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Geography and Politics

Author(s): Baroness J. Young

Source: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1987),

pp. 391-397

Published by:

The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)

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and Politics



of State,


and Commonwealth




(Third Mackinder lecture delivered in the School of Geography 3 February 1987 to celebrate the centenary of the first Readership in Geography in Oxford, 1887)


MS received

24 April, 1987


Politics and geography are inter-twined because geographical images and relationships enter into political language. A nation's geography affects its view of itself and its view of the world. Politicians and political decisions must take account not only of people, but also technology and natural resources. Consequently, there needs to be a greater interplay between geographers and politicians.

KEY WORDS: Politics, Resources, Technology, Self-images

Foreign Office Ministers usually prefer a general title for a speech. Something like 'Peace'; or, perhaps, 'Democracy'. The bolder souls among us even ven- ture into such dangerous and controversial territory as 'Peace and Democracy'. But we normally like to avoid a precise or over-specific title, such as 'British Foreign Policy': it is either too limiting-or far too misleading!

But by any standards the title of my talk today, 'Geography and Politics', is broad enough. If you will forgive the pun, what on earth to say? And what in the world to leave out? Human history itself is all about the changing patterns of human response to our physical surroundings and natural resources-- the soil, animal and plant life-and how we have exploited them; and what we have done to overcome or take advantage of major natural obstacles, rivers, canyons and mountains.

So politics and geography are inevitably and irrevocably inter-twined. This is not to define geography in an obvious, rather narrow sense. I know that the subject has changed from the largely descriptive and mapping activities of the first modem geographers in the last century; geography has expanded in all directions. We now understand new relationships, new chains of cause and effect. It is hard to draw clear lines between geography, climatology, ecology, agriculture and conservation. The basic theme linking these subjects is the impact of human

activities on our natural surroundings, and vice versa. And as the world gets more crowded, and tech- nology enables us to change our environment on ever-larger scales, the role for political advisers with good backgrounds in geographical sciences can only grow. This should lead to good long-term prospects for geography graduates!

It is not surprising that geographical images have entered our political language-and therefore shape our thinking. For example, the phrase 'North-South'. Some people use the label 'North-South divide' to describe regional disparities in Britain. In the European Community we argue about competing North/South claims on agricultural subsidies and industrial invest- ment strategies, as between the northern Community countries and their Mediterranean partners. And at a global level international development problems are often described as 'North/South' issues. There is not only North/South. There is East/West. Despite the physical facts of the matter, we in the Foreign Office ponder over evidence that East and West are 'moving closer together'; or that the Atlantic is 'getting wider'; or that Britain is 'nearer' America than Europe. And, of course, we bum a lot of energy, maybe too much sometimes, either at 'summits' or trying to reach them!

These are familiar everyday political images. Yet I wonder whether they can not be positively mislead- ing. For example, take the so-called North/South


392 BARONESS ]. YOUNG divide in Britain. Is it a question of geography, or a

question of attitudes? It is undoubtedly true that there are some severely depressed areas in the North of Britain (however 'North' is defined). But it is not true that they are depressed only because they are in the North.

It is all too easy for political rhetoric to run the first proposition into the second. And this does no-one any good. It tends to breed fatalism if not despair in people in poor Northern areas. It gives no credit to those people in the North who are doing well-and there are some very successful areas there. It also distracts attention from economically deprived areas elsewhere in the country. This is not just a semantic point. How we define or describe the problem shapes our answers to it. Is it better for government to con- centrate its investment on building up the depressed areas themselves, with new infrastructure, new physi- cal capital? Or is it wise in the long term to invest mainly in the people in those areas with new training facilities, grants for small businesses and so on?

Governments of different political complexions here and abroad have wrestled with these basic questions for decades. Indeed, in one form or other they apply to the North/South questions within the European Community and the global North/South issues mentioned earlier.

