Historically access to water has afforded many opportunities; fishing, building boats and trading by sea. Indeed, to be landlocked nation is considered a developmental disadvantage and Britain is an island nation who despite her small size, has used coastal advantage to explore and exploit others. But in more recent times as technology affords us better connection to ‘the continent’–and more importantly ‘the continent’ to us–our coastal advantage has grown smaller until now that advantage has all but disappeared and been superseded by the other more negative legacies of island-living.
In former times, water proved not only a physical barrier but also a psychological one. It took many ships to attack us because attacking by sea was a highly dangerous endeavour. And as the coast nourished us, we reciprocated by building massive defences to protect it against potential onslaught. Worrying whether approaching ships were friend or foe made us naturally fearful. After all, having invaded so many, we knew the havoc that such an invasion could wreak. To be overrun by foreigners as we had done them, was our biggest fear. To be governed by others, even by afar–again as we govern others–was a close second. It’s the island mentality and one which still exists – predominantly among those whose minds have not been formatively shaped by newer technologies which serve to connect us, the now widely accessible higher education or the European agreement of free movement of goods, capital, services, and people.
Nowadays I live on a small island with a population of 800, which swells to over 5000 during the summer season. It was once an island of boat pilots who helped larger ships navigate the dangerous shallows of the western archipelago and into the Gothenburg harbour. Piloting died out with the advent of satellites and the island has become home to farmers, artists and independent workers, whilst some take the small ferry over to the mainland to work in town.
Like the Britons, it is a community defined by its relationship to the sea. We own a boat place just outside our house, like a garage. Our movements are governed by the ferry timetable, and because our island is by definition coastal (as opposed to landlocked), we also have a community with no crime. No crime. Well, this one time someone stapled a poster for their gig over the poster advertising a book about Anna, one of our most beloved residents. That was not a fun day on the island’s Facebook group, I tell you.
Yesterday, as my boyfriend came over on the boat, he sent me a gif of a zombie invasion. They’re coming, it said.
Five thousand city dwellers came to celebrate midsummer with us. There was dancing, drinking, songs and games. I helped out at the island festivities by selling lottery tickets… over a thousand in all. I said it over and over again ‘Glad Midsommer!’ – Happy Midsummer! – and smiled just as hard as I could. Yet I felt unaccountably sad amid this celebration of togetherness. My home country had voted to leave the European Union just a few hours before.
With the summer invasion of our small Swedish island, the community stoically accepts that there will be more crime. What that means is we have to lock our bikes at the harbour otherwise they will be nicked (although they never get far… they’re usually found in the ditch outside the only pub). This other time, some mainlanders had a party in our village hall and there was a rash of bike thefts, five in all and beer cans left on the football pitch. Those fucking mainlanders, someone said.
If I’d have been in Britain, I might have heard someone say those bloody foreigners.
Mainlanders can get here more easily nowadays, we have better facilities than we would have otherwise. And with better technology and connection, those who live on our island have still more benefits. We are able to live here instead of just holidaying here. Our shop no longer sells only canned goods and local produce. We have a sewage system connected to the mainland which meant that thirty odd years ago, islanders enjoyed the possibility to go to a wet toilet for the first time. The trade-off has not been so bad.
But the trade-off in Britain feels like a death for many. And it is… because many British people feel as if are losing their national identity. Their island identity. Their empire identity. Every step forward in this new connected world muddies what was once clear. Take food, for instance. Once upon a time, being British meant fish, lots of pies and hunting for game. Now it means chicken tikka masala and beef burgundy. Or consider skin colour. Long ago, white were masters, Indian and Pakistanis were slaves. Now we have integrated but distinct flavours of British (as designated by the UK Border ethnicity classifications), British-asian and Black British. Yet these changes have been almost entirely created by the British and their actions (including Beef Burgundy brought over by Escoffier in 1890 at the invitation of the Savoy Hotel). We behaved atrociously and I’m not sure we’ve ever taken responsibility for it. As we were coastal, and the technology was not as readily available to us as it is today, change has been relatively less frequent, less obvious… and for the most part, we have been in control of those changes. Yet still today… to be overrun by foreigners as we have done them, is our biggest fear.
The vote to exit the EU was in many quarters motivated by anti-immigration sentiment. In a poll from last year, 40% of respondents considered immigration to be the most important issue facing Britain, and three quarters wanted to see reduced immigration. But when you dig down into the voting statistics, some very obvious truths surface. Those like me–generation X,Y or post Y and/or many with immigrant heritage–voted remain. Almost half of us. The baby boomers voted leave. Was it their fear of change? Was it their fear that Britain as they once knew it was disappearing forever? Because that ship sailed when we created colonies.
So what, in the final analysis is a likely outcome?
Not the old days, that’s for sure. Scotland is likely to seek to leave the United Kingdom. Ireland is likely to seek reunification. The pound has plummeted and Brexit may bring a recession.
England will not be great again, thank goodness. England’s so-called greatness was built on bloodshed, exploitation and our horrific dehumanisation of indigenous peoples. It was built because of our perception that we were geographically isolated and immune to the repercussions of the chaos we created overseas. But those of us, a younger demographic who barely remember life without the internet, we know that geography is only one dimension of connectedness. Our technology has brought explicit awareness to what has increasingly and implicitly been true for decades: no country is an island anymore. And it seems 51.9% of Britain just can’t take that loss of identity.
Notably, those we’ve overpowered and exploited in the past–Scotland and Northern Ireland–can.