You’d be hard pressed to find a nation-state with a more dramatic journey through the geopolitics of the 20th century. Once the empire where the sun never set, now a kingdom that’s desperately trying to hold itself together, Great Britain’s upcoming election is subject to the various geopolitical forces that have taken Britain from once holding the largest empire in human history to a country seriously considering dismantling its great power status. The results of this election will reveal which of these forces is strongest, and what future Great Britain will have geopolitically in the 21st century.
But first, them cliff notes.
- British geography is key to its identity, with lowland England the strongest region, but not always completely dominant.
- Its isolation from Europe has always allowed it to do things other European states can’t, including build and then dismantle an empire.
- Now, Britain can afford to demilitarize in a way that’s never been done before, thanks to being shielded by American hegemony.
- Britain can also consider breaking itself up for the same reason.
- Whether or not it will do one, both, or neither will be seen after the election, which will reveal whether the British are ready to slide into geopolitical irrelevance.
So, Britain, eh? The short story made long.
British identity is rooted in its geography: as an island, it has always had a cheaper defense bill, and it has always had a greater need for a navy than an army. England itself is built upon its Roman foundations: the Romans settled London because it was the most central place in Britain that also, via the Thames, had access to the sea. From there radiated a network of roads that controlled and homogenized the lowlands of Britain, forming the cultural nucleus that eventually became England.
These roads and the accompanying cultural homogenization didn’t go much into the swamps of Cornwall, the hills of Wales, or the mountains of Scotland, with the latter remaining outside of Roman power entirely. Scotland simply wasn’t worth the cost of conquest; the line the Romans drew at Hadrian’s Wall is pretty much why the Scottish National Party exists today.
When the Romans withdrew, centuries of chaos followed, with invaders preventing the formation of a state based out of London, where one made the most sense. This was where English feudalism solved a lot of problems. Instead of a central state, like the Roman one, rushing resources from one emergency to the next, English feudalism decentralized the country to allow local lords the power as well as the incentive to repel Viking and Danish invasions. This finally let a state emerge and organize from London.
Once those invasions ended, the London kings naturally sought to centralize their now-secure domain. The coming of William the Conqueror brought a new liability to England in the form of his French holdings, which embroiled England in wars with France for hundreds of years. During that time, England was able to overcome much weaker Wales and Cornwall, but not, be it noted, Scotland. Whenever the English looked like they might unify the whole of Britain, the French would help the Scottish to block them. This kept the English permanently off-balance against the French.
Incidentally, the loss of England’s French domains by 1453 freed England up to expand elsewhere, and expand it did, mostly into Ireland, an island of relative backwardness that was much harder to defend than Scotland. Scotland, with French aid, remained free of English domination, until the English came up with an ingenious formula.
If you can’t beat them, join them: thus came James I.
The Scottish threat to the north could always be used by England’s enemies to attack England itself; this threat couldn’t be tolerated in an era where secure states were building overseas empires and getting fat off the proceeds. But England did not possess the power to occupy Scotland against its will the way it had Wales and Ireland; as soon as it tried, Scotland was sure to get help from France or some other European enemy.
So, the English decided if they couldn’t beat them, they’d join them, bringing the Scottish elite into the spoils of the English state. James I, or James VI, started as a Scottish king and died ruling the whole of Britain with nary a shot fired. While the dynastic story of his rise certainly matters, the geopolitical principle that allowed him to set foot in London was key: England needed to control Scotland, but couldn’t through its military.
Once their foot was in the door, the English weren’t about to be ejected yet again. The English continued to co-opt Scottish elites. England, larger and richer, could offer wealth to Scottish elites that an independent Scotland could not. This worked so well that the Scots voted themselves out of a country in 1707 with the Act of Union.
The English did not bother carrying out this formula in Ireland, Wales, or its expanding empire: there wasn’t the need. Wales was too small to carry out of a rebellion and Ireland too divided between tribes and regions while also subjected to a relatively open countryside. The Scottish Highlands that had confounded the Romans had allowed Scottish elites to get a deal out of London that no other British subject enjoyed.