Do not expect me to answer these questions, but I mention them simply to show that our language affects our view of the world and of ourselves. 'North' and 'South' are neat, self-excluding categories. They lend themselves well to political rhetoric, to claims of clear analysis and simple solutions. And thus they can trick us into identifying facts with assumptions.

All this goes to show that the ways in which Geography and Politics overlap are many and subtle, and rather too much for one talk. So today I propose to offer some general thoughts under three broad headings:

1. how a nation's geography affects its view of itself

2. how new technology is transforming inter- national use of resources, and

3. looking ahead, how geographers and poli- ticians will have more and more to talk about. A NATION'S GEOGRAPHY AND ITS SELF- IMAGE

One of the most fascinating geographical theories for the layman is continental drift: the idea that the world's land surfaces were once joined together in

completely different formations but that the move- ment of vast plates has created the map of the world we know today. That process has taken millions of years. But what would happen if it suddenly speeded up? Suppose that over the next few years the United States drifted over to nestle up against the Soviet Union; that South Africa burrowed northwards and had African countries on all sides; or that Switzerland eased itself down the Mediterranean and Italy moved northwards, losing its coastline.

No doubt these movements would be accom- panied by a certain degree of practical physical upheaval! But what of their implications for the political psychology of the countries involved?

The Americans and the Russians could still be bitter adversaries, but they would also now be neigh- bours, with all the problems-and opportunities- which that relationship implies. The whites in South Africa likewise would find it much harder to maintain their isolationist mentality and policies. And the Swiss would lose the security of their surrounding mountains, while the cooler climate of Northern Europe could have drastic consequences for the character and reputation of Mediterraneans.

All this is, to say the least, improbable. We find the very idea comic. But why? Not just because it is physically impossible. Mainly because we simply can't imagine the Italians being northern Europeans, or the Swiss being Mediterranean, or the Americans being simply one part of a great land mass: these people simply wouldn't be 'Italian' or 'Swiss', or 'American' any more!

What does this show? Not, of course, that we are all the result of some sort of geographical determin- ism, that the national characteristics of any people are inevitably and exclusively moulded by the physical size and location of the land in which they live. That overstates the case. Instead, my fanciful example merely brings out the more modest thought that the cultural identities of different countries-and hence their political identities-are defined partly in terms of their physical place in the world.


How does this apply to the United Kingdom? Whatever the political creed of any country's leaders, whatever plans they have, they start where their predecessors stopped, with a package comprising not only the actual location of the country and its physi- cal resources, but also the stock of skills, beliefs and expectations acquired over centuries by its present population.


Geography So whoever wins our next election will assume the political leadership of a rather oddly-shaped group of islands off the northern coast of Europe. Our total area is 241 000 km2: about the size of Ghana but twice the size of Cuba; one-third the size of Texas; one-tenth the size of Sudan; one fortieth the size of Canada. We have a gentle climate-well, most of the time!-and are relatively well-off in terms of basic natural resources of energy reserves and good farm- ing land. About 56 million people live here, which means that compared, again, to Ghana, Cuba, Texas, Sudan or Canada we are crammed in like sardines!

How has the most obvious geographical feature of the United Kingdom (our island status) influenced our politics? First and foremost, the large moat round our islands has been a crucial factor in our national defence: there can't be many countries in the world which have not suffered foreign invasion since 1066! It is, of course, not easy to prove the effects of our relative security from outside attack on our political culture. But over the centuries it has certainly allowed the gradual development of institutions and associated traditions-the Monarchy, Parliament, independent judiciary-which are as important and respected as ever. We have had the chance to develop a cultural respect for and appreciation of the law, public order, effective administration and honesty in government, which other countries with insecure borders and political systems have sorely missed.

