Tuesday, April 16, 2002

The material importance of Geography

I have been accused by a few of my more perceptive critics of overplaying the geography card. As the appropriately named Mr Wise says below “Why ascribe such mystical importance to geography?”

Why indeed?

Geography is, quite simply, the engine of history. Where you live determines your strengths and weaknesses, allies and enemies.

Why did England suffer comparatively less civil discord than their northern neighbours? England has relatively flat terrain, meaning easier travel meaning in turn that armies and commerce could both go round England. This in turn made for both a more easily controlled and a more prosperous population. The Romans stopped at Carlisle because they were tired. It was the higher topography of Scotland that meant that no matter how often they tried to subdue the Scots, they simply couldn’t control them. It wasn’t until the British started using new road building techniques in the later eighteenth century that they managed to control the Scots. That mystic factor geography.

And why do we dislike the French? Its not because of their culture, as at least in London we are bombarded with advertisements extolling French culture and it is an aspiration for most of the bourgeois, no matter how Eurosceptic, to speak a bit of French and be conversant on at least some French foods and wines. No other nation, apart from Italy, has the same aspirational pull in Britain. Can we honestly say that any grown ups are snobbish about their ability to speak good German or their knowledge of Californian wines? So if not culture, then what? What about geography, or am I getting too mystical? The fact that France and Britain were both on each others doorsteps meant that when one was weak and one was strong then they would naturally either loot or raid their neighbour.

Proximity creates enmity. Unless one side is totally dominating the other, as in America and Canada, the main geopolitical fact will be fear or greed concerning your neighbours. So the Euro-fanatics have it totally wrong, being neighbours does not make you friends. However sharing a neighbour, as Scotland and France do with England, may make for peculiarly strong friendships – at least by the standards of international relations.

So that goes someway to explaining my “mystical attachment” to geography. To understand geography means that you understand all the important bits of history.

So it is not so much uselessness that wishes me to break the contract (a contract that has two parties) with the Falkland Islanders, but danger. To keep the Argentines away, we have to make it painful for them to invade. This means maintaining a far greater naval force than we would otherwise need. Now after considering the extra danger that we expose ourselves to do we ask what function does the place fill in our national defence strategy. Even if the Panama canal was shut to shipping, I think that Atlantic-Pacific access is the last thing we need to worry about if we are at war. Similarly opening up access to Antartica’s mineral wealth will vastly increase the danger from jealous neighbours who will want a share of that mineral wealth.

The national interest that we need to think about is that of the metropolitan power. Defending the loyalists of America, the Muslims in India or the Turks in Cyprus may have been “honourable”, but our then leaders rightly foreswore such a suicidal course.


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