And from there came empire, which was only fully eclipsed after World War II.
Freed from a land-based threat, the United Kingdom of Great Britain expanded outwards. It could afford wars no other European power could, funding a great navy that fueled an economy and held together an empire that stretched across the planet. The French and Spanish both had land borders to defend, and the British cleverly played one continental power off another to ensure no one nation-state could seriously challenge them.
This system culminated in the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, whereby Europe’s great royal houses agreed to keep the continent broken up while splitting the rest of the planet amongst themselves. The Crimean War in the 1850s that brought British and French troops alongside Turkish ones against Russia was largely an act of enforcing the Congress of Vienna.
And that worked for quite a long time: almost a century passed between Waterloo in 1815 and World War I in 1914.
Until two things happened: the rise of the United States and the unification of Germany.
As the American Civil War ended, it became clear that American power in the Western Hemisphere couldn’t be denied for long. British elites understood a third war with the United States would threaten its carefully balanced global position; once more, rather than trying to beat them, the British decided to join them, building an ever-closer relationship with the U.S. to secure influence in what remained of its North American empire. The Americans also offered a fine balance against the surge of powerful nation-states emerging in Europe, most especially Germany.
Germany’s superior geopolitical position made it a direct threat to the whole European order established by the Congress of Vienna. Here America and Britain’s interests fully aligned: neither wanted to see a unified European continent. Twice Germany tried just that, only to be defeated by an American-dominated coalition.
Following World War II, the U.S. emerged as the only great power not totally ravaged by war. A major reason people look back at the 1950s as a Golden Era in America is because American industry, untouched by war, flooded markets that had been, up until that point, dominated by Europeans. As the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union rose, with its nuclear arsenal and sudden industrial might, geopolitics shifted from regional to global.
And Britain learned that the hard way during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Geopolitics and human choice don’t always get along. Sometimes, people want to do something totally against their geopolitical abilities or interests. Men like Hitler come to mind, but so too does Anthony Eden, Britain’s post-Churchill prime minister. Eden utterly misjudged how much the world had changed after World War II: when Britain had a problem with Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser over the Suez Canal, he believed Britain could use old colonial tricks to solve it. Secretly allying with Israel and France, Eden sought to create a phony war between Israel and Egypt that only Britain and France could end by invading Egypt as “peacekeepers.” The Americans were not pleased, least of all because Britain’s conspiracy threatened to propel the whole Middle East into Soviet arms.
Britain’s regional interests were subsumed by America’s global ones, with the Americans causing a currency crisis in Britain until the British withdrew. From that point on, it was clear who was top dog; Britain could make no grand moves without American approval.
After the ’56 Suez Crisis, holding onto empire made less sense than ever. Like dominoes, colonies were let go until by 1971 none remained. (Source: ablongman.com)
The British public absorbed the lesson as well. The benefits of keeping an empire when the American-led world order promised them the same things with less cost made decolonization quite popular. Colony after colony was surrendered to local elites with few complaints from the British public who no longer felt they needed an empire to remain secure or prosperous.
This was a direct result of American dominance. The U.S. kept trade routes open for British goods; it secured Western Europe’s frontiers from Soviet conquest. The United States demanded its NATO allies shoulder some of the Cold War burden; hence the reason Britain kept a formidable Royal Navy and a nuclear arsenal. As the British generation that fought World War II aged and then began to die out, the public’s attitudes towards a militarized and strong Britain shifted.
Now both the public and elites are divided as to the role Britain should play in both Europe and the world; that conflict is the result of an unsurpassed sense of security.
Britain’s upcoming elections reflect a division that emerged in the UK in the 1930s, when British elites began to seriously debate decolonization (starting with India). The question is simple: how much power does Britain need to be safe, and how many resources should it devote to geopolitical power to be successful?
