From Chalk to Wine, from Exeunt Romani to BrExit

or : Blah, blah, Brexit. Let’s get some historical perspective

My family and the foodbank are consuming the contents of the Brexit store, so lovingly laid down by me this winter and spring (and I’ve been ashamed to realise how much jam we …ahem. How much jam I guzzle). I’ve also been collecting histories on the subject of Brexit, and think it’s time to break into that store and share it out, too.

Exeunt Romani… aut Exeunt Brittani?

I’ve shared this on Facebook before, an op-ed by Tom Holland about the withdrawal of Rome from Britannia, or of Britannia from the Roman Empire, in the fifth century A.D. Since it was published, Ann Widdecombe has been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party and there repeated the now-familiar identification of the European Union as an empire. More provocatively, she identified Britain with a slave class (it’s worth noting that Roman Britain and…ahem… the British Empire also had slaves):

“[T]here is a pattern consistent throughout history of oppressed people turning on the oppressors, slaves against their owners, the peasantry against the feudal barons, and colonies, Mr Verhofstadt, against their empires. And that is why Britain is leaving. And it doesn’t matter which language you use: we are going, and we are glad to be going.”

Putting the Right Hon. Miss Widdecombe’s bitter rhetoric aside and returning to the Unherd article, I must be becoming resigned to Brexit, because I felt solidarity with the metropolitan elite of sixteen centuries ago, but when they were described – in a nod to modern cosmopolitan fare of houmous and pickled roast aubergines – as being “marinaded in classical culture”, that actually made me chuckle. Well, that’s self-deprecation, and that’s quite British, isn’t it?

However, there’s a laugh coming right back at Tom Holland, because the headline – Britain’s first Brexit was the hardest – isn’t true. That wasn’t the first Brexit at all.

What a Carve-Up

Although Empire and nationalism may seem irresistible forces (see here imperialists of a later century carving up Africa), they’re nothing to the power of geology.

Some 200,000 to 450,000 years ago, the British Isles (plus that always-after-thought Ireland) were calved off the continent of Europe like an iceberg succumbing to global warming, which is an appropriate metaphor, as it seems to have been a mega-flood of glacial meltwater – possibly from a pro-glacial lake in the southern North Sea – which carved out the English Channel.

O, so symbolically, the last line of defence against the floodwaters was the Weald-Artois chalk dam – which, breached, revealed the iconic White Cliffs of Dover. The scientists concluded by suggesting:

“that progressive recession of the chalk escarpment during lake overspill leading to eventual breaching of the dam provides a holistic model to explain the opening of the Strait (of Dover).”

That Weald-Artois chalk ridge has another modern use, of course, and that is in creating some of the favourable conditions for wine production in southeastern England. If I am cut off from the Italian Pinot Grigio that I favour, I’ll be paying a lot more for Kentish and Sussex wine… but at least there will be some. (Yes, I know that fresh food imports will be in shorter supply and will certainly be more expensive under a no-deal Brexit, but by definition individuals cannot move democratic politics alone. We can only shore up the bulwark against floods, like the fictional little boy holding off a flood with his finger in the dike – though this article also underlines both that that story is nonsense and that an  individual defence is futile….)

Yet even geology can be overcome, especially when it’s lying down and lying still. The last item in my Brexit collection is the opposite of an exit. The Channel Tunnel was opened in May 1994, having been dug through the aforementioned Weald-Artois chalk ridge (in fact, marine geophysical investigations for the Channel Tunnel project form part of the body of knowledge about the English Channel).

About Virginia Marybury

I love history (especially hidden, revisionist, steampunk or other alternatives), but I'm no alt-truther! My alternative histories "Iron Curtain" (The Faraday Cage, Tau Press) and "In a Bright Glass" appeared in 2016.
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2 Responses to From Chalk to Wine, from Exeunt Romani to BrExit

  1. David Neilson says:

    Good to get the long view! 🙂

    As an oppressed colonial sort of person from North Britain, I’ll be using my own language to say cheerio to Ms Widdecombe and her kind. “That’s us, we’re away.”


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