Second, we all learn at school of Britain's great sea- faring traditions. Nowhere in Britain is more than about 70 miles from the sea and, not surprisingly, attitudes to the sea have influenced our politics. This still applies. Whatever the military or technical argu- ments in favour of reorganizing defence spending in new ways, popular support for the Royal Navy runs deep. Our historical maritime pre-eminence also gave us good practical grounds for arguing in favour of freedom of shipping on the high seas and against protectionism in shipping trade. We remain one of the staunchest international upholders of this import- ant principle today. And our maritime pre-eminence enabled us to discover, build and maintain an empire.

Needless to say, our island status has also influ- enced our attitudes to our European neighbours. For centuries, right into this century and in the lifetime of many of us here today, the threat to our national security usually came from our closest European neighbours: Spain, France, Holland, Germany. So we have had good reason to be wary and distrustful of our fellow Europeans. Again, this attitude goes deep and changes only slowly-indeed, judging by the

continuing arguments about the Channel Fixed Link, or the glee with which the popular press reports rows with the French over lamb deliveries or ferry services, one sometimes wonders if it has changed at all!

Our historically stormy relationship with Europe and our maritime skills contributed to the early development of Britain as the world's leading trading power. We certainly looked outwards, away from Europe for trade, setting up trading networks that eventually spanned the world, from China to Colombia, New Orleans to New Zealand, Miami to Madagascar. Much of our trade developed with the Americans. Now there is a boom on parts of Britain's east coast as trading and other links with Europe surge ahead. This neatly reflects what was happening two centuries ago as Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool grew on westward-looking trade.

In short, British foreign policy has long reflected this wider cultural ambivalence towards Europe, this feeling of being at once part of, but always separate from, the ideas and values of the Continental main- land. This ambivalence towards Europe has also, par- ticularly since World War II been reinforced by the strong cultural and political pull of the United States. However, under the impact of our European Community membership we are now, perhaps for the first time in our history, starting to look actively to Europe for trading and political partnerships. This is an enormous change. And the British public are at long last getting used to Europe. We even see advertisements on British TV in foreign languages: Vorsprung durch Technik! 'Europe' means something positive, something new, something growing.

Nonetheless, the tension between the 'European and 'Atlanticist' views of Britain's role still persists. We ourselves encourage it. We still tend to see our- selves as uniquely qualified, if only for linguistic reasons, to act as a 'bridge' between Europe and the United States (even though others may see us as a self-appointed punch-bag, absorbing heavy blows from both sides!). But one way or the other, the ten- sion shows through in the ebb and flow of debate on many different questions in public life. To take a few examples of the past year: the Westland affair; the American raid on Libya; the recent EC trade dispute with the Americans over gin and other products, and the question of Trident and Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

These are all recent examples. Each in their differ- ent way shows that there are two 'pulls' on British policy, one towards America, the other towards Europe. The fact that on issues such as these there is


394 BARONESS ]. YOUNG usually disagreement within our various political par-

ties as well as between them brings out my point clearly: this ambivalence is a cultural as well as an

'ideological' question, and it stems directly from the way our geography and history have interacted.

One final example reinforces this point. For centur- ies our island status has fixed in our political culture a firm preference for markets and trading. So far, there has been little practical disagreement over the years between UK political parties over the importance to the UK of a world trading system that is as free as possible. Of course, there have been periodic demands for protectionist measures but they have cropped up within different parties. They have never taken root, thank goodness, not least because the British public are well aware that the UK lives by trading (whether in goods or, increasingly, in services) and has to 'pay its way in the world'.

So much for the impact of our geographical position on our underlying political attitudes and assumptions. What about other countries?

Other countries

Needless to say, every country is different. It does not follow that island peoples are all going to behave as we do. Take the Japanese-far from adopting an outward-looking trading mentality, for long periods in their history they have pursued extreme isolation- ist policies. Despite their remarkable trading power today, their cultural suspicion of foreigners and protectionist attitudes are still evident.

But I would like to say a word about the two superpowers and their geography.

