Scotland and Wales. And this endlessly anthologised extract is usually truncated before the second part of John of Gaunt’s speech, in which he laments that the nation, corrupt and divided, ‘hath made a shameful conquest of itself’.

But the compelling, seductive image of Britain (or England) the island goes much further back, to some of the earliest medieval writing. Bede, writing in the eighth century, opens his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People with a description of ‘Britain, an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion’. Bede’s Britain is a marvellous, otherworldly place, lying almost at the edge of the world, filled with natural wonders and rich resources. Even as Bede’s book invents an idea of England, the nascent nation creeps to fill the entire bounds of the island.

Even Bede wasn’t the first to describe Britain in this way. Two centuries earlier (around 550), the British monk Gildas imagines his beautiful, fertile island as a kind of Promised Land given to his people by God. But the British people, he writes, have forfeited it through their own internal rebellions and conflicts, and now new arrivals are taking it for their own – Bede’s ‘Angles, Saxons and Jutes’, later to call themselves ‘English’.

A curious myth evolves through the Middle Ages linking the destiny of the island nation to classical origins. The twelfth-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth tells the story of Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who is given a prophecy by the goddess Diana. She commands Brutus to travel to the edge of the world, to find ‘an island which the western sea surrounds’, where ‘fate decrees to raise a second Troy’. The medieval legend is retrofitted to the name ‘Britain’ (the Romans’ Britannia, borrowing from an earlier Brittonic-language form): Brutus gives his name to this new kingdom of Britain, its island enclosure echoing the fortress walls of his ancestral city of Troy. So popular was this story in the Middle Ages, that London itself was often known as ‘Troynovaunt’ or ‘New Troy’. But there’s another twist. Diana promises that ‘time shall ne’er destroy’ this great island nation, ‘nor bounds confine’. The island prophecy is a clarion call to expansion, conquest and empire.

England’s first empire, as historians such as Robert Rees Davies have discussed, was within the island of Britain. The persistent rhetorical entanglement of England the nation and the entire island is more than just poetics – it becomes an authorising image for internal colonialism, erasing other identities and polities from within its bounds. It’s an ambition which always belied the realities: local lordships, patchworks of kingdoms, the fully-fledged nations of Wales and Scotland, as well as the messiness of a rocky archipelago with pockets of territory in continental Europe too. And, of course, the deep, rich networks and exchanges – trade, travel, commerce and culture – between Britain the island and its many neighbours across the seas.

Then, for centuries, island geography was exploited as a natural justification for overseas empire. The island’s edges, meeting the ocean, can be imagined as strangely contiguous to other shores and distant lands across the world. Far from an imperative to isolationism, the status of Britain as an island affirmed its colonialist ambitions. In 1740, James Thomson invokes this well-established trope with his image of the island rising from the sea ‘at heaven’s command’, divinely ordained to ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.’

Why are these emblems of island identity relevant to politics today, even if we are unaware of their origins and histories? And what have they got to do with queuing traffic at border control in Kent?

These early representations of Britain (or, more perniciously, England) lay down fundamental narratives which continue to influence popular culture and politics today. The persistent conflation of England with the entire island of Britain in medieval and early modern texts is one of the most egregious elements, with far-reaching consequences for the home nations as well as international relations in the present.

The earliest medieval descriptions of the island of Britain also forge the sense of exceptionalism which still colours (especially) English politics: that peculiarly enduring notion of the island nation as different, unique, richly endowed with resources and sufficient for all its people’s needs. Medieval representations of the island also insist, repeatedly, on its nature as a land destined or promised to its inhabitants – translating all too easily into hostility to new arrivals and reverberating in today’s impulse to tighten borders and control immigration.

The emblematic island valorises borders, enclosure and exclusion: the nation as Shakespeare’s moated castle, or heir to the fortress city of Troy. Yet, simultaneously, the maritime edges of the island are a symbol of global connectedness – and have been used, over centuries of history, to assert the rights of the English to travel freely and to assume a uniquely powerful status on the world stage. In the aftermath of Brexit, and in the traffic jams in Kent, we see these two different inflections of our island imaginary in seemingly irreconcilable conflict.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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