This feeds into the Scottish question of independence, which was narrowly defeated last September. For now, Scottish citizens and elites are just barely convinced remaining in the UK will continue to provide them with the same level of spoils as promised by English lords to Scottish elites back in the 17th century. But England faces the same demographic issues as the rest of Europe: a greying population, swelling pensions, an unsustainable national health care system designed for a much younger people. Scotland isn’t immune to the same problem, but access to North Sea oil, as well as a smaller population, make the aging population challenge more manageable. The day may come when Scotland may be better off sans the liabilities of the UK’s welfare state. This geopolitical force is given voice by the Scottish National Party, now looking to emerge as a strong minority party for the first time in parliament.
But not all British citizens are convinced a smaller UK would be a better one; both mainstream political parties, Labour and Conservative, agree on the principle of a united United Kingdom. But they then split on how many resources Britain should continue to send towards maintaining its great power status, with Labor favoring a smaller nuclear arsenal. Both parties agree on a smaller military and less involvement in foreign wars, with Labour having been burned when it charged into Iraq under Tony Blair and the Conservatives suffering buyer’s remorse from its Libya intervention.
All the major parties agree that Britain can cut back on defense, but differ on details. All major parties agree that Britain doesn’t need to be involved in solving the world’s problems as much.
The final point of contention is how close the UK should remain to Europe, where it may seem that Britain’s age-old geopolitical threats have been vanquished.
Europe is now safely divided and largely under American hegemony. No one state is threatening to absorb the others during this election cycle, with Russia bogged down in a slow-motion war in Ukraine, Germany determined to remain as pacifistic as possible, and the European Union utterly toothless in regards to hard power. Only radical Islamism can threaten British lives and treasure, but their pinprick terror attacks cannot actually threaten the survival of the state. For the first time since Britain was a Roman province, elites in London can rely on outsiders for security.
How far British citizens will go in disengaging from the world will be revealed after the election. Current predictions favor a majority that want a less powerful, more inward looking Britain, with the SNP and Labour enjoying enough seats to form a left-leaning coalition.
The most important indicator here is the percentage of GDP: while Britain has gotten richer, it’s military hasn’t enjoyed the spoils. (Source: BBC.com)
That British citizens can even consider dropping yet another rung in the power ladder is indicative of how much they’re used to American domination and protection. Through American power, Europe will remain divided, ending a key geopolitical threat to Britain. Through its NATO alliance, any outside powers that might become aggressive towards the UK, even a rump one, must face down the full might of the superpower.
Such safety can’t be taken for granted forever, though.
The U.S. is finding its own resources stretched to the limit. A rising, still-not-totally-understood China, a revanchist Russia, in addition to the litany of crises in the Middle East and Africa are beyond even a superpower’s ability to manage simultaneously. The U.S. is now turning to regional allies to take the lead in solving problems, leaning on Japan to remilitarize and Arab states to fight the Islamic State. Only Europe has refused to rearm; that’s partially cultural, with Europe having learned the hard way the inevitable conclusion of militarism and nationalism. But that’s also because Europe has relied upon the U.S. to secure it; even now in Ukraine European powers would prefer to avoid taking too strong a stand.
As geopolitics moves in slow motion, Britain may continue down this path for the foreseeable future. A leaner UK military may still be involved in the specialist-heavy fights against Islamist militants while even a handful of nuclear warheads are enough to remain a nuclear power. Britain will only rearm if it feels threatened by another nation-state, something that Russia may represent if Putin doesn’t founder in Ukraine. But China is far away; Britain is a regional power today, and may be content to slide quietly beneath a Europe dominated by economically superior Germany.
It’s hardy the death of geopolitics, but rather the natural result of them.
Britain, as a faithful ally of the hegemon, is safer than ever. It can consider actions that would be suicidal in other regions (imagine Egypt, India, or Vietnam talking about cutting their defense budgets). This state of affairs will last as long as no other true geopolitical threat emerges to menace Britain. Islamic terror doesn’t cut it; they’ll warrant more CCTV cameras but not more tanks, nukes, or fighter jets. Should Russia emerge successful from Ukraine, British elites will need to reevaluate their position in a suddenly genuinely threatened Europe. That day may be long off; meanwhile, the British public may enjoy the luxury of defense cuts.