First, the United States. We all know of the internal dynamism of the United States based on the physical scope that country has historically offered for restless, pioneering concepts of freedom. This cultural tra- dition has given free rein to the energetic exploitation of America's natural resources, so enabling the United States to become the global power in political, economic and military terms that we see today.

Yet its geographic position in the world has, once again, introduced various tensions into American foreign policy. They remain alive today. For example, there is the political ambivalence about the defence of America and American interests. If America has global trading, political and strategic interests how is the line to be drawn in defending them? Does the defence of America start in the Gulf, on the Rhine, in Cuba or actually on the US seaboard? The capital of Nicaragua is as close to policy-makers in Washington as is Phoenix, Arizona, hence public anxiety in the

United States about Communist subversion in Central America, 'America's back yard'.

In another sense, just as Britain is subject to the 'pull' of both America and Europe, the United States feels the pull of Europe and the Far East. There has been plenty of debate about the 'Pacific drift' of American policy as the economic centre of gravity in the United States has shifted westwards to California and southwards-we are told for instance that Florida will be the third most populated state by the year 2000. Nonetheless there are 300 000 US forces stationed in Europe, making a major contribution to our defence. The United States political and military commitment to the defence of Europe and to NATO remains solid, but European policy-makers can not afford to take it for granted.

Security considerations again affect the United States' relations with its two neighbours, Canada and Mexico. These borders are long and effectively impossible to defend. This and the historical power imbalance between the United States and its neigh- bours have made for traditionally prickly relation- ships: today US/Mexico relations are at rather a low point because of the ease with which illegal immi- grants and drugs are crossing into America; and US/ Canada trade questions are a continuing source of friction.

Finally, a word about America's economic policies. The United State's cultural propensity for 'self- reliance' and, in particular, its enormous natural wealth have meant that it has never had Britain's deep commitment to Free Trade: it has never needed it. Quite the reverse-isolationist or protectionist attitudes combine with constant complaints about unfair foreign competition to give America's trading partners a hard time! The US budget deficit is behind the latest surge of protectionist demands in Congress, so is the fact that it is a novel experience for the Americans to see US companies and buildings being bought up by Japanese-and British!-investors. One way or the other, we must all hope that the settlement of the latest EC/US trade quarrel sets a good precedent for keeping America's traditional protectionist instincts at bay!

The Soviet Union is by far the world's largest country, with an area of over 22 million km2-it is 92.5 times the size of Great Britain! It has a vast wealth of natural resources. Yet Russian leaders have historically been isolated politically and culturally from Europe. Since 1917 the Marxist Government has repudiated the market and personal economic freedom. This has created a society highly inefficient


Geography at all levels. It is truly extraordinary, not to say depressing, that 70 years after the Revolution Russians are still obliged to queue for hours for basic household goods.

Maybe this ought not to be so surprising. After all, one problem with running the largest country in the world is the constant need to worry about defending it, or simply keeping it together. Hence Soviet leaders' obsession with military spending and their permanent anxieties about security along their extended borders, which stretch from Finland round through Europe to Turkey, to Iran and Afghanistan, round to China and Japan. There are no obvious physical boundaries to define most of the Soviet Union's borders. All the Soviet Union can do is to maintain enormous defence forces and hope to deter its many neighbours from causing trouble.

The Soviet Union's cultural tradition of isolation from the outside world also plays a major part in reinforcing its suspicions about the rest of the world. As Mr Gorbachev is fast discovering, if the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites are not to fall irreversibly behind in the modern world in developing and using new technology there is little option but to open up Soviet society to new ideas. But the new breaths of fresh air and freedom which a sustained policy of 'openness' (glasnost) implies are bound to be highly unsettling to many sections of the Soviet establishment. It remains to be seen if Mr Gorbachev can introduce new ideas into his sprawling and profoundly conservative---with a small 'c'-society!

PEOPLE, TECHNOLOGY AND RESOURCES The Soviet Union's difficulties in absorbing new tech- nology brings me to my second point, namely the changing relationship between people, technology and natural resources.

