Lewis Dartnell on the Original Brexit

Posted on 4th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

As Origins, Lewis Dartnell's masterful account of how the geology of the Earth has shaped humanity's history, comes into paperback, the esteemed author sheds light on the original Brexit of pre-history.  

On Friday 31 January, the UK formally withdrew from the EU and began an 11-month transition period to negotiate the terms of our future relationship with Europe. Whether you supported Brexit or not, it is now done.

But what was the original Brexit? What was the colossal, landscape-shifting event that first separated us from continental Europe?

Half a million years ago, Britain was not an island. It was still part of continental Europe, physically connected to France – like conjoined twins – by an isthmus running between Dover and Calais. This land bridge was a continuation of a hump-shaped geological formation that stretches from south-east England to north-east France, formed of layers of rock buckled upwards in the same tectonic upheaval that created the Alps as Africa slammed into Eurasia.

This land bridge linking England and France became eroded away in what appears to have been a sudden, catastrophic event. Sonar maps made along the English Channel reveal an unusually straight and wide valley cut into the ground, dotted with streamlined islands -- clear signs that once a huge flood of water coursed over this landscape. Every time there is an Ice Age, the global sea level drops by over 100 metres and exposes the North Sea and Channel as dry land. And these huge erosion features have been dated to around 425,000 years ago -- occurring not during the most recent Ice Age, but one five ice ages before that.

At this time, a vast lake of meltwater became trapped between the Scottish and Scandinavian ice sheets and the 30-kilometre-wide ridge of rock still linking England and France. With no outlet to escape through, the water rose and rose, until inevitably it began to spill over the top of the land bridge like an overflowing bath. Colossal waterfalls were formed that gouged backwards through the barrier until this natural dam collapsed. The entire trapped lake emptied itself in a catastrophic megaflood, widening the gaping breach in the barrier and carving the landforms we see today on the Channel seafloor. The towering white cliffs of Dover are no more than the stumps left behind from this former landbridge. And with the rise in sea levels with the thawing of each ice age, this opened passage formed the English Channel (or La Manche, as the French would have it).

Britain had become permanently cut off from Europe. And this sudden, sundering, geological event has had profound consequences for British history.

The Channel has served as a natural defensive moat, protecting Britain throughout European history. The last full-scale invasion, the Norman Conquest of 1066, occurred almost a thousand years ago. Britain was close enough to trade and remain intimately involved in the politics of the Continent, but shielded at the same time. Throughout the constant squabbling, conflicts and shifting borders of continental Europe, Britain has largely escaped the ravages of war on its own home soils and been able to remain insulated, only choosing to intervene when it was in its interests.

With clearly defined natural boundaries, and a relatively small extent, England achieved the early unification of feudal fiefdoms into a national identity. It has also been argued that it was this reduced threat of invasion and sense of security from external threats that allowed the progressive dispersion of power away from an autocratic monarch to a more balanced democratic system, beginning with Magna Carta in 1215 and leading to the parliamentary system in place today. Island Britain was also able to eradicate wild wolves very early on in history, enabling the safe pasturing of huge flocks of sheep. The wealth generated from selling this prized wool back to the continent helped raise Britain into a prosperous nation, and created the foundations of the Industrial Revolution.

What’s more, with no land border to defend, Britain’s expenditure on an army needed to be only a fraction of that of its continental rivals. Britain was instead able to focus on building up and maintaining the Royal Navy, not just for defending the homeland – the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 that sank Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain is the most striking example – but also to guard its overseas colonies and protect its commercial interests and trade routes, as it developed a seaborne empire that came to supersede those of the Spanish, French and Dutch.

But the existence of the British Isles has also helped maintain a power balance across Europe. Through medieval and modern history, this island fortress has ensured that no-one has been able to establish a unified Empire across Europe -- not Napoleon, nor Hitler. In the long-term, this jostling of many smaller states in competition with each other has driven economic and technological development across Europe.

On the other hand, this geographical separation has created an isolationist mentality that made Britain often stand aloof and reluctant to enter into closer relationships with its Continental neighbours, despite common interests and a shared fate. Brexit is only the most recent chapter in this long history of the relationship between Britain and our closest neighbours.


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