Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000-Year History by Ian Morris - review by Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter

This Sundered Isle

Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000-Year History

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One of the effects of Brexit has been to focus people’s attention on the vexed notion of British ‘national identity’, particularly as it bears on Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours. Ian Morris thinks this focus is too narrow and spends this long book saying why. ‘What made the wrangling over Brexit such a disaster was that Leavers and Remainers consumed a crucial half-decade in arguing over resolutely short-term, superficial issues of identity, mobility, prosperity, security and sovereignty while leaving long-term geography least spoken of.’ Geography is Destiny is an effort to widen the debate both temporally and geographically, which of course explains its length.

Morris has a number of advantages over other historians in the field, having not originally trained as a historian – his first degree was in classical archaeology – and having fled the UK (specifically, Stoke-on-Trent) to live in the USA for most of his adult and academic life. His archaeological background obviously came in useful for the early chapters of this book, dealing with prehistory, but beyond that may also have fed into his awareness of the importance of what he calls ‘big history’ (prehistory goes a long way back). Living abroad will have given him a different perspective on Britain from most, and his lower-middle-class Midlands upbringing a different kind of view from those upper-middle-class academics who dominate the profession. Indeed, recollections of his boyhood in Stoke come up at intervals throughout the book. Many of them, incidentally, conflict with mine. I was present at a number of Labour Party conferences in the 1970s, for example, and don’t remember any of them degenerating into the ‘swearing, spitting, shouting and punching matches’ that he portrays here. But that’s the problem with relying on personal impressions. Mine may be untypical too.

No matter. It’s the much bigger picture that Morris is mainly concerned with. The book’s title, incidentally, shouldn’t lead anyone to infer that it offers a single, deterministic, ‘geographical’ interpretation of British history over the past ten millennia. Morris is quite clear about that. His point is not

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