As I said earlier, when a new government comes to power they start with what they have. However, they will probably have been elected to office at least in part because they have promised the electorate to put the nation's assets to better use than their political opponents could do! An all-important part of this is defining the economic framework for using the country's natural and human resources and supervis- ing trading contacts with other countries: as we all know, the basic theory of comparative advantage demonstrates how trade stands to benefit everyone.

Of course, there have been plenty of occasions in history when leaders have not been satisfied with

either the natural or human resources available to them! The old-fashioned answer to this problem was to grab the resources of one's neighbours, either by annexing their territory completely or by subjugating the people on it to gain control over their economic activity. More recently we have realized that trade, scientific research, more efficient working-practices and simply good old hard work can all, if rightly applied, enhance the value a nation's existing stock of its natural resources.

This in turn has brought us to the true economic revolution of the twentieth century namely the realization that a relative absence of natural resources need not stop a people or a country from becoming rich! The contrast between Japan or South Korea or Hong Kong on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other speaks for itself. What counts is not so much what natural resources a country physically possesses, but the way its natural and especially human resources are mobilized and motivated.

In short, the whole historical process of industrial- ization is now entering a new phase as rapid com- munications and computer technology break down the previously essential links between manufacturing sites and physical resources. It no longer makes much difference in terms of resources where a multi- national firm sites a car-building plant: what counts is the skill and reliability of the work-force and the way the total cost of the operation is assessed (wages, tax incentives, regional grants etc). The actual steel, plastic, rubber and glass that make up the cars are simply shipped to wherever the factory is!

What all this adds up to is this: each nation's politi- cal assessments of its comparative advantage in world trade is now far, far harder. This poses immense practical problems for politicians. It means that they have to look at national resources in a totally new way.

One example from recent British political life should make the point. Coal-mining is a typical example of an industry which is self-evidently tied to the physical location of a natural resource. We cannot mine coal in parts of the world where labour is cheap if the coal is not there in the ground. Yet, as other energy sources become cheaper coal becomes rela- tively less attractive. However, as we have seen, passions run very high indeed over the closure of 'uneconomic' pits. There is constant pressure for new investment in such pits to make them 'economic' again. Yet in today's world the intelligent calculation is not simply the straight difference between the cost to the Government of new investment to keep the pit


396 BARONESS ]. YOUNG going, and the cost of redundancy money and welfare

payments to workers laid off if the pit closes. Instead policy-makers have to look at the opportunity lost of not investing public money in new industries and new technology.

The bitter miners strike reflected the dilemma I posed earlier when I mentioned North/South issues in Britain: should we be investing in physical capital (here, new mines) or in retraining and human skills to equip our people with talents to take us into the next century? Of course it is very painful when old com- munities break up under economic pressure from out- side, which those affected scarcely comprehend, but this is now a world-wide phenomenon, and, I believe that we shall all have to get used to it.

So the international blurring of the concept of comparative advantage gives politicians many head- aches. How do we organize regional subsidies? How do we set up tax and other incentives to encourage businesses to invest in Britain? Are we not obliged to start thinking hard about our top tax rates if our best minds are attracted abroad by countries with lower taxes? Does it matter if we don't actually make any- thing any more? Can we live by exporting services, our expertise, our language, our culture and (via tourism) our scenery? Even if economic theory decides that there is no need for us to make anything any more, how do we accustom our people to the revolution this implies for working practices and con- ditions, given our traditional strengths in different manufacturing sectors?

These are real-life issues. Over the next decades we will see continuing change in many areas of national economic and political life, as international competi- tive pressure forces us to become more efficient. This will affect trade unions, universities, banks, local government and national government. Many of the changes will be painful-it is not only Mr Gorbachev who has to contend with vested interests!

