Admittedly, reading the first few pages of this book left me with the lowest of hopes...Yet Morris is a better, and subtler, historian than that. Despite its title, Geography Is Destiny is not so much about geography as geostrategy — he argues that the history of the British Isles was, for most of its duration, about how we dealt with what was coming at us from Europe, whether it was ideologies, conquerors, technologies or traders ... There is inevitably a certain John Bull pleasure in reading Morris’s account of how Admiral Hawke smashed the French fleet in 1759, securing British rule of the waves — although he does not shy away from the human costs of empire and the awful condition of many of its subjects in Britain and overseas...Yet I was far more captivated by the thousands of years beforehand, partly because the story is much less familiar and partly because this is where Morris’s expertise lies ... This isn’t a perfect book. When he moves into the modern era, Morris does often sound like someone who has been observing the past 30 years of British politics from prestigious professorships at Chicago and Stanford...His ultimate conclusion that Brexit was essentially a sideshow compared with the challenge of how to deal with China may be proved right by the century’s end, but does feel condescending in the here and now ... Yet at his core task of cramming 10,000 years of history into a single book, Morris succeeds triumphantly. If you want to read about Seneca triggering a 1st-century credit crunch, or the connection between Stonehenge and the World Economic Forum, or the potential identity of Robin Hood, or when London legislated to outlaw defecating in the street, this is the book for you. It certainly gave me a new appreciation for how the world shaped Britain — and how Britain in turn reshaped the world.
Morris succeeds in condensing 10,000 years into a persuasive and highly readable volume, even if there are moments that risk a descent into what he seeks to avoid: 'a catalogue of men with strange names killing each other', as historian Alex Woolf put it ... ends not in 2016, however, but 2103: the year in which Morris estimates eastern development indices will overtake western (a tongue-in-cheek prediction, by his own admission). His conclusion that China, not Europe, will dominate Britain’s future is striking, if rather abrupt. Still, in an account as ambitious as this, and with the country’s post-Brexit story still to be fully written, it is perhaps fitting that this history should end in the future.
Morris is a master of the sweep of history. His narrative is always accessible, if a little reckless. It does not really help to compare William the Conqueror to Hitler, or Britain in 1216 to Greece in 2010. Even Morris’s granting primacy to geography sometimes falls victim to politics. His view of Brexit – that 'leave meant leave' – ignores the option of Britain’s remaining part of Europe’s single market. It is geography that will one day assert the necessity of Britain rejoining that market.