This is not just a problem for Britain. The developing world has to think hard about what it wants and how it can best mobilize its resources. Yet cultural and ideological ideas of 'self-reliance' fre- quently run deep, as do fears of renewed exploitation from overseas. However, self-reliance is not really an option in today's world. The key to opening up a nation's physical resources is bringing to them the skills of the international market place. Self-reliance taken to extremes leads to ignorance, paranoia and poverty: Albania is the classic example in Europe.

Of course, the location of the world's raw materials is not irrelevant. Some are particularly scarce, giving

the countries which control them considerable lever- age. Oil, chromium and gold are each good examples. Nevertheless, technology has a way of inventing sub- stitutes for these resources or making existing stocks last longer if supplies are cut to put prices up inordin- ately. These fluid international economic relation- ships help to explain why sanctions against South Africa are unlikely to be effective, and why OPEC is-temporarily-in the doldrums.

In short, lack of physical resources is no longer the dominant constraint on development for most countries. Local physical features still, obviously, dic- tate what is basically possible and what is not: no-one will get rich growing palm-trees in Greenland! But what is sensible is decided by a combination of human ingenuity and the right incentives. We can therefore expect to see a world-wide movement towards de- regulation and privatization in different forms as the growing importance of human capital necessitates the greatest possible flexibility in management and other areas. This is not going to be a smooth ride, but, as far as I can see, it is an inevitable process.



In the years to come politicians will be looking to geographers for guidance. As our scientific under- standing of the complex relationship between the land and our use of it has developed, our political options have become less obvious. We now realize the importance of clean air and clean rivers for our health. We recognize that certain toxic or radioactive substances can cause devastating damage to the environment if not controlled properly. We now see the links between careless farming techniques and soil erosion.

All this new insight makes life hard for the poli- ticians! They have to try to balance the competing interests of environmental groups, trade unions, banks, industrialists, and scientists, all of whom can have a legitimate interest, all of whom see their part of the total picture as the all-important part!

This applies in international politics too. There are plenty of examples:

(a) International aid experts have argued for years about the environmental impact of different types of crop strategies for developing countries, and the need to counter the spread of deserts.

(b) The countries of Europe are engaged in detailed discussions to agree on the different causes of acid


Geography rain and the best way to reduce it. Not an easy prob- lem: should Britain be obliged to close down certain power-stations or alternatively should Germans drive more slowly?

(c) How can the international poaching and trading of rare species of wildlife be stopped?

(d) Should the international community as a whole have a say in the fate of the world's great rain forests, particularly the Amazon basin, given their global environmental importance?

(e) What, if anything, can be done about the phen- omenon of 'ozone-leak' in the Antarctic region? (f) What would be the long-term environmental consequences of the grand Soviet plan to divert various northern rivers? And so on.

All these issues evidently transcend national bound- aries and so are not susceptible to the solutions of any one country acting on its own. The political problem is that attempts to set up international bodies with formal responsibilities in these areas usually founder or take an inordinate length of time. The most difficult issue is national sovereignty: countries resent other countries telling them what to do on their own terri- tory! It is simply not practical politics for us to try to dictate to the Brazilians how to look after their trees.

Nevertheless, the trend is towards international cooperation. The European Community is doing work that is quite unprecedented in terms of harmon- izing environmental policies among its own members,

so showing that countries with centuries of violent mistrust between them can take practical steps in their joint interests. There is also a role for the United Nations and its specialized agencies in centralizing expertise and raising international awareness of these sorts of problems.

In other words, politicians will have a growing need for expert scientific advice in future: geographers are particularly well-placed to give it. I hope they will rise to the challenge!


There is a lovely little aphorism by the British humorist Saki:

'Happy is the country that has no geography'. Many people no doubt think that 'happy is the country that has no politicians'. Be that as it may I hope that I have been able to show you today that Politics and Geography are stuck with each other, for better or worse. That is as it should be. We are all in part a product of our environment. As an Oxford graduate myself, I am the first to admit it!


The author would like to acknowledge the help received from Mr Charles Crawford of the Planning Staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.



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